The geek culture – inside out

by poolik

surely you're joking mr feynman

How would you describe a geek? A long haired, socially awkward man with glasses? Maybe, but maybe it’s something totally different. I believe the stereotype described above is too outdated and shallow. For once I’d like you to hear about true geek culture from the inside out.

Richard P. Feynman was an american physicist whose life memories where gathered into a book titled “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman”. At our company (ZeroTurnaround) vacation in Crete our CEO Jevgeni Kabanov held up a copy of the book and called it “the geek bible“. As I had just read the book I began wondering about geek culture in general and what would be the fundamental pillars of it.

First of all I’d say that the preliminary signs of a geek aren’t the looks nor the profession (Feynman was a physicist not a computer scientist!), but are the enormous amounts of curiosity and passion they have in life! The ability to be fascinated by the littlest or weirdest of things that only a few others may know or care about. Almost every geek I know has huge amounts of passion towards something, anything, that they enjoy doing.

Aside from being a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist, Feynman was also an excellent painter and drum player. He had his own gallery at the basement of his house, where he often painted nude models and he also took part in the drum battles of Brazilian favela music schools!

I think another big part of being a geek is being suspicious and even a little paranoid at times, but of course in a good way. There’s a story about Feynman involving neutron-proton coupling. At that time everybody knew it was T, but according to Feynman’s calculations and thoughts it should have been V. Instead of buckling under and admitting defeat, he actually started to look for WHY everybody thought it was T. He ended up with one paper published years ago, where a scientist had done some experiments and found the result to be T. Since then, EVERY scientist considered the coupling to be T, but Feynman actually looked at the paper and found that the evidence presented was extremely weak and wrongly interpreted!

For years everyone (“the industry”) had assumed something to be true instead of actually checking it. True geeks would never have allowed that! Being a geek, in part, means always challenging the status quo. To ponder on the “obvious” – why they are so – and to have the courage to challenge them. That’s exactly what Jevgeni and others did with JRebel and what we are now doing with LiveRebel.

Last but not least, being a geek means having fun! This point is shamefully overlooked and forgotten by too many people. Geeks enjoy what they do and have fun with it, which in turn frees their mind from worry and lets the creative juices flow. When Feynman started at his position in Cornell, he was frustrated with himself, because he thought he wasn’t doing any “real” research. He wasn’t going anywhere and for a year didn’t have any results. But then he looked back on his earlier years to see why he used to love physics and discovered, it was because he used to have fun with it. He used to throw ideas around about how things could work, would try to find out the reason for the stupidest of phenomena just because it was fun, not because he did “serious” research!

After that he took on a new attitude. Later, when he was in the cafeteria, some guy threw a plate in the air. As the plate flew up in the air Feynman noticed it wobble and also noticed that the red medallion of Cornell on the plate was going around faster than the wobbling. He had nothing to do, so he started to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. One thing left to another and before he realized, he was thinking about how electron orbits start to move in relativity – works for which he got the Nobel Prize later on. Just by having fun with a wobbly plate!

For me these are the qualities of a true geek and with having enormous amounts of passion and curiosity, challenging the status quo and having fun, I’d say everyone could do with a little more geekiness in their life now and then.

Live long and geeky!