WASHINGTON--Traveling well beyond Geek Chic, the vague admiration for the pocket-protector brainies of the '90s, we are now in the midst of Disturbed Nerd Chic, the celebration of the seriously disturbed mathematical genius. Not exactly the broadest subject in the world, it is nonetheless and remarkably the focus of much highly acclaimed cultural attention.
``A Beautiful Mind,'' the story of game theorist John Nash's trajectory from genius to madness to restoration, was showered with Oscars. Broadway bestowed the Tony on ``Proof,'' the drama about a depressed female mathematical genius whose father, also a mathematician, is delusional. (The play had already won the Pulitzer Prize.)
No prizes yet for ``Enigma,'' the film about a psychically tortured British code-breaker in World War II, but that's because it's too early in prize season. The fictional Tom Jericho (loosely based on Alan Turing, father of the computer, if one can assign single paternity) is on urgent assignment to Bletchley Park, headquarters of British code-breaking, to figure out the Nazis' souped up U-boat cipher. He enters the film having emerged from--surprise!--a nervous breakdown. Or has he? He spends much of the film on the verge of another.
It is said that when Churchill toured Bletchley, he remarked to the director, ``About that recruitment--I know I told you not to leave a stone unturned, but I did not mean you to take me seriously.'' We've been turning over a lot of stones recently. Why this cultural fascination with mathematically brilliant creepy crawlies? With people so deeply mentally gifted that not one of these plays/films can begin to explain to the lay audience the nature of the protagonist's intellectual work? (I am discounting here other notable genius-centered plays--``Copenhagen,'' about Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and ``QED,'' a celebration of the great American physicist Richard Feynman--because their protagonists were not deranged.)
We are fascinated because every age requires its oracles, its prophets who see so deep into mystery that they seem (are?) quite mad. The ancients depended on agriculture and lived at the whim of wind and rain and sun, forces far beyond their ken. So, they sought wisdom and power over these forces through shamans and conjurers schooled in the mysteries.
The shaman of today is the Disturbed Nerd. We blithely inhabit the Information Age and routinely exploit its products, but we know that it is powered by principles and paradigms far beyond our ken. Ours is a mathematical universe that has been translated by a cohort of brilliant nerds into a form--the computer and its analogues--that any idiot can use. But that's precisely their genius and their power: They are in touch with the esoteric. They are its master. They bring down fire from heaven so that we dummies can warm ourselves by the glow of the cathode-ray Web.
And they appear odd. Bill Gates, slightly nerdy, slightly awkward, is the paradigmatic magician of the late 20th century. Art, deploying its powers of concentration and exaggeration, gives us Bill G. cubed: the delusional John Nash, the despondent Tom Jericho, and the doubted and despairing Catherine, mathematical heroine of ``Proof.''
The mastery of digits has transformed our economy, revolutionized our daily life, and arguably won a war (Afghanistan, where the American monopoly of information, and the robotic transformation of that information into deadly force, yielded victory at less cost in victors' lives than perhaps any war in history). We are in an age in which the mastery of what used to be tiny, esoteric intellectual
backwaters--algorithms, mathematical topology, set theory, Boolean algebra--has become the most valued knowledge on earth.
Hence that remarkable, neglected social phenomenon that came out of the computer revolution: A whole stratum of geeky folks--introverted and awkward, fascinated with numbers and logic, drawn to such self-enclosed mental exercises as chess--who for generations lived on the fringes of society has now stepped out of the shadows, indeed taken center stage. All of a sudden, they--the only people who understand the modern equivalent of the celestial forces--became titans of industry, social lions, cultural icons. ``At Bletchley, you're as glamorous as fighter pilots,'' notes ``Enigma's'' bemused cynic, Wigram, seeing the ill-at-ease misfits being swarmed over by beautiful ladies. ``Girls you couldn't even hope to meet go weak at the knees at the thought of the size of your brain.''
Brooding big-brain brilliance was once a one-shot wartime need. Today, code-breaking--metamorphosed into code-making, aka software--is the intellectual engine of the Information Age. Bletchley closed down in 1946. But its descendents have spread far and wide to become the priestly class of our time. Disturbed Nerd Chic is our way of acknowledging its ascendancy, with a bow and a shudder.