Nerds run this planet

By Phil Plait | November 13, 2009 8:00 am

Jim Kakalios was the science advisor for the Watchmen movie, and wrote a book called The Physics of Superheroes. I met him briefly when we both spoke at the National Academy of Sciences about new ways to engage the public about science. He’s a nice guy.

He’s also a funny one, and a canny one. He was asked to give the 2009 convocation address at the University of Minnesota (sorry, the video is not embeddable, so go there and watch it), and he talked about geeks and nerds. I think he hit the right note. We do run this planet. "Revenge of the Nerds" was more than just a movie, it was a primer for the future of nerddom.

You might as well face it. If you’re reading my blog, you’re a nerd. Be proud. I am.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery

Comments (51)

  1. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Error… deleted by author.

  2. rob

    in stat mech class, we had a student that asked A LOT of questions. most were not very good and wasted class time. after one particularly poor question, the nth of the day, Professor Kakalios looked at him, then turned away shaking his head, then turned back and replied “you ought to watch more t.v.”

    in the same class, as he was turning back one of our exams. the average score was not very good. he made the comment that we should all practice a phrase. a phrase that we will probably use in our next job: “would you like fries with that?”

    he was easily the best prof i had.

  3. Heavy

    The beauty of the curve. You don’t have to know the subject at hand, you merely have to be better than your peers.

  4. Valhar2000

    Running this planet is the very thing nerds do not do. Sure, the world runs on science, engineering and computers, but all the nerds do is maintain these things while the ignorant psychopathic god-botherers that actually call the shots mess everything up. And pick up after them later, of course.

  5. My amateur radio call sign is “NE1RD”. Oh yeah. Embrace the nerdiness!

    – Scott

  6. addicted to bad

    #4 is right. There’s no other way to put it.

  7. Ryan The Biologist

    *Phew* For a moment I thought you were talking about the candy.

  8. Miguel

    I’m a nerd alright. Just received my Cylon Toaster (all they way from the USA to South America!) :)

  9. Doc

    Not only am I a nerd, but I married a nerd as well. Nerdy girls are hot!

  10. Ditto Valhar2000′s correctness.

    Case in point: pretty much anyone in a position of political power. Politicians are the types who get the nerds to do their homework for them, while they’re out playing football and knocking up cheerleaders.

  11. they called us Geeks back in the 70′s… embrace the nerditude!

  12. @Valhar2000,

    Think about it this way: If all of the politicians disappeared tomorrow, what would happen? The immediate result would be political chaos, but I think that civilization would quickly recover.

    Now think about what would happen if all of the “nerds” disappeared. All of the scientists, engineers, etc just up and vanished. The world might not immediately end, but progress would grind to a halt. All medicine would stop being produced, machines wouldn’t be able to be repaired, etc. Things would quickly deteriorate. And with no old scientists to teach the new scientists, the people who eventually came to fill the missing nerds would need to start from scratch. Yes, civilization might recover, but it might take centuries to get back to where we are now. (And that’s if civilization even tries to recover. The religious fundamentalists would probably take the opportunity to seize power and make science illegal.)

  13. @TexasOdysseyCoach (Gene),

    Maybe it’s a generational thing. Whenever someone calls me a geek, I correct them that I’m more of a nerd. I guess I can’t get by that whole “biting heads off chickens” definition. ;-)

  14. Debates on what “running the planet” means aside, NERD PRIDE!

  15. @Doc: Where can I find me one of those?

  16. I’m sure he’s great but I really wish people would stop writing books called “The Physics of (insert impossible thing here)”. One reason is, people insist on buying them for me for presents. I don’t care about the Physics of freaking Narnia or Star Trek or Harry Potter or Super Heroes. I really don’t. Second, it furthers this notion that the only way people will enjoy physics is if we tie it up with some stupid thing they do like. “I thought understanding the universe was lame until they mentioned Batman!”

  17. nobody

    @Phil: There is a big difference between geeks and nerds. Both are very good with computers or in physics, but the latter have no social life, they exhibit weird behavior near other people and especially women. On the other hand, a geek can be social, have friends, a girlfriend or wife etc.

