Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d: The scientists on your screen

NY Times science reporter Natalie Angier points out a little-known fact about some of Hollywood’s leading actresses: they’re scientists.

Natalie Portman, recently crowned Best Actress at the Oscars, was a serious contender in “the nation’s most elite and demanding high school research competition,” the Intel Science Talent Search:

Among the lesser-known but nonetheless depressingly impressive details in Ms. Portman’s altogether too precociously storied career is that as a student at Syosset High School on Long Island back in the late 1990s, Ms. Portman made it all the way to the semifinal rounds of the Intel competition.

For those who know how grueling it can be to put together a prize-worthy project and devote hundreds of hours of “free” time at night, on weekends, during spring break and summer vacation, doing real, original scientific research while one’s friends are busy adolescing, the achievement is testimony enough to Ms. Portman’s self-discipline and drive.

Okay, fine — a youthful fling with science. But she got smart, cashed in on her looks and acting chops, and left the drudgery of science behind for a life of making movies and attending glamorous parties. Right?

Yet there’s more. While carrying out her investigation into a new, “environmentally friendly” method of converting waste into useful forms of energy, and maintaining the straight-A average she’d managed since grade school, Ms. Portman already was a rising movie star. […] And then she went on to Harvard University to study neuroscience and the evolution of the mind.

“I’ve taught at Harvard, Dartmouth and Vassar, and I’ve had the privilege of teaching a lot of very bright kids,” said Abigail A. Baird, who was one of Ms. Portman’s mentors at Harvard. “There are very few who are as inherently bright as Natalie is, who have as much intellectual horsepower, who work as hard as she did. She didn’t take a single thing for granted.”

A unique, one-off case of beauty and brains? Hardly:

Hedy Lamarr, the actress habitually regarded as “that most beautiful woman in Hollywood,” was a rocket scientist on the side, inventing and patenting a torpedo guidance technique she called “frequency hopping,” which thwarted efforts to jam the signals that kept the missiles on track.

Danica McKellar, who has appeared on such shows as “The Wonder Years,” “The West Wing,” “NYPD Blue” and “Young Justice,” graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she helped devise a mathematical proof for certain properties of magnetic fields — a theorem that bears her name along with those of her collaborators. […]

As a teenager in the 1990s, Mayim Bialik starred in the title role of the hit kid-com “Blossom.” Now she appears in another hit sitcom aimed at slightly older kids, “The Big Bang Theory,” playing the adorably frumpy-nerdy Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist and sometime love interest for the adorably nerdy germophobic physicist Sheldon Cooper. The actress is pleased with her new role. After all, Dr. Bialik has a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A. in … neurobiology. “I tell people, I am a neuroscientist, and I play one on TV,” said Dr. Bialik.

Yet another reason why stereotypes have to die. Despite the depressing amount of column space and photographic pixels devoted to the likes of Lindsay Lohan or Megan Fox, not all actresses are wayward brats or vapid dolls. (Lamarr, Angier points out, “complained bitterly that people would look at her face and assume there was nothing behind it.”)

And yet it is depressing that so much of our attention is wasted on tabloid gossip about trivial people — and depressing, too, that it takes a beautiful actress like Portman or McKellar to remind us that, hey, women make great scientists too. There are plenty of them already (though not as many as there could be); why isn’t Carolyn Porco a household name? Or Julia Higgins?

On the other hand, it’s not as if scientists of either sex are getting the media attention they deserve. Angier links to an old Onion article that brilliantly skewers our ignorance of the life-saving rock stars in our midst:

Paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould spoke out against the increasingly aggressive tactics of the paparazzi Tuesday, railing against “the reckless throngs of photographers that relentlessly hound America’s top scientists.” […]

“If it weren’t for all this publicity, it’s possible that far fewer people would support our work,” [Nobel Prize-winning chemist Alan] Heeger said. “We scientists could actually be in the position of needing to scrape pennies together to complete our vitally important research.”

Diehard science fan Jill Krause agreed.

“These scientists are the most important people in America,” Krause said. “Our very future depends on them. They are enabling us to live longer and better, discovering the history of the planet we live on, and unraveling the mysteries of the universe. There’s no way we’d ever let them work in obscurity. It’s laughable.”

Ouch. How sad that this qualifies as satire — that this is not, in fact, the actual world we live in.

“We have a civilization based on science and technology, and we’ve cleverly arranged things so that almost nobody understands science and technology. That is as clear a prescription for disaster as you can imagine.” — Carl Sagan



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2 responses to “Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d: The scientists on your screen

  1. I LOVE this. As a girl in science who sometimes feels more vapid than those around her (it’s not my fault shoes are pretty, if sometimes impractical for lab!) and thus taken less seriously, it’s good to know that I’m not alone. Not that any of the women mentioned are “vapid” per se, but that one can be pretty and do science at the same time.

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