Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Guru Shot

I work with a bunch of big-shot PhD's. We are extremely civilized and sophisticated, although not quite as civilized as humanities PhD's or as high-class as professors. I mean, we conduct ourselves with restraint, we act in accordance with modern concepts of scientific detachment, and we would never be snobby or cliquish. Everyone's standing is based on individual intellectual merit. This is why the greatest scientists have awful haircuts and do not play sports. The lesser among us may indulge in individual sports like tennis or cycling. You proles can amuse yourselves with bowling leagues and baseball.    

So why was it I felt compelled to send a "guru shot" when invited to submit a photo along with a recent journal article I wrote? What possible difference could my physical appearance make in the world of science? Oh, you don't know what a guru shot is? Let me explain.

You've seen the little headshot photos that accompany blogs and Facebook accounts. Most of them are just regular old pictures with whatever background you happened to be standing in front of when the picture was taken. A guru shot is like that, but the photo is very carefully staged to include certain items that have nothing directly to do with science, yet signal I am a scientist. Guru shots aren't limited to actual scientists, though; they can be used by non-scientists who want to look scientific, sort of like that lab coat you see the cosmetics lady at Macy's wearing.

Here are some of the signifying items:

- Facial hair (men only please)
- A big grin. I'm a scientist! What's not to be happy about?
- If you are like me and can't muster a grin, you put on a "deep thought" expression  
- A grayscale photo or better yet some kind of subtle Photoshop effect like pixelation
- Gaze directed away from the viewer
- Lab equipment or some sort of scientific chart behind you
- T-shirt of your alma mater or current university, if it's good enough. MIT or Cal will do nicely.
- The flip side of this is that if you went somewhere pedestrian like I did, you must take extreme care not to accidentally have on your Ohio State sweatshirt. What are you, some kind of football fan?
- An outdoor background involving mountains, ocean or a stream. If you go this route you need to have your brightly colored hiking or cross-country skiing gear on. We scientists love a walk in the woods.
- Other popular background items are: the Golden Gate Bridge (lots of scientists in the Bay Area), a famous beach, and European or East Asian landmarks (which you probably visited while at an international conference.) Tourist destinations are totally unacceptable except for pyramids, and the more steppy and "meso-American" the pyramid, the better. Do not stand in front of the castle at Disney World.

Here are some random guru shots I've collected from the Web. If you see yourself here, I don't mean to pick on you. We all do it.

That's the Golden Gate Bridge back there; you can tell from the color
Grayscale + facial hair
This is the famous computer scientist and fisherman Marvin Minsky

Prof. Gil Chu
Grin and lab bench in background

The more prestigious a person in, the less likely he is to use a guru shot. But when you get to the very upper reaches of science, there tends to be a split, because at that level some people get to be actual celebrities and then they have to really amp up the guru factor. I'm talking about your Carl Sagans and your Neil DeGrasse Tysons

Sagan. To be fair, this is a still from Cosmos.

What's that? You wanted to see my guru shot? This is embarrassing, but here goes. To my relief, although the journal asked for a picture, they did not print this.  

Here's a more restrained one I use when I teach for Embry-Riddle.
In the background that's a little desk statue of a Titan 4A rocket, which I never even actually worked on. 

1 comment:

  1. and I was like "I didn't know Grant worked on the Titan 4a rocket". I have a pen on my desk that says US Secret Service. It's a great conversation piece. I can tell some amazing stories when I'm in the mood.