    So, everyone who is reading your blog is definitely a geek but not necessarily a nerd. :)

    PS Have a look at the last sentence from the “Definitions” paragraph of this article:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geek#Definitions

  18. holastefan

    @Valhar2000 #4 — Like the other commenters, I completely agree with you. Assuming that money closely matches control/power, then we’re not in control. Celebrity income vs. researchers who have to beg for grants. College sports funding vs. scientific scholarships. Etc etc etc. I’m oversimplifying (with false dichotomies), but I still wish we were more adept at running things besides compilers and blogs.

  19. T.E.L.

    Some elaboration is called for. Nerds are instrumental in the upkeep of state of the art technological civilization. But a lot of the people alive today aren’t part of that civilization. There are billions who barely have enough to eat from one day to the next. Surely their daily lives aren’t dominated by a wealth of domestic technology, and surely they aren’t dominated by nerds.

    Taking it down another level, most of the living things on this planet aren’t even aware of high technology. Nerds don’t run the lives of ants, bacteria, and so on. Nerds occupy a specialized niche in the ecosystem.

  20. Tiny

    Nerds don’t run this planet, corporations do.

  21. Flavio

    I was about to say the same thing as others did before me: nerds might RUN the world, but I doubt this has anything to do with RULING it.

  22. Tobin Dax

    I was wondering if I was a nerd or a geek as I was reading through this. Unfortunately, nobody (#18) seems to have answered that question for me.

  23. alfaniner

    I think your buddy Wil might be able to clear up the distinction between Geek and Nerd. After all, he wrote a book about it!

  24. Nerds and/or geeks are running the world in the same way as scantily dressed young women do.

  25. Andy Beaton

    I think we run the world in the same way Scotty runs the Enterprise. The wheels turn because of us, but we don’t get to decide where to go.

  26. @Flavio (21): I dunno, when the president of the US is a nerd, as well as one of the most popular news anchors, and one of the hottest actresses (for the uninitiated, Eliza Dushku plays WoW,) we’re pretty close to ruling the world.

  27. The Ill Tempered Klavier

    @Kevin:
    I’d like to help you out but my volcano baby turned out to be a jock :( and I couldn’t hatch any more girls, drat!

  28. Heather

    I am not sure if I qualify, as a non science major…..I was a psych major but now I counsel the upcoming nerds of this country….so am I nerd by proxy:)

  29. Doug

    I’ve been saying for years that the geeks are the real rulers of the world. I’m pround to be one! On the surface it might appear that the “popular” crowd run the show but those are just the highly visible ones (a few thousand that include politicians, celebrities, etc). Its a facade. Most of the “popular” crowd that I know ended up low on the totem pole, literally living under boardwalks, pushing mowers and selling fries. No 6-figure salaries there…

  30. coolstar

    I have to agree with a lot of the previous posters: geeks and nerds running the world? Only in their fantasies. The politicians and bankers run the world, as anyone who has been conscious for the last 9 years should know. Yes, some progress in the U.S. has been made, finally, but even that was in doubt enough to keep me up late at night. Roughly 46% of the voters in this country think the creationist idiot Sarah Palin is qualified to run this country. That alone tells you all you need to know…….

  31. Bruce

    Remember this. Geeks/Nerds have the capacity to be and do anything. It doesn’t work the other way around.

  32. Quiet Desperation

    I’m sorry, but I still refuse to embrace “nerd” and “geek” as anything but insulting. The media continues to belittle people who have intellectual interests outside the socially acceptable pantheon of personal interests. Characters like Charles Eppes on Numb3rs are the exception. Watch any local news report of something like a math convention and watch the newsreaders roll their eyes. “People who like *math*? Are they insane?! Gasp! What is wrong with them? LOL! KTHX.”

    I, in turn, do *not* make fun of people who like, say, NASCAR, or watch 30 hours of football every weekend. Who am I to judge them over something like that? They’re enjoying themselves. Bully for them.

    #31 has it right: politicians and various power brokers run the world, and they are, by and large, the “cool kids” from our youth who seemed to get everything because they were pretty or athletic or had rich parents or whatever the local sociological conditions dictated at the time.

