On nerds

Physics is a profession that attracts nerds, so I’ve been able to observe the phenomenon.  There are indeed people who wear T-shirts with Maxwell’s equations and make up jokes about magnetic monopoles.  They’re always undergraduates.  No graduate student does this.  No postdoc does this.  No professor does this.  I suppose part of it might just be age:  the teenage years seem to be the ones where people feel the need to “express themselves” by advertising their enthusiasms.  Mostly I think it’s a matter of socialized identity formation.  In high school, if you’re the only one who’s interested in particle physics or computer programming, it tends to become a core part of your image of yourself.  Starting in the upper undergraduate level, you will be surrounded by fellow majors and faculty, so being interested in quantum mechanics is not longer an identifying feature for you.  Thus, a room full of nerds very quickly become ordinary people who happen to study physics.  At the same time, people start getting married, having kids, and otherwise picking up identity-forming features.

Other observations:

  • Even in their nerd phases, they don’t seem socially awkward around each other.
  • Physics doesn’t have many girls, but their average attractiveness is a bit above the general population’s.  And they’ll catch your Star Trek references.

10 Responses

  1. Starting in the upper undergraduate level, you will be surrounded by fellow majors and faculty, so being interested in quantum mechanics is not longer an identifying feature for you.

    well there’s reddit

  2. Physics has the most attractive female majors? I’d have thought…. hmm, I dunno. Whatever major is most undertaken by pharmaceutical company sales reps, I suppose.

    At my own undergrad institution, the most beautiful women were generally English majors. By “beautiful” I mean actually a joy to behold, not just looking arousing in the Nike running shorts that were ubiquitous in those days (those types tended to be in the business department).

  3. Hi Bonald, true to my penchant for posting comments at least slightly off topic, I wonder if you’d be able to shed any light on this astrophysics question that I’ve had ever since listening to the Great Course on Einstein and the Quantum Revolution with Richard Wolfson as lecturer. I had absolutely no clue about much of anything addressed within the lecture before listening, and for all I know, perhaps my understanding of what is addressed is worse off after listening. I did find almost all of it very interesting, at any rate. I apologize in advance if my question is boneheaded or embarrassingly facile:

    When Wolfson addresses the Big Bang, he talks about the milestone events that occurred in the universe, such as it was, at significantly micro-increments of time from the BB event. For instance, hydrogen first came into existence at such and such fraction of a second after the BB, helium at such and such fraction of a second, and so on.

    From whose or what’s perspective is all of this time taking place? Does it have something to do with the constancy of the speed of light?

  4. @buckyinky

    This is a good question.

    From the perspective of an observer in the Hubble frame. The laws of physics don’t favor any particular frame, but the matter in the universe seems to have picked one. Individual galaxies have their own random “peculiar” velocity with respect to the average flow, but these tend to be small (as in nonrelativistic). In this frame, all regions of space are basically in sync with each other (universe equally old in all, primordial gas or CMB at the same temperature), so just giving times like this is meaningful.

  5. @Proph

    The following is, of course, based entirely on stereotypes.

    English probably has the most beautiful majors, not because of its distribution’s peak, but because of its spread. You’ve got beautiful girls majoring in English because talking about feelings is girly, and fat, feminists with pierced lips majoring in English because F*k the Patriarchy!

    Anyway, I may have been too hasty speaking on the average for physics girls. I would rate the average college girl above average in attractiveness, “above average” meaning I guess compared to the average of all fertile women.

  6. I’m pretty sure if you relaxed the dress code for the typical company’s IT department, you would get the same “t-shirts with nerdy content” phenomenon.

    Maybe it’s not that grad students don’t like to wear those clothes, but that they’re dressing for the jobs they are trying to get.

  7. Thus, a room full of nerds very quickly become ordinary people who happen to study physics.

    You are deep inside your bubble, here, Bonald. Maybe that’s your point, though.

    Even in their nerd phases, they don’t seem socially awkward around each other.

    Or with their (non-nerdy) families. Or with little kids. Or with dogs.

    “Socially awkward” is, of course, a euphemism for fearful: fearful to a degree that the fear can’t be hidden, fearful to a degree that normal cognition is significantly compromised. The fear is focused on he reactions of others to your utterances. Put people in an environment where they are not fearful and the social awkwardness goes away. Fix their fearfulness with drugs or therapy and the social awkwardness goes away.

    Mostly I think it’s a matter of socialized identity formation.

    I find this too benign. I think it is one of many pathologies arising from the indescribably abnormal construction of modern social relations. As a teenager, you are supposed to be imprinting on the (mixed age!) people and the places you will spend the rest of your life. You are supposed to be fully internalizing the work, norms, songs, stories, habits, beliefs, taboos, etc of your people. Densely packing teenagers into a minimum security prison overseen by a bunch of dippy losers and making them do arbitrary and pointless activities seems like it might be problematic.

  8. Thanks for the response Bonald. I can take it from here I think by asking the Google-Oracle for terms I don’t understand. The Oracle didn’t seem to understand the question that I posed to you, or at least didn’t seem to know what I was getting at.

  9. […] Bonald is his usual fantastic in Conscience: Catholicism’s contribution to world sophistry. Which goes something like: “The pastoral thing to do is to keep the sinfulness of peoples’ actions secret from them.” How to kill this monster? Bonald lays out the plan. Also he has a few remarks On nerds. […]

  10. Some teenage nerds grow out of it. Others don’t.

    Those who don’t, live for the utopian vision of Star Trek where they will no longer have to work, and have Holodeck babes who are programmed not to say no.

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