Spider-Man Bites Back

I definitely should have known better than to take on fans of Spider-Man whose knowledge of the story, including Peter Parker's background, is so much greater than my own. Trust me, in the Broadway musical, any scientific interest on Peter's part was so minor it was virtually imperceptible. And since this musical is today's incarnation of the Spider-Man story, I think we need to concern ourselves with what, if anything, it says about attitudes toward science now. I maintain that the evil scientist is such a convenient villain because it plays on a stereotype that is deeply embedded in our society. And it's holding us back from getting us where we need to go to create an innovation economy that will assure that the standard of living we enjoy today will be maintained for future generations of Americans.

Some readers felt that Spider-Man reflects the precarious balance between good and evil in science. Yes, as I said, there is ample evidence in the Nazi experiments, Tuskegee, and the ever-spiraling arms race, to name just a few examples from the past, of the evil uses to which science has been put. Even when intentions are golden, scientific advances often have unintended and unforeseen negative consequences. But I think a good case can be made that the good to which science and engineering have been put far outweighs the bad. But whether or not you accept that, it's undeniable that our future is linked to innovation, and innovation is a direct outgrowth of basic science.

I have a picture on my office wall at NOVA brought to me by producer Doug Hamilton when he returned from shooting our documentary First Flower in China. It shows two Chinese children watching television, and across the screen it says "Love Science." That image is symbolic of a society that sees its future and the future of its children in knowledge and innovation. President Obama recently described this time as a "Sputnik moment" for our own society, but will we rise to the occasion? I may be over-thinking a comic book character brought to the Broadway stage, but attitudes are important. If when we think "scientist" we could think less nerd and evil and more progress, innovation, and wealth, maybe we would be further along the path to an economically sustainable future.

Just some food for thought, along with fervent wishes for a speedy recovery for Christopher Tierney, one of the actors playing Spider-Man, who fell from a platform during a performance on Monday when his safety tether snapped.

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