    They’re also sociopaths, but that’s a different thread. ;-)

    And before anyone questions my credentials, I own one of these: http://www.amazon.com/Periodic-Table-Shower-Curtain-vinyl/dp/B00176V42O

  33. Proud family of nerds! Last year for xmas, my (then) 12 year old daughter actually requested a poster of the Periodic Table of Elements and a book describing each element.

    Valhar2000 (#4) and TechyDad (#13), well said! I sadly must conceede that overall the actual RUNNING of the world is done by the folks coolstar and QD says. They do it poorly, but they are the ones who are actually doing it. Us nerds are just too busy keeping it running to really do anyting about them it seems, and they are intent on keeping it that way.

  34. Levi in NY

    Here’s a nerd rap (yes, such a genre actually exists) song called “The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth”:

    http://www.electricfunstuff.com/songdown/EFS_The_Geeks_Shall_Inherit_the_Earth.mp3

    People speak about a geek as if it were a stigma
    Open up your eyes let’s banish this enigma
    Techno-geeks in the house and we come from wayback.
    I think the time is right for a little geek payback!

    Take a peek at a true mystique,
    It’s hip to be square and it’s called geek-chic.
    Geeks understand things ’cause we’re so inquiring
    We think so much we’re often shy and retiring.
    At least we don’t act shallow like some people would:
    You make a friend with a geek you got a friend for good!

    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    Got a problem?
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    We can solve them.
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    We’re resourceful.
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    Our power’s forceful.

    Adjust your attitude, lower your defenses.
    Get with the program, come to your senses.
    The first shall be last and the last shall be first
    Cause the geeks, yeah, the geeks shall inherit the Earth.

    What we have here is a miscommunication.
    How did we get such a bad reputation?
    There’s not a lot of folks who admit they admire us,
    But who do they turn to when their PCs got a virus?
    We run the media, we run the banks,
    We push the buttons, but do we get thanks?
    I don’t think so. And would you be surprised
    After all our efforts we get ostracized?

    [Geek, geek, geek, etc.]

    Open your eyes the geeks are not defective
    It’s everyone else that’s like the Borg collective.
    Geeks are individuals they’re not afraid to stand out.
    Geeks will have the jobs when you’re looking for a handout.

    [CHORUS]

    Dear Santa, I have been a good boy.
    Please send me a cellphone and a PalmPilot and any computer except for an iMac.
    And maybe could you send me 7-of-9 from StarTrek Voyager? She’s kind of hot.
    Your friend, Timmy

    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    Cause we’re the better men.
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    Like David Letterman
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    Taste our medicine.
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    Like Thomas Edison
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    I hope you will bet.
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    We got the skill set.
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    We’re ubiquitous.
    THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    So just stick with us!

    Adjust your attitude, lower your defenses.
    Get with the program, come to your senses.
    The first shall be last and the last shall be first
    Cause the geeks, yeah, the geeks shall inherit the Earth.

  35. Gilles

    A planet ruled (as Flavio nº 22 said) by geeks and nerds would soon look like Brave New World. Scary.

  36. I'd rather be fishin'

    I teach high school physics (try to any way). One day after a particularly bad exam filled with silly student errors, I put a sign on the wall “Apply head here. Repeat. ”

    To the person who commented “Politicians are the types who get the nerds to do their homework for them, while they’re out playing football and knocking up cheerleaders.”

    Yes, that’s true. But then we don’t have to find lots of people to post bail for us either!

  37. anothermike

    @gilles, Yes, but only because we’d chosen that as the theme. Next election cycle we’d pick a different theme to LARP.
    That is all in opposition to the current system where we are driven to it by the law of unintended consequences and our PHBs well-meaning but utterly clueless edicts.

  38. I'd rather be fishin'

    Weird Al’s song “White and Nerdy” is now running through my brain. Thanks, thanks a lot.

  39. Stargazer

    Just wanted to say that nerdgirls are the best.

  40. Flavio

    Well I was going by definition with my comment; a nerd is an intelligent yet socially not-so-skilled individual. I’m not sure Obama is a nerd, maybe he is in comparison with that idiot jock who came before him.
    So anyway if the world is ruled by nerds, I’m worried ’cause they’re not doing a terrific job! ;p

  41. Hi all:

    Wassup, nerds!

