Faster, higher, stronger, smarter

News of the amazing feats of athletics at the Olympics in London has been coming fast and thick. So, too, has grumbling about NBC’s stunted coverage of the events.

Frankly, the coverage isn’t any different from what it’s been in the past–US coverage has always focused on American stars, and ignores any event in which we don’t have a spotlight-ready participant. We’re only fussy about it now because we actually know what we’re missing, thanks to greater global communication.

Still, as spotty as NBC’s coverage has been, it’s been extraordinary  in comparison to the coverage of an equally amazing feat of human achievement: the landing of Curiosity, a new Mars-exploration vehicle.

We’ve done things on Mars already, so the general public might not understand how impressive this really is, but it most definitely is a big deal. Anyone who understands even a fraction of what it is they really pulled off can’t help but be impressed.

Yet, it’s the lack of that understanding that makes it difficult for the public to be all that interested. We worship sports, so we appreciate the effort that goes into being a lightning-fast swimmer or runner. Education, however, especially science education, is still considered inherently uncool enough that people simply don’t pay attention to achievements in those fields. Feats of mental conditioning don’t have the same salience–nor connection with sexuality–as feats of physical conditioning, so most people don’t care.

There are, to be sure, a few rock stars on this side, especially in the overlap between pop-culture geeks and hard-science nerds. Still, the most well-known among these tend to be more in the former group than the latter: actors, directors, FX artists, etc. As yet, lab coats and circuit boards just haven’t been seen as props of the truly exciting, so laypeople just aren’t drawn to achievements in these fields the way they are more-glamorous ones.

This isn’t for lack of physical attractiveness. There are plenty of gene-blessed nerds out there. It’s also not for lack of overt sex appeal–scientists, especially female ones, shouldn’t feel pressured to emphasize their bodies over their brains just to get attention unless they’re shopping for a partner like that. No, what it’s been lacking is, to use a corny term, pizzazz. Laypeople are used to visual representations of excitement, and if they don’t see the inherent thrill of the work itself, and there’s nothing else drawing their eye to it, they just don’t get it, and will move along to something that’s more tangible for them.

Enter Bobak Ferdowsi.

Though the initial broadcast from NASA attracted the interest only of those of us who find the work itself thrilling, within a few hours after the successful landing, the attractive, creatively coiffed engineer found himself an internet darling. Images of him were shared far and wide, and soon, people who didn’t even know we had a project like this going on were making fan Tumblrs for him and following him on Twitter.

Personally, though I found his hair cute and interesting, I wasn’t initially surprised by it, because I’m used to being around nerds and their unique styles. Hair like that isn’t uncommon among the software coders I’ve known and loved, so I just saw it as an amusing quirk. The reaction to him from others, though, made me realize: laypeople don’t get that science nerds ARE cool and exciting–even when their hair isn’t–and that might well be what’s behind the lack of interest in the fields.

The man himself is apparently a bit overwhelmed by the attention–I doubt he realized exactly how unusual most people would find him–but he’s been handling it with humor and grace. He also made a very good point: if he and his hair attract attention to the project itself, then great. I completely agree. In a more-educated culture, the achievement itself would be attraction enough, but most people simply don’t know enough about what it is they did to be that excited about it. However, cool hair? That, they know. And if that cool hair–and the attention it’s bringing its owner–inspires more kids to pay attention in science class, then that’s fantastic.

Of course, people who get into these fields because they expect that level of rock-star attention will be disappointed. Without a genuine interest in the field itself, getting past high school in it is unlikely. Still, kids who do have that interest, but who may have been avoiding it because they thought it was uncool, may well change their minds due to things like this, and we can only benefit from that. If even a handful of kids saw the unrestrained joy in that room as Curiosity touched down, and thought, “I want to be like them,” then the things they do 20 years from now could be astounding.

Every other year during the Olympics, millions of little kids see the amazing achievements of athletes with finely tuned bodies, and get inspired to pursue their own interests in sports. This is a terrific thing. Seeing the things that the human body is capable of is indeed breathtaking, and I applaud any kid with the discipline to try to reach those heights. Yet I also hope that one day, we can be equally celebratory of the achievements of finely tuned brains, and thus inspire millions of kids to pursue intellectual interests. The pursuit of incredible human achievement shouldn’t be limited to “faster, higher, stronger.” It should also include “smarter.”

Science IS cool, and I’m grateful to Ferdowsi and his famous hair for helping prove that to a new generation.

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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