Brainy Quote of the Day

Friday, January 13, 2017

I, Nerd...

Image Source: see "most intimidating Captain" below, or
Topics: Commentary, Diversity in Science, Science Fiction, Star Trek, STEM

I am a nerd. Those of us of African descent have taken the name "blerds."

During the 70's, being a nerd of color wasn't a family outing in the park. I recall getting bullied...a lot. The fact that I: never ate nor liked the smell of chitterlings; watched Star Trek, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau didn't help much either. A distinct memory of my nose bloodied from getting shoved in my locker after 9th grade English class for reading a poem - a haiku (that WAS the assignment) and getting the F-bomb epithet while my assailants sprinted down the hall. I noted when as an undergraduate almost the entire school karate team - led by my Calculus instructor - consisted entirely of STEM majors, with the exception of one in Communications. Nerds tend to know from experience defensive skills are a PLUS.

I noticed Physics Today and its related media Inside Science commented on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. I've watched a few episodes, though with the exception of passing interest I have understandably never been a big fan. I can recall seeing a scene (a "scene" mind you) with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on YouTube. I recall seeing an episode (maybe two?) with actress Regina King as an HR rep that had to haul Sheldon and company into her office to "set them straight." She's listed as officially appearing in four.

The big nerd show of my day was Star Trek, and The Bang gives a lot of hat tips to it quite often in their dialogue. It was the blend of science and swashbuckling; you could study the cosmos faster-than-light (defying all laws of physics), do a flying sidekick (Kirk) or a Vulcan neck pinch (Spock). Note to Sheldon: kick, yes; pinch, no.

I specifically in many ways was enamored with Nichelle Nichols/Lieutenant Uhura. It was moving that Dr. Martin Luther King talked her into staying after her first season as a role model. I'm grateful that she stayed, because without the image others might not have tried majoring in STEM like Dr. Mae Jemison, Dr. Tyson, Dr. Ronald E. McNair (deceased from the Challenger Disaster).

Even in my fandom, I have listed a few of my observations and critiques (this starts with TOS and its recent variants):

  • Uhura was technically third in command of the Enterprise, though I don't recall an episode where she took "the comm" (command chair). She technically outranked Scottie who took command in the Captain's absence on several occasions.
  • With the exception of a vampire salt monster (The Man Trap) masquerading as a black male and speaking Swahili; her forced kiss with Captain Kirk (Plato's Stepchildren - not played then in racist southern markets) she never had a story arc with a love interest.
  • Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall), a genius that apparently won the Nobel Prize in I'd assume Computer Science (as yet not seen up to now - we get Peace Prizes mostly) and something called the Zee-Magnees Prize in 2243 invented the talking personal computers with Majel Barrett's voice and attitude. He of course also conveniently went mad. He would become the archetype for Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the twist is he didn't go mad, his creation did when it reached the Singularity, and realized humans are generally pricks.
  • With Captain's Kirk (TOS), Picard (TNG), Janeway (VOY), and Archer (ENT) their respective series STARTED with them at the rank of Captain. Their previous experiences were referred to in passing commentary, and their records deemed impeccable and impressive.
  • Benjamin Sisko started Deep Space 9 at the rank of Commander, though he eventually promoted into Captain. He also started with "an attitude," seeing Picard was the reason his wife died in the Borg battle at Wolf 359. He also punched Q (not mad at him for that), but it did play into the stereotype of being hotheaded. He was also a reluctant single dad (see "attitude"). He made "most intimidating Captain" in a Trek poll.
  • In Star Trek: Discovery Michelle Yeoh, fresh off "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" will play a starfleet Captain. Following the Sisko formula, the leader of the Starship Discovery Sonequa Martin-Green will start her screen life as a Lieutenant Commander (and from Sisko level, demoted), so it seems a sister STILL has to work twice as hard to get ahead in the Utopian 23rd Century.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying Star Trek hasn't done a lot of things RIGHT. The old Motorola StarTek was a knockoff of the Trek communicator; comm badges in TNG became the model for Bluetooth devices everyone had in their ears (talking to themselves) until we piped it through our radios. Heck, we even have the makings with phone apps of a Universal Translator; automatic doors at the mall started out on Trek with two guys on either side of William Shatner opening and closing the door on queue before optical electronics (and there were in all variants bloopers). It's just that scripts are usually written in a vacuum, usually with a team of people you know, and dependent on that team's exposure to diversity and other cultures well, see the above bullets.

Since the 1960 presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, images have mattered. Like the Internet and social media, television changes our brains and perceptions of what is real and what is frankly true. Though I was not on the planet, many who watched the presidential debates thought the cooler, younger, non-sweaty and more photogenic Kennedy won the debate. For the "old school" radio listeners, Nixon won it. Technology has been skewing our perceptions ever since.

Part of the goal of working in STEM at any level is imagining yourself in the role doing it. Taraji P. Henson - I talked about her last week at the debut of Hidden Figures (GO see it) said reading the script for the movie "hurt her" because she would have liked to know of these women when she was growing up. Images matter to young people that have a visual media thrown at them now 24/7 through flat screens, laptops and mobile devices; they are "programmed" quite subtly in what is proper for them to aspire to. Trivia: Ms. Henson majored in Electrical Engineering at my Alma Mater before transferring to Howard and majoring in Drama. The rest as they say, is history. Maybe she has a valid point. For that, young people all need actors that look like themselves so they can start thinking it is possible. I hope, like her to facilitate that.

In the meantime:

Je suis noir (I am black).
I am nerd.
I will (as long as ambulatory) blog.

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