5 March 2015
On the importance of fictional role models
Posted by Jessica Ball
Last week, we learned that Leonard Nimoy died. Though it’s sad both because we’ve lost an amazing person and an icon of science fiction, it got me thinking about why I personally cared so much about the character he created.
I loved watching the original Star Trek when I was growing up, and the character that I related to most was Mr. Spock. Not so much because I felt like the nerdy outcast among my friends, but because of what he’d dedicated his life to: science, and the pursuit of new knowledge. When some of his shipmates were eager to take an aggressive approach to problem-solving in their travels, Spock was nearly always the advocate for objectivity, circumspection, and occasionally the unorthodox solution. He was there because he wanted to know more about the universe. (He also got a lot more screen time than the only other geologist I remember appearing in the series – D’Amato, who I believe was killed by the planetary equivalent of ADT Security in the third season. Poor D’Amato. He wasn’t even wearing a red shirt!) He was much more likely to want to study something than shoot it, a tactic that got his shipmates into trouble more than once. He was calm, collected, and logical, which were things I admired but not something you get to experience much as a kid or a teenager.
Before you get to college, it can sometimes be hard to find opportunities to meet a scientist outside of your spiel at the science fair judging or in a tour at a museum. I was lucky enough to live near the Smithsonian and hunted down the chance to volunteer in the Global Volcanism program, but that was a rare opportunity and might not have happened if I hadn’t been so single-minded in pursuing it. And that’s where fictional characters like Spock come in. I knew, of course, that they could only ever be caricatures of real people who existed somewhere in the world, but it was easy to find aspects of them to aspire to. One of the reasons I wanted to go into science was because I wanted to do something useful – and someone, somewhere in my favorite sci-fi movies and books, almost always needed a scientist at some point. They did important work, and some even saved the day. I wanted to be that.
Spock wasn’t the only pop-culture scientist I was exposed to, but he was the first, and the one whose story I took to indicate that scientists were an important part of exploring our world. The way I saw Spock’s character being treated on the show, Dr. McCoy’s comments on pointy-eared thinking machines aside, told me that someone could be deeply devoted to the quest for knowledge without being looked down on as a brain or too nerdy or too weird or otherwise inappropriate for their age. When I was in grade school some family friends used to call me “professor”, in a kind way, but it emphasized that there was something notable about being smart and inquisitive. Spock, on the other hand, was expected to be that way – he was the science officer!
Leonard Nimoy brought a sense of gravity to a character who could easily have been buried beneath the overall campiness of the show, but also gave him a wonderfully dry sense of humor and, yes, humanity. I empathized more with Spock than anyone else on the show, and it’s sad to hear that the man who gave him life – and gave me someone I could enjoy looking up to – has left us. Unlike many Trek fans, I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I hope he would have been proud to have inspired generations of scientists who all, at some point, wanted to be in that chair on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Fictional characters are created by their authors, and are very different from real-life ones. Better look up the lives of real discoverers, like Edmond Halley, Heinrich Schwabe, Victor Vacquier, Eugene Shoemaker, Michael Faraday, Edward Bullard… and on the distaff side, Joanne Simpson, Irene Fischer, Inge Lehmann, Eugenie Clark who recently left us and Carolyn Shoemaker, who is sill here,
It’s definitely important to recognize real-life role models. But that wasn’t the point of the post – it was that fictional role models can supplement what’s available to us in a non-fictional world. Even when I was growing up, living scientists were rarely as accessible to a young person as fictional characters. There are more opportunities to see and interact with real-life role models now, but fiction can still play a role in inspiring us by filling in the gaps when there aren’t.
I agree with Jessica that fiction, while some is escapist or simply entertaining, can fill in gaps and inspire us to look for role models in the real world. The fictional world, whether Jane Austen, Avatar, or Star Trek (1966-69) can reflect our dreams for how the world should be and be a forum for discussing important social and political issues: besides Spock representing the scientific importance of or reasons for exploration, there was a woman officer, Uhura, on the bridge during the early days of “women’s lib”, a Russian on the crew during the real Cold War, the famous interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhuru in prime time just a couple years after Selma. Growing up, I read biographies, like Amelia Earhart, but also watched Star Trek (and yes was frivolous too reading Nancy Drew and watching Gidget).