A couple of days ago, while reading a story on the
Washington Post website, I was intrigued to see one commenter compare a politician to a quantum bit (with opinions in all states at all times, changing depending on the observer). The next morning I walked past a Mazda suv with a bumper sticker reading “My other car is a Tardis” (that would be the time-traveling police box from Doctor Who). Then I looked again at this month’s annual “Best of Hot Science”
guide (page 20) and smiled. Different material, same theme.
Much has been written about the triumph of geek culture, but what I am seeing all around goes deeper: not just a fondness for comic books and fantasy novels, but a wholesale embrace of scientific thinking in popular entertainment. One of TV’s top-rated sitcoms (Big Bang Theory) and one of its most-lauded cable dramas (Breaking Bad) both employ science advisors. Meanwhile, in the summer blockbuster The Avengers, two characters—swaggering Tony Stark and hulk-afflicted Bruce Banner—male bond over . . . nuclear physics. The movie ended up grossing more than $620 million in the United States.
What is going on here? That last piece of information contains an important clue. We live in an increasingly quantified world. People know about movie grosses and YouTube views. They know exactly how many friends they have (thank you, Facebook), make purchases based on numerical customer ratings, and compare distances and traffic along different travel routes on Google Maps. DNA paternity tests are available for $30 at Walmart. This relentless quantification is changing the way we judge what is true and meaningful. It is no coincidence that fact-checkers became a central part of the political conversation in this last election.
Sure, quantification hasn’t stopped politicians from lying, or prevented us all from making foolish gut decisions. But with every download of the Crazy Formula app, and every snide critique of a sloppy sci-fi show like Revolution, I see us inching, encouragingly, toward a more rational world.