Solitary genius: portrayals of scientists in pop culture

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“Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.” That is the opening of David Goodstein’s States of Matter. From Bernhard Riemann to Max Planck to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the field of theoretical physics is no stranger to tragic lives and tragic deaths.

Were these trailblazers cursed to lifetimes of misfortune and hardship in exchange for their scientific discovery, as if part of some scholarly version of the 27 Club? Their stories have captivated the minds of many film writers and authors, who in turn present this burdened, loner persona as a requirement to have any sort of aptitude for science.

With the recent releases of titles such as The Theory of Everything and Oppenheimer and the upcoming, much anticipated Einstein and the Bomb, there is no denying that the world of science intrigues the average viewer. These very well received films make physics slightly more accessible to the general layman. The issue with them is the crediting of the work of the many to one seemingly misunderstood man, who is cooped up in a dark classroom, writing equations on a chalkboard all day long. Hollywood constructs this ‘tortured genius’ trope by strategically exaggerating the antisocial characteristics of their chosen protagonist, and in the process dismissing the crucial collaborative aspect of science.

Many of these stereotypes dismiss the crucial collaborative aspect of science

The media we consume heavily influences our views and these biopics act as powerful tools when it comes to shaping the public’s conceptions of the STEM field, mainly because they are presented as factual. As part of their Limit Less campaign, the Institute of Physics commissioned a census into how young people and their carers view the field of physics. In their report, the IOP acknowledges this habit of popular media crediting discoveries to one person, saying that “in doing so, the teamwork, creativity and diversity of physics is kept from the audience” and highlighting that in terms of casting “these roles too often demonstrate limited diversity and depict physics as an occupation for primarily white men”.

These films focus on the select few, generally from a very similar background, and therefore limiting society’s outlook on who can be a physicist. The census found that only 1.3% of those surveyed recognised 1979 Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, who received the prize alongside Steven Weinberg. Salam is far less recognised than his counterpart, despite their collaboration, perfectly displaying of the stark difference in exposure for physicists from highly-represented backgrounds compared to those from lesser-represented minority backgrounds.

While this ‘tortured genius’ trope and its inherent portrayal of the field as for the eccentric, edgy, and effortlessly intelligent has become trendy (especially following the 2023 release of Oppenheimer), it falls short compared to the media’s adored and timeless ‘nerd’ trope. Popularised by smash hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory, this depiction feeds into the stereotype that physicists lack social skills, fashion sense, and popularity. Its subjects, or should I say victims, have niche hobbies, that must in some way relate to the scientific, and come as a package deal with a small group of equally nerdy friends, outside of which they are utterly unable to function due to their awkward and preppy nature.

The world of physics is so much bigger than the box that the media tries to confine it to

Harmless as it may seem, these stereotypes reinforce the idea that scientists are alienated from the rest of society, thereby introducing exclusionary ideas that are detrimental both to those already in the field and those wanting to join it. Viewers are not supposed to relate to these nerdy scientists, nor should they want to – they are portrayed as obnoxious, physically unattractive, and even creepy. The Hollywood nerd is not accepted by his peers, and he reciprocates this by being uninviting and abrasive to anyone different to him.

The Big Bang Theory centres its comedy around this exclusivity, with sexist and bigotry dialogue being the staple of every episode, take Sheldon’s ‘lower than’ opinion on women that is never truly challenged. These portrayals do more than just cement a stereotype: the IOP census says that roughly 70% of physics students come from just 30% of schools, with students from the least deprived quintile being three times likelier to study the subject than those in the most deprived.

So, next time you watch Oppenheimer, remember that at one point the Manhattan Project had 130,000 people employed, never just the one. Remember that The Big Bang Theory is not reflective of the people it attempts to portray. The world of physics is so much bigger than the box that the media tries to confine it to.

Image: Dunk via Flickr

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