People often have preconceptions about almost everyone they meet, and there’s probably no reason why physicists would be any exception to that rule. The people in different professionals are going to attract different stereotypes however, and these stereotypes are going to vary in terms of how harmful they are and in terms of the consequences that they ultimately have on a social level.
When it comes to physicists, the stereotypes certainly aren’t all bad. Many people will automatically make the assumption that the physicists that they’re speaking with are smart, which is a fair assumption. It is arguable as to whether or not this is truly a stereotype, since it often takes above-average intelligence in order to earn a physics degree in the first place. Assuming that physicists are smart may not be so different from assuming that they have physics degrees in the first place.
However, the popular perceptions of physicist do not end there. For one thing, many people tend to be surprised whenever a woman says that she’s a physicist, which is a problem. The number of women in physics and engineering has increased tremendously over the years even though women are still a minority in the field, but the general public still hasn’t caught up to this perception. Many women in physics are constantly having to prove themselves as their abilities are challenged each and every day.
When random people that they meet on the street seem to be doing the exact same thing to them when they simply state the name of their profession, it can be particularly demoralizing. People of colour who work in physics will often get similar reactions, and these reactions can be just as difficult to take for them. It is possible that influential physicists of colour like Neil deGrasse Tyson will make a difference in this regard, but these sorts of negative perceptions can take a long time to die.
The negative assumptions about physicists extended to white male physicists. Physicists are often assumed to be socially awkward individuals, regardless of cultural background or gender. People may give charismatic physicists backhanded compliments, saying that they’re not like all of those ‘other’ physicists, even if the individuals in question don’t actually know any other physicists.
Many people will still feel as if they do, because stereotypes can arm people with a false sense of their own knowledge. Television shows like the Big Bang Theory have only furthered this perception of physicists. Related to this stereotype is the assumption that a lot of the work that physicists do is actually not very practical. In that regard, it is as if some physicists have actually replaced philosophers as the intellectuals that some people hold up for mockery.
It has become more socially acceptable in general to be what was once considered a ‘nerd.’ The term is rarely used derisively anymore, and ‘geek’ culture has become much more mainstream over the years. However, some of the negative perceptions of people who could be described as ‘geeks’ still remain, and they even affect professional people. It is possible that the trend towards the mainstream acceptance of geek culture will continue to help physicists, dismantling the stereotypes associated with their perception. However, the future of physics remains to be seen in more ways than one, as does the future perception of physicists.