    Thanks for the comments and feedback. Note that I said that nerds “run” this planet, not “rule” it. Obviously we’re not in charge, but without us, the whole thing stops. Our society idolizes athletes and actors, but without us nerds, their fame would spread by word of mouth.

    So, your assignment: how are we not going to take it any more from the man?

    Your Friendly Neighborhood Physics Professor,

    Dr. K (the “K” stands for Action!)

  42. Quiet Desperation

    I’m not sure Obama is a nerd

    A politico from the Chicagosphere? Definitely not. He’s a hard core policy wonk. That’s not a compliment. I voted for him simply out of boredom with the whole process.

    So anyway if the world is ruled by nerds, I’m worried ’cause they’re not doing a terrific job!

    Heh heh. Good point. Hey, don’t blame us. :-)

    When I travel, and mention I’m from California, I have to add that no one I voted for is currently in office before the digs begin. You don’t know what you’re missing here, Phil. ;-) Dumbest. Politicians. EVER. And I’m not exaggerating. Rep, Dem, doesn’t matter. If I were governor I’d seriously have the statehouse checked for toxins, and have them all sent to the local equivalent of Dr. House for checkups.

    Pfft! I just want to retire early as I can so I can code up the RPG that’s been rattling about my head for some time now.

  43. Yeebok

    I remember school (I’m 38 now) being a nerd was not cool. Now though, it’s pretty much our world, no matter how you look at it. It’s wonderful :)

  44. Gary Ansorge

    Let’s see: what were some of the derogatory terms applied to us over the years?
    Commie/pinko/fag/hippy/nerds,,,

    Personally, I prefer Furry Freak(with 17 inch arms). I don’t know why, but those arms seem to deflect a LOT of ad hominems, at least when I’m present,,,

    Just an aside: craftsmen(and women) have been running the world for a long time. Even the tribal guy who made really good bows and arrows was greatly admired and the nerd who watched critters to see what plants they ate to make themselves well(tribal shaman) was considered the leaders great advisor. Still, it does appear it’s sociopaths who steer the ship of state but consider who advises them.(“Watch out for the iceberg, Sir Idiot.”)

    Gary 7

  45. khms

    Usually you’re right – us people who understand science don’t get to call the shots.

    But occasionally …

    You might have heard of Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, recently talked to both houses in the US.

    I might not like her politics much … but it so happens she’s a physical chemist – Ph.D. thesis in quantum chemistry (grew up in East Germany). (And one wonders how a physicist from East Germany managed to become the boss of the conservative Christian party.) Married two other scientists (Merkel and Sauer), too.

    I see from Wikipedia that she has papers (usually with others, of course) in Chemical Physics, Acta Chim. Hung., Zeitschrift für Physikalische Chemie, Molecular Physics, Journal of American Chemical Society, Coll. Czechoslov. Chem. Commun., Chemical Physics Letters, International Journal of Quantum Chemistry, and Science. That certainly sounds like a bona fide scientist.

  46. THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.
    Like Thomas Edison

    Does prefering Tesla to Edison make one an ubergeek?

    J/P=?

  47. energyrater1

    Obama is not a nerd. Huckabee was a funny nerd, but the country wouldn’t endorse a nerd to be a president.

    #26 Andy got it right first!

  48. Mapnut

    Sheesh. Phil said “If you’re reading this blog, you’re a nerd.” 48 replies and no one yet has claimed not to be a nerd, or at least a geek? Is it not possible for a scientist, engineer or computer programmer to be cool?

    I’m assuming that no matter how techy you may be, if you’re cool, you’re not a nerd or geek.

    I’m an engineer, I’ve never been cool, but I am not a nerd or geek. Too good-looking.

  49. Ramon

    Yeah, but I’m still a virgin.

  50. Jon KIng

    Maybe uncool is a better broad description than nerd. And the uncool kids do grow up to run things many times. Uncool kids can be nice or sickos. Rove and Rush were very geeky kids and adults yet have tremendous power over the running of our country.

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