If you’re a fan of the popular TV show, “The Big Bang Theory” you probably think you know what constitutes a geek. However, like most depictions of stereotypes, they’re often inaccurate. As a physics major, I’m qualified to define geekism. I can relate to what they’re trying to say, but it’s not on my favorites list. We had moments in college that were similar, but in most cases, like they say, you had to be there. True geeks aren’t impressed by “The Big Bang Theory.” They live it. I, personally, think it’s boring. I much rather watch “Ancient Aliens” or something on PBS.
Here’s what being a geek is really like. In college we had rituals at the end of every quarter, like having a pizza party and watching Monty Python’s “Quest for the Holy Grail”. We’d memorized the dialog and would quote key phrases at random times. Now that was funny. Or there was the time when four or five of us were holed up in our niche in the Utah State engineering building studying for finals in the wee hours. We were hungry so ordered pizza. Since we had a large variety of appetites and were all on a budget, we attempted to figure out how much everyone owed based on consumption. And there we were, deep into multi-variable calculus and orbital mechanics, but had a hard time dividing up the tab. And yes, we saw the irony and were laughing pretty hard, perhaps even bordering on hysteria.
We had a professor who was so nervous lecturing that he not only would be visibly sweating, but he had a nervous habit of clearing his throat, after which he would always say “Pardon me.” This particular prof was a perfect fit for the very intelligent yet introverted nerd. So what did I do one quarter? Kept a tally, day by day, for an entire quarter, of how many times he said “Pardon me”. Then I graphed it by magnitude versus date, then analyzed the data with my fellow students. We discovered the rate went up right after he returned an exam, perhaps anticipating grading arguments. I still have the file labeled “Pardon Me Curves” in my file cabinet. I kid you not. It’s a college memory from the 80s that still makes me laugh.
Yes, I’m a geek. Always was, always will be.
A classic geek activity is astronomy. Not long ago I joined the Austin Astronomical Society, which conducts star parties a few miles from where I live. The vast majority of members live 50 – 90 miles away (in Austin, of course) so it’s a bit of an excursion for them to come up to the observatory, but I’m just a hop, skip and a jump away. While I had several quarters of astronomy and astrophysics classes in college, I never had any hands-on experience with telescopes before. So I’m a newbie with a lot to learn but it’s somehow very satisfying to stand around discussing the theory behind German equatorial mounts (no, they has nothing to do with sex) and remembering to select the solar, lunar or sidereal tracker during observation.
Star parties typically start while the Sun is still up so, with a proper solar filter, you can look at the Sun and its various sunspots. While it’s still daylight the geeks are pretty quiet, compared to the hobbyists. Unless they know you, they probably won’t say a word, preferring to busy themselves setting up their equipment or perhaps talking to someone they already know. Then it gets dark.
Obviously. It’s pretty hard to see the stars otherwise.
By the time your night vision peaks, they come to life, almost like vampires. It’s the original nightclub, fresh air under the stars and planets. Inhibitions evaporate. In a sense you’re invisible. No one knows who or what you are. They don’t know if you’re old or young, skinny or fat, only that you have the same passion for the night sky. I remember sitting in silence at one star party until it got dark, then finding two fellow physics majors, one around my age, the other a recent graduate, and sitting in the observatory swapping tales of school and work for hours. I hadn’t done so in years and can’t begin to describe how soul-satisfying it was. Like being with close family you’ve been away from for years. If I ran into them in the grocery store I wouldn’t recognize them. But that night we were soul mates, entangled by our love of what makes the world go round. Literally.
Which brings me to what this blog is really all about. At last night’s star party I met a young woman whom I believe was still in high school. She had her niece with her, a young girl, probably around ten. She’d driven an hour to pick up her niece, then drove another three hours (for a total of four) to come to a star party. Her telescope, which she’d purchased herself with money she’d earned babysitting, was twice the size of the borrowed one I was using. She got it on sale for just under $1000. That’s a lot of babysitting.
It was not a good night for observing, lots of clouds and a Full Moon, with about the only thing visible Jupiter with his Galilean satellites high above our heads on the meridian. So after all that effort, that was all they saw, then turned around and drove back home. Eight hours of driving for a single star party.
If you’re not impressed, you should be.
I would like to nominate that young woman as “Geek of the Year.” Someone who is enamored with our Universe, so much so, that she spent her hard-earned money on an eight-inch telescope instead of designer clothes or, heaven forbid, tattoos, then shares her passion with a younger family member; I think I was about ten when I discovered the stars. I would have given blood and paid money for an auntie like that. Maybe you find that behavior laughable; I find it admirable. And you know what? The world needs more people like that.
We didn’t talk long enough for me to get her name, much less find out her future plans. But she touched my heart. I hope our paths cross again. I would easily bet dollars to donuts she’s a future astronaut, astrophysicist or rocket scientist. She will obtain a good education, work for a living, and contribute to society.
Hail to geeks. Nerds, too, since I’m not sure of the difference between us. May you be lucky enough to have a geek or nerd or two in your life. They’re the glue that holds what’s left of our society together. Maybe instead of nerds they should be called gluons.
(Get it? Gluons? Never mind. It’s probably something only a geek would understand…)