Beautiful Minds

On television shows like CSI and Numb3rs, scientists are still weird—but a geeky glamour has replaced the old stereotypes.

The Atlantic , September 2007

Even before Sputnik, scientists and policy makers worried that not enough Americans were studying science. In August 1957, two months before the Soviets launched their satellite, Science magazine published a survey of high-school students’ images of scientists, conducted by Margaret Mead (yes, that one) and Rhoda Métraux. Students, they found, thought scientists were important. “Without science we would still be living in caves,” was a common sentiment. But they didn’t want to become scientists or (a question asked only of girls) to marry one. Scientists were just too weird.

A common pattern emerged from seemingly inconsistent descriptions:

The number of ways in which the image of the scientist contains extremes which appear to be contradictory—too much contact with money or too little; being bald or bearded; confined to work indoors, or traveling far away; talking all the time in a boring way, or never talking at all—all represent deviations from the accepted way of life, from being a normal friendly human being, who lives like other people and gets along with other people.

A lot has changed in the past 50 years, but the stereotypes remain. Scientists in the movies, noted a 1998 study in The Sciences, tend to “have two personality traits in common: obsessive natures and brilliant minds.” Their detached objectivity makes them “dangerously compartmentalized and blind to frailty and emotion.” Scientists appear most often in horror movies. Through childlike curiosity or God-defying hubris, they unleash destructive forces they can’t control—Forbidden Planet’s Monsters of the Id.

In works from Faust to Frankenstein to The Fly, scientific wonder quickly morphs into horror, turning desire into revulsion, as the scientist’s beautiful illusion bursts into a nightmarish new reality. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein recalls the transformation:

Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bedchamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.

Frankenstein did not invent the fear of science; the novel found its audience because it dramatized anxieties that already existed. Although popular entertainment can, over the long run, shape public perceptions, it becomes popular in the first place only if it addresses preexisting hopes, fears, and fascinations.

That makes the extraordinary success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which begins its eighth season this month, all the more remarkable. Unlike its direct spin-offs and numerous imitators, which are more-conventional cop melodramas, the original CSI has at its core an eccentric scientist: obsessive, brilliant, objective, and self-contained. “Oh, I have outlets,” says Gil Grissom. “I read. I study bugs. I sometimes even ride roller coasters.” What a nerd.

CSI has not only remained a top-rated show through seven seasons; it has had real-world consequences. Police and prosecutors complain of a “CSI effect” that leads juries to demand more physical evidence than they used to expect. College officials use the same term to describe spiking enrollment in forensic-science programs.

CSI’s success also fostered a less-probable hit: Numb3rs, beginning its fourth season, the first detective show featuring a math prodigy as hero and algorithms as high-tech weapons. Enthusiastically accepting the pitch for Numb3rs, a studio executive declared, “This show will do for math what CSI has done for science.”

What these shows have done is to make science and math alluring—without invoking an imagined future, an alternative reality, or travel to distant worlds. The characters live and work in recognizable, realistic versions of contemporary Las Vegas and Pasadena. The shows invent no new physics or biology and posit no conspiracies hiding alien invasions or ancient space technologies; they seem to portray science as it really exists.

Of course, the glamour is an illusion. The TV scientists are unusually good-looking and well-dressed, and their techniques and equipment are more varied and efficient than the real world allows. A real Charlie Eppes, the math whiz on Numb3rs, wouldn’t use a different algorithm for every problem, and he’d require more data than the scripts often give him. Real crime-scene investigation is less dramatically lit and much more tedious than the TV version. “My job at the FBI was looking through the microscope for five hours a day or so, five days a week,” says Max Houck, now the director of West Virginia University’s Forensic Science Initiative. He spent the rest of his time on paperwork and phone calls, including two weeks cold-calling manufacturers to track down the origins of a single fiber. Not exactly the stuff of great television.

