Reinventing The Science Babe

October 2, 2015 § Leave a comment


This controversial word, which essentially means that men and women should have equal rights, has so many connotations, and unfortunately most of them are negative. I’m a proud feminist, and even in 2015, it’s disconcerting for me to see so many stereotypical and often farcical portrayals of women.

I love J.J. Abrams and his rendition of Star Trek Into Darkness, but the only way he makes Alice Eve, who plays a brilliant science officer, memorable is through her unwarranted underwear scene, where she tantalizes the womanizing Kirk. In Jurassic World, a well-dressed Bryce Dallas Howard tackles dinosaurs without ditching her 3-inch stilettos. More power to her, right?

Throughout our class discussions, we’ve examined how science fiction mirrors societal realities, even if in a slightly exaggerated way. We’re all too familiar with the pusillanimous and over-sexualized female characters in By His Bootstraps, and Helen O’Loy. In her blogpost, Laura mentioned that such a negative portrayal of women pushes us to critically examine our society, and can be an impetus for future change. While some filmmakers clearly haven’t made any effort to empower women through their cinema, Alfonso Cuarón isn’t one of them.

Gravity, his path-breaking and mega successful space-survival movie, is one of the rare films that has a female-centric narrative. Much can be said about Gravity‘s achievements: its spectacular CGI, gripping narrative, and its depiction of a beautiful, yet terrifyingly empty space. But for me, its biggest achievement is giving us (forgive my language) a badass female scientist-heroine on whose shoulders the film rests.

Dr Ryan Stone is not your typical, one-dimensional science fiction heroine. An exceptional NASA bio-medical engineer, she breaks the glass (or should I say, space) ceiling, challenging gender conventions. But she’s not without flaws; she’s fiercely introverted, reserved, and a deep thinker. Well, that should should make her a boring heroine…where’s my playful and charming Kirk?!

Instead, these traits draw viewers to Dr Stone, whose ingenuity and perseverance make her an endearing protagonist. We see space (with all its scary debris) through her eyes. We feel her fears, her claustrophobia, her loneliness. She is vulnerable and above all, she is relatable. That’s what makes her one of the strongest female leads I have seen in recent times.

I also like how Cuarón subverts the idea of the quintessential arm candy in Gravity. For once, George Clooney seems superfluous. Yes, he’s charming and great to look at, but he felt unnecessary in Gravity, and I love how Cuarón reduces his primary male character to being a supporting and flirtatious character, only to kill him off in the end. Move aside George, this is Sandra’s film.

For once, the damsel in veritable distress doesn’t have to be rescued by a knight in shining armor. You can argue that George Clooney/ Matt Kowalski’s hallucination/ghost kind of helped, but it really was Dr Stone’s stoicism to overcome the numerous impediments in her return to Earth which saved her.

Cuarón’s representation of female scientists is also commendable. It’s 2015, but STEM fields still dissuade women because of the stereotypes associated with them. We need ambitious, successful, yet relatable women scientists such as Dr Stone, who can serve as role models to millions of young girls who enjoy science, but are hesitant to take it up professionally.

Having a female lead for a $100 million film gave Cuarón troubles with his producers who wanted a male protagonist (no, Clooney is not a protagonist), but the director’s determination and confidence in his self-beliefs made him stick to Sandra Bullock, and it paid off.

Sure, Sandra Bullock does meet society’s expectations of beauty. But that’s NOT the focus of Gravity. It’s her no-makeup, vulnerable, yet quietly determined countenance that captures the attention of the audience and the box office.

-dreamer2205/Aditi Thakur

(Extra blog post!)

Altruism: That’s just bad economics

September 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

How many decisions do people make everyday?  How many are conscious?  Unconscious?  While the jury is still out trying to “average” the number of decisions one makes in a day, the number is staggeringly high.  For, example, with each key I punch by moving my finger to type this blog post, I make a decision.  With each break in typing to think, I make a decision.  There are several more decisions that divide these to but go unnoticed on a macroscopic level.  But what spurs me to make each decision?  In economic terms, it’s the marginal utility of each action.  In other words, it’s the amount of satisfaction I stand to gain from following through with my next decision.  It’s the benefit I can receive.  And like most decisions are difficult to name, so too are the more intangible benefits.  But I would argue that every single decision is made for self-benefit in some way.  In seemingly selfless actions, like donating money, I stand to gain satisfaction and that tingly feeling that you’ve done something good.  I briefly researched “altruistic actions,” and found articles entitled “Taiwanese pursue happiness through altruistic actions,” and “Altruism in Action: Japanese Surfer Hero Rescues His Wife, Mother and Others.”  In the first, the Taiwanese gain happiness.  In the second, the pain he stands to suffer if he does not save his family, many may argue, is incentive enough to risk his life.  Thus, I problematize the existence of fully self-less, or altruistic, actions and very strongly oppose the repercussions of implementing altruism-inducing genes.

