May 5, 2006

Grad students in popular culture

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at May 5, 2006 3:10 PM

The above was the title of a slide in Jorge Cham's talk yesterday (discussed below). The slide cited four films: The Seniors (1978), Real Genius (1985) [this one prompted cheering from the audience], A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Hulk (2003). This is a pretty good list already, but I suspect there are more, and it seems like a good topic for a Friday thread. Make suggestions in the comments. No need to stick to film, either: it was at least implied that Fred was previously a physics grad student in Angel, and there are probably plenty of novels with grad student characters (some of them not written by Neal Stephenson).

For that matter, there are lots of mad scientists but rarely do you see their grad students. It's hard to imagine they're doing all that mad science themselves. Sure, Dr. Frankenstein had Igor, but Igor seems like more of a postdoc. And Frankenstein operates the apparatus himself—what kind of PI does that? A more realistic portrayal would be something like:

[Dr. Frankenstein's group meeting. Igor, exhausted from taking data all night, presents a graph.]
Igor: So the data clearly indicate increased mobility of the subject.
Frankenstein: IT'S ALIVE! [pause] Start writing it up, I want to submit this to Physical Reanimation Letters by next week.

Tags: Books, Comics, Culture, Movies, Television
Comments

Fred's grad-student-ness was very explicit. Her breakup with Gunn came about largely as a result of Gunn killing her ex-advisor before she could, after all... :-)

Another David Boreanaz example: the cast of Bones has almost the full range of academic researchers. Grad student, postdoc, workaholic big-name PI, and the poor sod who got bumped up to be administrator (would be dean if they were at a university).

And of course there's Numb3rs - the ludicrously unrealistic cheesecake who decides to start in the astro grad program after she gets her math PhD.

Books by not-Neal-Stephenson:
Many Discworld novels - I'm rather fond of Ponder Stibbons and his fellow researchers over in the High Energy Magic building. In the later books Stibbons is pretty clearly junior faculty, but we first meet him at the end of his undergraduate work.

Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time trilogy had an astronomy grad student becoming (IIRC) Secretary of State in the new timeline.

Posted by: Justin | May 5, 2006 4:59 PM

Yeah, who needs some silly astronomy degree after you already have a mathematics doctorate. ;)

Everybody in Real Genius was an undergraduate. (Am I forgetting somebody? Nobody is coming to mind.) Granted, because of the research it doesn't necessarily take away anything from the speaker's point.

There were grad students in Proof and they discussed the issue of mathematicians doing the best work while they were young. There may have been some grad students in Good Will Hunting, but I can't remember any off the top of my head.

Posted by: Mason | May 5, 2006 6:53 PM

The delightfully lame TA in "Road Trip." Granted, not science, but still very funny...

Posted by: NL | May 5, 2006 7:08 PM

Well, the graduate student hadn't been invented in my culture of 1940's and '50's Warner Brothers cartoons. But the idea of a foreign scientist (mad or sane) is present in many short subjects.

One favorite is from "Super Rabbit" 1943
Bugs to scientist: "What's Cookin, Edison?"
Scientist: "I am working on my grea... great ...my greatest experiment"
Bugs: And what might that be, as if I didn't hope
Scientist: A super-ionized....super carrot.

Another cartoon you'll have to watch again as an adult to understand the politics of World War II.

Posted by: Katie | May 6, 2006 2:55 PM

Well, if we're going to consider mad cartoon scientists... "Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius"

Of course, my Roadrunner impersonation is much better than my Coyote impersonation.

Posted by: Mason | May 6, 2006 4:23 PM
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