A Brief History of How the Once-Maligned Nerd Became Cool

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[ Sun. Mar. 29. 1998 ]

Scientists and technologists-often deplored, sometimes feared, frequently on the fringes of society-have become hip.

They grace the covers of news magazines, their frequently arcane research is the stuff of bestsellers, and one of the members of their clan has become the richest man in America.

Even the motion picture industry has caught on. Historically, movies have tended to portray scientists as a tad mad. But such films as "Contact" show that scientists can be, well, almost like normal people. Of course, that film was based on a novel written by a scientist, the late Carl Sagan.

This evolution in the perception of scientists has come about largely because science and technology play an increasingly important role in all our lives.

Instant global communications and television coverage have shrunk the world. A kid with a desktop computer can create new images and new tools-maybe even break into computer systems that keep track of everything from our bank accounts to national security projects. There seems to be an electronic gadget to meet every need.

We all have what we need now to do some science ourselves, ranging from computers to digital imaging to direct access via e-mail to scientists and their institutions.

And that has led to the emergence of something new in our society.

Borrowing a phrase coined by science historian C.P. Snow, literary agent and science author John Brockman calls it the "third culture.

"In the past, culture has been defined as art and music. When we have those, we have culture. When we don't, we don't.

But Brockman argues that technology has brought science into our lives in such a dramatic way that a third culture has emerged.

In 1981, Brockman founded the Reality Club, an assortment of movers and shakers from the world of science who traditionally meet in Chinese restaurants and artists' lofts around New York City to ponder the great imponderables of the day. In the most common expression of the third culture, a year ago Brockman started a Web site (http://www.edge.org) to give scientists a forum in which to share their thoughts and their questions with the world at large.

He says the site addresses the motto of the Reality Club: "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

"Much of the discussion on the site centers on the emergence of this new, global culture. Some of the material is written specifically for the site, but some of it, including an essay by Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, first appeared elsewhere.

"This new third culture is an offspring of science," writes Kelly in a piece originally published in the Feb. 13 issue of Science. "It's a pop culture based in technology, for technology. Call it nerd culture.

"The computer revolution brought science into our lives as never before, and for the Nintendo generation, technology became their culture.

And somewhere along the way, Kelly argues, a "funny thing happened: Nerds became cool.

"But nerds are not interested in science per se, Kelly argues. The third culture is interested in results, particularly innovation.

"Its thrust is not pursuing truth, but pursuing novelty," Kelly writes. " 'New,' 'improved,' 'different' are key attributes for this technological culture.

"Yet oddly enough, some of the scientific arenas that are most in vogue these days have little to do with novelty or even a tangible payback to society. No one really needs to know the nature of a black hole, for instance, but astronomy is one of the hottest buttons in science.


Nerds may be hip, but they are the toolmakers. They are beholden to science because science fuels their revolution. But it is the tools that fascinate them the most, not the science.

Technology may be the pathway to the third culture, but some scientists are hip these days despite the fact that they may never have written software or created a new gadget. They are hip because they are addressing questions that spring from the roots of intellectual curiosity.

Stephen Hawking, whose writings about astrophysics triggered much of the current interest in science, is an intellectual innovator, not a creator of computer games and novelties.

Yet Hawking could fill an auditorium in seconds with people eager to learn what he has to say about the dynamics of the cosmos.

Ironically, his crippling disease has left him capable of speaking only through a computer-driven technological innovation. Does that make him a product or a guru of the third culture?

Scientists have frequently been on a roller coaster when it comes to public perception. Their image plummeted with fears growing out of the nuclear age and rose with humans landing on the moon. But it may remain at a high level for many years to come. It is rooted in a broad segment of society that is, in varying degrees, directly engaged in science. Despite the powerful new astronomical observatories springing up around the world, for example, most comets are still discovered by amateurs with backyard telescopes.

And the meteoric rise of Microsoft was driven by Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard and created the most powerful software company in the world.

Yet despite all that, my hunch is that more kids could name a dozen movie stars or sports heroes than a couple of scientists.

That is partly because many still feel intimidated by science, and scientific success frequently goes unnoticed."

Since 1937, the United States has anointed a national poet laureate but never a science laureate," Kelly points out.

Maybe the time is ripe to change that, now that scientists are hip. If that ever happens, we may not need to worry about those science scores anymore.

Kids will see just how cool it can be to be a nerd.