At its most basic level, altruism would upset the balance of incentives in the world.  By no means do I oppose the development of a more “self-less world,” but I feel as though altruism does not exist for a reason, it does not make sense.  To implement a genetic code that upsets the very nature of human development would have vast consequences.  While ideally it would lead to a world in which everyone helps one another, to tamper with the very nature of decision-making, the core of societal development would have innumerable external consequences.  Especially in a world already established with non-altruistic people.  How would these new gene-bearers fair against those that do not make self-less actions.  After all, they are still seeking for their satisfaction in life.

But I question you all, if one is misinformed and unintentionally causes the benefit of another with nothing to gain, is that altruism?  If a dollar bill falls from my pocket without my knowledge and one who needs it finds it, is that altruism?  I raise this question, because my argument against this gene emerges from a definitional conflict with reality.  Altruism does not logically make sense, but perhaps it falls under one of the many illogicalities of the world we live in.  And if it does, the consequences of such actions on a biological level are still questionable.

-Kevin M.


The Post That Might Have Been

September 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

Hypothetically, let’s say I joined the marching band in high school. You have to understand something—marching band at my former high school is only slightly less of a commitment than joining the Marines. In-season, it involves 10 hours of after-school practice during the week, a performance at the football game, and, more often than not, Saturday practice for around 4 or so hours. Oh, and don’t forget the time you spend going to band class 5 days a week. And competitions. And special events. And then there are those weeks in the middle of the it’s-so-hot-we’re-lucky-we-only-lost-five-kids-to-dehydration-yesterday summer when the band practices for 8 or 12 hours a day.

As appealing as that sounds, I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision. I would like to say yes. But man, during my middle school years I loved playing in the jazz band. We weren’t bad—for 7th and 8th graders. And we were definitely higher on the treble clef—er, totem pole—than the regular band. (In middle school, it’s important to be higher on the totem pole than something.) What if I had carried this through?

Welcome to my first post, “Social Sci-Fi,” version 1.1:

Most of my friends and family have no real opinion about science fiction, much like me. It’s a system that works very well, mostly because I really have no people in my life who like science fiction. In high school, it was hard to meet a lot of people outside band, and most of those people were interested in band things. At Vandy, well—the same applies even though I’m not a Blair student. Marching band practice takes up a lot of time—it’s fun, but it takes up a lot of time. And how many people at Vandy do you know who like science fiction (present company excluded)?

I have a confession: I have never seen an episode of Star Trek even though it’s arguably the best-known sci-fi franchise besides Star Wars—which I have seen, and thoroughly enjoyed. I simply don’t know where to start, especially when it comes to fiction. Sure, I’ve surfed through the channels and landed on the Sci-Fi network before. But something tells me that’s not the same level of sci-fi, that it only becomes serious when you’re holding a book in your hand, reading it in public—a high level of commitment. (It’s almost like you could categorize people who read in public based on their genre of choice.)

I’ll admit—I have heard of Isaac Asimov. And in the 10th grade we read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. But, like I said, I didn’t have time to go much beyond what was required. I still don’t.

I guess that I do have something to say about science fiction—in a way. One time, after church, a friend and I went to my car and got inside. (We’ll call this friend Ronaldo.) Ronaldo and I were going to our favorite after-service Mexican restaurant. Before we could go anywhere, though, I had to start my car. When I did so, the sounds of Vaclav Nelhybel’s “Outer Space” filled the car, causing my friend to ask the rather rude question: “What the heck is this crap?” I switched it off rapidly, said it was some kind of experimental music by this 20th century composer. By then, I had learned that unless you eat, sleep, and breathe music it’s hard to appreciate the standard classical stuff, let alone “Outer Space”—which I would argue is an audible version of science fiction. It could certainly serve as a soundtrack to a screen adaptation. And for some reason I listened to it nonstop back then. It’s still in my rotation now.

But who the heck calls something “crap” on first listen?

No Thanks

September 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’m not sold on the idea of time travel—and not from an exclusively practical standpoint either. While thinking about time travel can be entertaining, the truth is that if I found/were presented with a time travel device I’d probably destroy it. At the least I’d walk away. No, I’d probably destroy it.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from both fairy tales and science fiction, it’s to never trust anybody or anything that promises remarkable power. Bad stuff happens. People die. You promise to trade your firstborn to a dwarf so that he’ll spin enough golden thread to keep your head attached to your shoulders. Skynet becomes self-aware. Someone invents a virus that promises to cure cancer and, one thing leading to another, Will Smith is suddenly running around Manhattan with a sniper rifle on his back, talking to department store dummies.

