Scientists Sharing Secrets Online

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Maybe the success of The Big Bang Theory started a backlash. Because now there seems to be a campaign underway to sell the public on the notion that scientists don’t have to be geeks, nerds, or white men. The latest assault on the stereotype comes from the new PBS online-only series, The Secret Life of Scientists, the title co-opted from the critically acclaimed ABC Family network show The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

So far, more than a dozen profiles of scientists have been posted, with the promise of more in a few months. Viewers are entertained by clicking on four brief video segments for each scientist, one of which features answers to 10 questions.

On screen, the scientists speak passionately about their research and discoveries, but that’s not what the series is really about. Instead, the message is that scientists have more going on in their lives besides their work. They do have other interests. And, they do like to have a good time.

First up is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s secret. The host of PBS’s long-running series NOVA is an avid collector of neckties. Although the ties have nothing to do with wardrobe coordination, they do have something in common besides being ties. Who knew that Tyson, THE face of science on PBS and The Secret Life’s only familiar face, likes a little whimsy in his life? Sure, he’s personable and all that, but when he talks about an important discovery or how he became interested in science as he does in this series, people listen. The astrophysicist has become sort of an unofficial spokesperson for the science community, aided by his almost regular appearances on the talk show circuit. In fact, “Stewart” was the answer to one his 10 questions, as in “Jon Stewart,” host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. His preference for Stewart’s show over that of Comedy Central’s other late nite talk show host, Stephen Colbert, generated a number of comments on the website.

Several scientists talk about the role music plays in their lives. That’s not particularly surprising, because there’s always been an overlap between the two interests, especially interest in classical music. The series features a bassoonist and an engineer who plays the clarinet. Music as a hobby doesn’t usually put much of a dent in the stereotype, but the confessions of two young scientists are more intriguing.

Teen astronomer Caroline Moore, the youngest person ever to discover a supernova, likes to sing. No, she doesn’t appear interested in trying out for American Idol, but neither would she be booted from that stage for sounding “pitchy.” Ms. Moore also gives one of most surprising 10-question answers when she identifies Fox News as her favorite news network. Another of her video segments makes it clear why she gave that answer.

On screen physics student Joe DeGeorge appears determined to convince viewers that scientists are not nerds. He plays guitar and performs in a rock band, but the name of the group, “Harry and the Potters,” doesn’t do much to make his case. When prompted, he composes and sings a song about Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. When was the last time there was a song about a scientist? Probably never.

Also featured are scientists who are into sports, cooking, dancing, and photography. Just like our friends and neighbors, scientists are shown to be everyday people, although most of us are unlikely to know someone who has set sail across an ocean with just a spouse in tow, or a photographer who specializes in taking pictures of hands and feet.

Probably the most unusual “secret” is that of biochemist Erika Ebbel who became the first person from MIT to compete for the crown of Miss America. Never having competed in a pageant and egged on by friends, she reluctantly entered a local contest. After not winning, she came back for a second try and ended up being crowned Miss Massachusetts of 2002. In the video, Ebbel defends her pageant experience, claiming it wasn’t a waste of time because “competition…encourages you to improve [and] try harder [and makes you a] a more well-rounded person.” She also demonstrates how to wave correctly, and why it’s important to wave correctly.

The group represents scientists at various stages of their careers, although none are over 50. They’re exploring the universe, building robots, and studying leeches. Eran Egozy started his own company after graduation and a decade later invented the wildly successful video games “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band”.

In addition to youth, there’s an emphasis on racial and ethnic diversity. Nanoscientist Rich Robinson talks about getting his start in science by being a beneficiary of affirmative action programs. “I think anyone who wants to be a scientist can be a scientist,” he says to the camera. Yes, it’s smart to send out a reminder every once in awhile that scientists don’t have to be geeks, nerds, or white men.

Fortunately, the movies are now doing their part. In “Reconsidering the Image of Scientists in Film and Television,” communications professor and blogger Matt Nisbet makes note of changes that have taken place in Hollywood during the past two decades. Studies show that the image of scientists on both the large and small screen has improved dramatically. They still don’t populate a lot of movies and TV shows, but when they do, “they are almost exclusively shown in a positive light.” Not only that, but research using data collected by the National Science Foundation shows that among the adult population in general, negative stereotypes of scientists are less prevalent than they once were.

Of course, it’s still a bit early to declare victory, but popular culture seems to be moving in the right direction. The Secret Lives of Scientists is the successful execution of a clever idea. As more profiles of scientists are uploaded to the PBS website, the series should continue to contribute to the intersection of science and entertainment.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.