Crazy hair. Bad teeth. Minimal social skills. These are just some of the buzzwords that come to my mind as I think of the stereotypical scientist. But as a biologist at Imperial College, let me tell you these claims are only partially true. I would class myself as average in all 3 of the above categories but there are plenty of people within my institution that are the most socially capable, well groomed and generally attractive people I have ever met. Just check out this list of the 50 sexiest scientists compiled by business insider.com:
Of course there is a huge spectrum and perhaps there is a little more “nerd” in us then a random cross section of the UK (in fact as I am writing this I’m getting a sudden urge to gather data on this and perform numerous statistical tests to show if there is a significant correlation between nerdiness and science) but can this not be sexy? Are interests, nay passions not a sexy quality in a person? I bet if a scientist working at the Large Hadron Collider went for a drink with a member of the opposite sex and discussed a general overview of their work, the Large Hadron’s not the only thing that’s going to be colliding that night! All he/she would have to say is “I am working at the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. I send protons crashing into each other at 99.9% of the speed light in order to discover the mysteries of the Universe. It’s not your average 9 to 5. Tomorrow I may discover dark matter a substance thought to make up 90% of the Universe’s mass, I may find the “God particle” and obtain and Nobel prize, I may even witness the 4 forces of nature that control mass interactions combining into 1 super-force as seen directly after the big bang… but right now the only super-force I’m worried about is between you and me babe”.
Of course it doesn’t have to be this cheesy but you get my point. Some areas of science are completely fascinating and by extension sexy. Having said this there are other areas of science that are less sexy. For instance fecal transplantation, or “poop transplants” as coined by the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, is a procedure in which fecal bacteria form one person is put into an unwell person in order to treat a gut infection. Granted this area is cutting edge and scientifically interesting however I think everyone would agree it just isn’t sexy.
Another problem that scientist have in proving they are viable mating partners to the opposite sex is communicating there field of research in layman’s terms (a feat I am trying to desperately accomplish). This is an area where “Artsy Fartsy” individuals leave us in the dust. They have been trained from a young age to discuss and communicate their particular fields with vigor and passion, whereas we have been sat in front of a microscope, writing down numbers and ‘high fiving’ each other whenever we get an A in a test. This perhaps is why the stereotypical Lothario reads poetry and writes music.
So the average scientist may have certain deficiencies in these areas. But we have a secret weapon in the battle of the sexes; we know the science behind attraction. Over the years huge amounts of funding has gone into this field, perhaps driving by a potentially huge financial gain for anyone who discovers some kind of universal ‘love potion’. (At this point I must say, sorry guys and girls, there is not and never will be such a potion in existence so stick to your perfumes). Some of the studies carried out are questionable but there has been a lot of interesting findings to come out of it. For instance we have found evidence for the human pheromone. Throughout the animal kingdom pheromones are known to be used as signals; be it threats; warnings or for sexual attraction. Notably some butterfly species can detect potential mates through chemical release over 10km away. However it is much harder to identify a single chemical as the reason for attraction between people as we have highly developed reasoning skills. Having said this, there is evidence for its effects .
In one study, a group of women were asked to smell a selection of men’s week old t shirts and state there preferences. It was found that the women tended to prefer the smell from men that had different white blood cell markers to themselves, otherwise known as MHCs. This may seem extremely random. Why would it be an evolutionary advantage for women to choose partners on this basis? It is thought that since white blood cells are involved in the immune response, choosing a partner with a different MHC type will mean the offspring will have a better immune system. So believe it or not, to an extent we are just slaves to our body chemistry. So next time you have a date and for some reason there is just no sparks flying, just do what we scientists do. Put it down to genetic incompatibility.
Another study, looked into what physical features are considered more attractive on a man. It was found that women in a short term relationship found men with more masculine and symmetrical features, such as square jaw and defined brow, to be more attractive to women in short term relationships. A more masculine face is thought to be an indicator of better genes, which will have been a trait looked for in cave man times as the resultant children would be more likely to survive. In contrast with this however women in long term relationships were more attracted to men with more feminine faces. This is thought to be a signal for a better carer of the children.
Of course its not just a one way street. Check out this video on what body shapes are apparently attractive on women:
Now I’m not saying that because us scientists know the science behind attraction we will suddenly become expert lovers. In fact there’s not a lot we can do to get different MHC types and squarer jaws (well except plastic surgery). But I think it is important to remember that we are still animals and as such our behavior is in part determined by what our cave man ancestors would have been driven by. Science cannot only be sexy but it can also help us understand sex. So next time your reading a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a desperate attempt to understand the opposite sex, put it down. Read a biology text book instead!