Alan Turing and the Five Sigma Theory of Progress

Maybe it’s something in the stout, but what’s up with this burst of biopics about British boffins?

Trundle down to the local cineplex and you can enjoy a brief history of iconic physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” If your stamina is adequate, you can also savor the tormented life of mathematician Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” a compelling film about the efforts to break German codes during the Second World War.

Both men can be rightfully described as geniuses, and therefore by definition are highly exceptional. Stories about exceptional people have always titillated the public, as recognized by writers from Shakespeare to People Magazine.

But Turing and Hawking are scientists, and as stars in movies they’re as uncommon as Swiss admirals. That’s particularly true in America where, with our rough-and-tumble frontier past, we generally prefer the broad-shouldered to the brainy.

So as a researcher myself, I’m naturally pleased to see practitioners of science nailing lead roles in these well-made, popular films. It’s a definite improvement over the time, almost yesterday, when scientists were bumbling accessories to the plot, and invariably unattractive, socially primitive, and obliged to wear white lab coats to every occasion.

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