Bad stuff.

Any time travel scenario in which the traveler leaves his destination unchanged seems utterly unrealistic. That’s because when we talk about time travel we imply more than just moving from one space-time coordinate to another. We imply altering causal chains—we mean power. And while that aspect of time travel is most often stressed when traveling into the past, it’s equally true for the future. Never mind that you didn’t want to use that power—if you only wanted to look around, sealed inside a contraption meant to keep the environment safe from you. Your mere existence in a place can change it. You pressed the start button, didn’t you? You took the fruit from the tree; there’s no putting it back. But if you take out the power, then you take out the appeal. And I’ve never seen an apple without a peel hanging from any tree.

Like I said—bad stuff. And I haven’t even started talking about all those Star Trek “alternate universe” characters with goatees.


On the Alleged Marginalization of Science Fiction

September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the enduring traits of science fiction fandom is its perception that its favored genre is treated unfairly. English departments sneer at it, the mainstream segments of the film and literature industries dismiss it, and people who enjoy it are denigrated as “nerds”; so the popular opinion goes. Is this perception accurate, though?

I would characterize myself as a science fiction fan. After all, a fair amount of my childhood was spent reading novels by Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, and other noteworthy science fiction authors, and many of my favorite television shows, like The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and Firefly, fall squarely within the genre. Yet I have never experienced or witnessed the marginalization that the mainstream supposedly inflicts upon science fiction. Many of my close friends in high school were even more into the genre than me; I have yet to attempt to make my way through the many iterations of the classic British show Doctor Who, but I had friends who had seen every episode. My grandmother watched most of the iterations of that other classic science fiction show, Star Trek, when they first aired. Hollywood hasn’t dismissed science fiction since the phenomenal success of Star Wars 34 years ago. Finally, lest the charge that English departments sneer at science fiction is allowed to stand unchallenged, one of the first classes I took at Vanderbilt was an English class. Its assigned reading list included William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

I don’t doubt that science fiction was relegated to the margins of film and literature in the past. An interviewer once asked The Twilight Zone‘s creator, Rod Serling, if the amount of work he was putting into the show meant that he had given up on writing anything “important” for television. Other incidents like this one pepper the history of science fiction, and they have left an impression on writers and readers alike. That said, in the past three decades or so, it seems to me that science fiction has moved much more into the mainstream; it may very well be that the perceived marginalization of science fiction is, in 2011, little more than the shadow of a phenomenon that has long since vanished.

Richard W.

Social Sci-Fi

September 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Most of my friends and family have no real opinion about my nascent love of science fiction, and for my part I mostly keep to myself about it. It’s a system that works very well. I can count on one hand the number of people that I know for sure would willingly sit down and watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with me. Of those, one is a person whom I introduced to the franchise (read “younger brother”) and the other is a guy who I’m pretty sure had watched every episode of TNG before I became a fan. At least I know for sure that he’s seen every one of them as of this post.

I mention my relationship to Star Trek not because I believe it’s the be-all end-all of science fiction, but because it’s arguably the best-known and most easily accessible science fiction for the uninitiated. (We’ll leave Star Wars off the table.) Even people who think sci-fi is for losers are likely to have heard of it; some may even have come across the phrase “Live long and prosper,” or references to a “Vulcan nerve pinch” (more on that a little later.) And let’s face it—watching something on television at least has the potential to become a public experience. When was the last time you and a buddy picked up two copies of a novel and tried to keep pace with each other? Unless you’re holding a book in your hand or telling someone that you’ve decided to severely narrow the number of jobs that actually require your degree (read “have just announced that you’re majoring in English”), you’re more likely to be asked about your favorite TV show than your favorite author.

Among my peers, very few could identify the name “Isaac Asimov” if they saw it on a book that I was holding. It would take a second question—“What’s it about?”—before I could be properly assigned my due place in the taxonomy of people who read in public. But say “Star Trek” and they immediately start contorting their fingers.

Which brings us back to the Vulcan nerve pinch. One time, in an informal setting at church, we were talking about SEC football. My antagonist in this story was a Georgia Bulldogs fan—one of my closer friends, actually. (I’ll call him Ronaldo.) Ronaldo started naming SEC football teams and had stumbled through a good number without mentioning the Commodores. After reminding him of this, I reached up my hand, made the VU sign (thumb, pointer, and middle finger extended, with the other two folded into an open palm) and said “go ‘dores.” Ronaldo interpreted this as my attempt at a Vulcan nerve pinch. I interpreted his hysterical laughter as well-meaning and eventually got my explanation across.

But who the heck starts a nerve pinch by lifting their arm over their head, then ends it without pinching?


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