Think Geek — Understanding the Geek Mind

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A lot of people get laughs from CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” where an apartment full of “geeks” have their adventures with their neighbor, an attractive “normal” woman. Stereotypes aside (the geeks are portrayed as nerds, the woman a blond), the show does have a lot of good wit based around geeks fascination with speaking in tech and precision.

For instance in this weeks episode, Sheldon, the super genius astrophysicist is trying to describe to Penny, the normal, how to open a Chinese Puzzle Box. “Move the top panel 2 millimeters to the left, then move the side panel 4mm to the right (or some such very precise measurements)” Sheldon instructed over a phone. Penny frustrated by the geek speak asked if he was attached to the box and when Sheldon said “No”. She stomped the box to open it.

It was a funny moment with geeks and normals laughing at the scenario but its a perfect example of the communication barrier often faced by people when there is a huge separation in IQ.

The classic example of this was Albert Einstein. Even among his peers, his ability to understand physics was so far advanced, most people in the physics community dismissed them. It would take years before physicists would come to embrace his work.

Why does this communication break down?

The main reason for this is that most geek’s enjoy science and science is about accuracy and precision of measurements. There is an old saying:

When cutting a log, measure with a micrometer, mark with chalk, cut with an Axe

In this case if you’re going to cut the log with a very imprecise tool like an axe, why are you measuring to millimeter accuracy? Because thats what scientists do: They measure accurately.

True Story: My wife (a Normal) and I were heading home from work. She was driving. My son called and asked when we would be home. My response was “We will be there in 97 seconds.” Sherry goes “Where did you pull that pile of stuff from?” I responded thats how long it will take for us to get home. 97 seconds later, she had stopped in the drive. 97 seconds is very precise but most people are not used to hearing that. “A couple of minutes” would have gone over much better with her. She still shakes her head at me when I come up with these seemingly random responses.

The Planes of Thought

NOTE: The following are my original thoughts and will come off as pure BS, buyer beware, Copyright © 2002-2009 Rob Miracle, All Right Reserved, Trade Mark, Patent Pending

Imagine a world where there are different Planes of Thought. These planes are where the mass of the population’s “smarts” are currently massed. Generations of people are smarter than their previous generation. For instance today, we have cell phones and text messages and we can use the Internet and you know what a mouse is and how to use it.

But go back 100 years to 1909 when we were amazed that a buggy could run without a horse, discussions of your mouse and your USB Key or your DVR would make you almost incommunicable with the people of that time. Yet they were as a population considerably smarter than those around in 1809 when the idea of communicating to distant cities with a telephone would be near magic.

This is demonstrated by Arthur C. Clarke’s quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

If we look at each of these era’s as a plane, there will always be one above where we are now and the past era’s planes below us.

People on one plane cannot effectively communicate with someone on another plane. The tech speak, the new words that come into the vocabulary, etc. make this communications hard.

Of course basic communications, like “Hello Grandma, how are you?” will work, but the more complex vocabulary hinders effectiveness and its frustrating on both sides.

Because it takes time for scientific language to become common language, those that talk in geek speak tend to be on these other planes. Eventually society as a whole will catch up.


In addition to imagining the planes, you also have to imagine a series of ladders that connect the two planes. Some people live on these ladders. If they climb to the top, they pass to the higher plane and can no longer effectivally communicate back to the lower plane. People who are climbing the ladders exist in both planes at the same time and can reasonably communicate in either direction.

Back to the “Big Bang Theory” example. Sheldon and Penny can’t understand why the other one does or says the things they do. But Sheldon’s roommate Lenoard is on a ladder and is a bridge between the two. He can explain Sheldon to Penny and Penny to Sheldon.

A Joke!

A helicopter pilot was giving a ride to a businessman in the Seattle area when a heavy fog set in and they couldn’t figure out how to get back to the airport. The pilot spots an office building with workers in the windows and he hovers into place. After getting their attention he asks “Where am I?”. A worker yells back “Your in a Helicopter”. The pilot says thank you and flies away saying he knows where he is now. The businessman has a stunned look on your face and asks the pilot “How do you know where we are?” The pilot responds: “we are over Microsoft’s campus. They gave me a technically correct but utterly useless answer.”

That’s one of my favorite jokes, not just because it disses Microsoft but it points out the communication problem. Because geeks tend to be precise, they don’t think in generalities. In this case the pilot would assume he would get the answer of Redmond or Microsoft’s Campus and had he been talking to non-geeks, he would have gotten a general answer to his question.

This precision is part of what forms the barrier between the layers. Its also the reason geeks tend to migrate to computers, even at an early age. Computers are very simple devices but they are very precise. In fact, they may be the ultimate in precision since they only understand “Yes” and “No”. There are no maybes to a computer.

While geeks tend to be slobs and not care much about personal appearance, they are actually very well ordered thinkers. Much like computers which process things in a logical manner, geeks seek logic in things. I’ve always thought my quest to see logic in things had to do with watching too much Star Trek as a kid and a fascination with “Mr. Spock”. Geeks see things in our world that make no sense to them and they spend considerable mental energy to solve the problem or write it of as non-important. This is were the slob nature comes in. Its not important so geeks spend no time on it.

Between their scientific vocabulary, their logical thought process and their need for precision there will always be a rift between geeks and normals. Eventually the normals will ascend to the next plane but when they get there, they will find the geeks have also ascended to yet another plane continuing the cycle.

2 Responses to “Think Geek — Understanding the Geek Mind”

  1. Lucas

    I think the Arthur C. Clarke quote nicely describes things. We live in a world filled with modern conveniences that most lay persons and many geeks would be troubled to explain exactly how they work down to the precise details. Sure, many people could describe the general concepts of how a cell phone works but not many can readily explain how all modern electronics rely on quantum tunneling or explain the networking protocols that deliver traffic on the internet or even the how a wing provides lift.

    The truth is that the body of human knowledge far exceeds any single person’s ability to know and comprehend it. Any discipline of science is built on a broad foundation with successive layer building in complexity. Computing has allowed humankind grow knowledge at astounding rates and even within a scientific discipline people devote lifetimes to branches so complex that they are unfamiliar to those in other branches of the same field. There is an enormous specialization in learning current sciences, each with a its own community.

    While the average Joe can reaps the rewards of all these communities from electronics to medicines to foods and more the average Joe probably doesn’t have the time, patience, or energy to understand quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, bioengineering, chemistry, and any of the other number of disciplines that go into making things happen. To the average Joe, things just work and he doesn’t have to know the precise details why. When things don’t work, as in the Chinese puzzle box, the experts can clearly understand why buts it’s a point of frustration for an average person like Penny.

    Unfortunately, the gulf between society and scientific literacy just keeps growing as society’s non-emphasis on science grows just as rapidly as scientific advances. Too often people are either in the Geek camp or the Average camp. Too often these camps may as well be completely different worlds. We need more Leonards bridging the gap between precision and convenience. That, would truly be magical.

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