But all TV dramas gloss over the boring aspects of professional life, as any lawyer, cop, doctor, or journalist can testify. They edit out the distracting details (even if, as in CSI, they leave in some blood and guts) to create an idealized world into which the audience can project itself. The question is why so many people find these particular portraits compelling.

The answer, most obviously, is that CSI and Numb3rs align scientific curiosity with justice. Science, they promise, will judge fairly. It will not be warped by politics or public opinion. By pursuing and revealing the truth without prejudice, it will protect the innocent. The shows do more than repeat the traditional portrait of the Sherlock Holmes-ian scientific detective, who identifies the guilty and restores the social order. Science here speaks for the victim and also for the wrongly accused. Scientists use their power—and their fearless willingness to deviate from the norm—in the service of the powerless.

In an early CSI episode, Grissom reexamines the evidence in an arson case, responding to a plea from a prisoner who maintains his innocence. His day-shift counterpart, Conrad Ecklie, who first handled the case, objects.

Grissom: What are you so afraid of, Conrad? We’re just a couple of science geeks. Why can’t we work together?

Ecklie: No. We are public servants. We investigate cases as efficiently as we can, and then we move on. We’re not a clearinghouse for defendants on the eve of trial who don’t like what we’ve turned up.

Grissom: Yes we are, if it’s our mistake that put them there.

The accused arsonist is in fact innocent. The fire was an accident.

Even science for the sake of science may vindicate the wrongly accused. In a Numb3rs episode centered on sabermetrics, the mathematical analysis of base- ball statistics, Charlie’s physicist friend Larry, the show’s quintessential science nerd, notes that “in a 1993 article in The American Statistician, J. Bennett, using sabermetrics, analyzed ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson’s career. He was able to prove that Jackson played up to his full potential in every one of the 1919 ‘Black Sox’ series,” which Jackson was accused of throwing. “Math restored a man’s good name and reputation after 70 years. I find that rather beautiful.” Science, these shows promise, will see you—innocent or guilty—for who you really are. (CSI’s theme song is the Who’s “Who Are You.”)

Instead of alienating scientists from the rest of humanity, the eccentricity of people like Grissom and Charlie makes them more perceptive and, in many cases, more empathetic. They are not easily deceived by artifice and appearance. Charlie’s special gift is to perceive patterns others miss. Grissom’s is to view nothing human as alien—a profound difference from Victor Frankenstein’s disgust at his creature’s ugly visage.

A recurring theme on CSI is the contrast between Grissom’s humane, scientifically informed objectivity and the horror and hatred that less-rational people find in the “deviations from the accepted way of life,” whether transgendered people or Buddhist monks. “What people will endure to be normal,” Grissom sighs, as the medical examiner explains the painful bone-lengthening procedures evident in the legs of a murdered dwarf. Two episodes of the show have featured murders committed by relatives—a father and a brother—to stop young women from marrying genetic “freaks,” the dwarf and a man with congenital hypertrichosis, or “werewolf syndrome,” which causes thick hair to grow everywhere on his body. To the scientist’s eye, cruelty, not deformity, defines the monsters among us.

Rather than releasing the Monsters of the Id, science provides a bulwark against them. “You spend your life uncovering what goes on beneath the surface of civility and acceptable behavior,” the insightful dominatrix Lady Heather tells Grissom in the first of her recurring appearances, “so it’s a release for you to indulge in something like high tea, where it seems, if only for a moment, the world really is civilized.” People don’t need science or advanced technology to do terrible things to each other.

The scientist heroes of past dramas were mostly medical researchers, saving lives with new cures, or explorers, seeking out new frontiers. Their science was the science of power, freedom, and escape—with all the dangers those entail. Closely allied to technology, their science reshaped physical reality. Today’s heroes emphasize not power and control but understanding and insight. Against the normal impulses of jealousy and rage, hatred and shame, the cool deviance of scientific objectivity offers a chance for truth, justice, and sympathy. These scientists are still weird. But they’re also good—a new version of the stereotype, and a hopeful one.