Monday, February 24, 2014

In Praise of Brainiacs

I don't have time to write this well but wanted to capture it before it wriggled away:

Historically, smart characters have had a hard time of it in fiction. Bespectacled dreamers in white lab coats, heads in the clouds, often the first to be killed by the alien or germ du jour. Sometimes insane. Typically good only for providing exposition before the real men of action take over and blow the threat to smithereens.

"What does it want from us, Doctor?"

"It's no doubt here in peace, probably more scared of us than we are of it."


"It vaporized Poindexter! Fire at will!"

Growing up a nerdy science-oriented kid, positive role models of brainy characters who were actually cool--perhaps even heroic!--were scarce. Wherever they appeared, they instantly became my favorite characters in the cast. A couple of recent deaths reminded me of some brainiacs done proud.

Harold Ramis died today. An accomplished comic, actor and director, he'll always have a sublet in my heart as Egon Spengler, the smartest Ghostbuster. The only non-fraudulent scientist on the team, Egon understood the danger of crossing the streams (giving me my favorite bon mot suitable for nearly all occasions, "Important safety tip, thanks Egon!") and, frozen in fear before a giant marshmallow man, still had the presence of mind to explain that he was "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought." Egon's so smart, that's how he speaks in a blind panic. In a cast of more colorful characters and flashier actors, Ramis's Egon was all dry understated reaction.

One of my favorite moments in the film is Ramis being completely silent.

I don't mean to minimize Ramis's life and career, and today's very real loss to those who knew him, by focusing on one role, but Egon Spengler provided services to science and culture beyond the part he played in "Ghostbusters."

As did Russell Johnson as the Professor in "Gilligan's Island." I'm serious, as were astronomer Phil Plait and other real-life professors who eulogized him upon his death in January at 89.

As a former chemist, the only serious technical error I see
the Professor making here is his choice of lab assistant.

The program was a comedic farce, but Johnson played the thankless role of the castaways' straight man with dignity. Everybody got to be zany but the Professor, but that's all right; he was a rock you could count on to keep his head while everyone else lost theirs. He was also the most handsome and virile man on the island. That's not a trivial point. The Professor was probably the hunkiest scientist in popular fiction until at least MacGyver.

Unless you count Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock, whose sex appeal was legendary. In fact, writer Isaac Asimov shrewdly anticipated this entire blog post in 1967 when he wrote an article for TV Guide titled "Mr. Spock is Dreamy" in which he concluded, "Women think being smart is sexy!" Quick clarification: unlike the gentlemen above, Mr. Nimoy is not dead. However, he has been in the health-related news lately, which is how ideas get connected in my brain and turned into blog posts.

So smart he built a computer in 1930 out of stone knives and bearskins.
Also dreamy, probably to Shatner's chagrin.

Spock brought to the party his prodigious intellect, great physical strength and, most importantly, coolness. As I write this, I think that's the chain linking the Professor, Spock and Spengler: cool. (If this essay had been better written, I would've set up that insight from the start instead of discovering it at the end.) Observant. Analytical. Rational. Spock channeled his frightening, deeply buried passions into intellect--surely the greatest metaphor for adolescent angst in mid-20th Century pop culture. Nimoy has often said that the number of actual scientists and astronauts he meets who say they owe their careers to him is enormous. Though I'm not a scientist or astronaut, I'd say I'm one of them.

"Ghostbusters," "Gilligan's Island" and "Star Trek" were not real science. Far from it. But brainy heroic characters like these make a difference, especially when they hit you young. They matter, in ways that deserve to be taken seriously. The twig is bent.

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