I remember getting up early on Sunday mornings to watch The Human Body on PBS. I remember watching blood shoot through vessels on a microscope, bundles of sticks dancing inside cells as they split in two, and sperm swimming furiously. I remember seeing the “Miracle of Life” Nova special and being absolutely mesmerized.
I remember skinning my knee as a small child and asking my Dad how a scab forms. Sitting there, watching him put the band-aid on, I was waiting for a story about the clotting cascade and other interstitial magic. He answered, “The blood dries and you have a scab.” I was incredibly disappointed.
As a kid, I never knew that I wanted to be a doctor. I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to be one, but I knew that I loved science. My family knew it too and encouraged me. I still remember a Thanksgiving dinner when I was waist-high to the adults, walking around, desperately asking everyone if they wanted to know how clouds created lightening or why the sky was blue. I had memorized the explanations from the fantastic book “Ask me Why?” and they were worth more to me than gold. I don’t know if he remembers it, but after watching several of my aunts turn me down with “not now”, my uncle Laurence (MD) indulged me. I always liked him after that.
I don’t remember there being many science role models. There was Donatello (the smart Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon character) and there was Beakman and Bill Nye the Science Guy (the adult cartoon characters). Sure, you could watch them and marvel at the greatness of science, but I never wanted to grow up to be anything like them. And that’s where my father comes in again.
My parents couldn’t agree on which movies were appropriate for me to watch. My father was by far the more lenient and I would sneak into the den to watch rentals with him. My first memory of a such a “sneak peek” was THE FLY. This was my introduction to the greatest film actor alive:
Watching his character was a revelation. Here was an athletic, attractive man doing exciting things with science. He was excited for his experiments and you could see the manic buzz taking him over whenever he tried to explain how the teleportation worked, or about his series of failures that had led to his successes, and it was just so addicting to see someone share in the excitement that has gripped anyone that loves science and marvels at discovery. He was the kindred spirit, the recognition of yourself in someone that you’ve never met that lets you know, truly, that you are not alone.
Jeff Goldblum let me know that it was okay, cool even, to be a nerd.
Thank God that he was typecast. After THE FLY in ’86 came JURASSIC PARK in ’93. Everyone in America saw that film. Everyone saw Dr. Ian Malcolm’s amazement at the advances in recombinant genetics. He anticipated the problems with the park in his manic “yes, yes” style. Even his fear was the fear of awe. Everyone else remembers that movie for the leap forward in CGI. I remember it for Goldblum’s cold, perfect, logic.
Two years later he was the science teacher in POWDER. One of only two people that understood a strange, percocious boy for what he was. For children picked on in school for being different, it was hard not to identify with Powder and to trust Jeff Goldblum. Then in 1997 this nerd, this grown-up science geek, saved the world from total annihilation with the help of Will Smith in INDEPENDENCE DAY. All the weapons on earth were useless without his mind. At this point in his career, Jeff had nailed the neurotic addled scientist and was playing it like a harp.
Maybe you think it’s funny that Jeff Goldblum has been a hero of mine or maybe you think it’s sad. Both, I guess. The power of role models is hard to overstate and I wish there were more around. I’ve grown past Jeff to idolize thinkers like Feynman, writers like Guwande, and men like my father but for those middle years between knowing what I loved and deciding to pursue it, I was lucky to have even one. Jeff was enthusiastic, smart, capable, and admired through all the years that I needed him to be and for that, I am grateful.
Thanks, Jeff, for being there.
John Hammond: All major theme parks have had delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked, nothing.
Ian Malcolm: But, John, if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.
Ian Malcolm: Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
The Lost World.
Ian Malcom: Taking dinosaurs off this island is the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas, and I’m going to be there when you learn that.