Sunday, December 04, 2005

Skin deep

You see her pretty face everywhere recently. Harvard physicist Lisa Randall is no doubt a very bright physicist. Her specialty is multidimensional string theory -- high-powered stuff. But I'm guessing it's Randall's good looks that attract the media. After all, there's a bunch of other string theorists out there who don't get nearly as much attention.

Back in 1997, University of Chicago dinosaur expert Paul Sereno and MIT computer scientist Pattie Maes were included in People magazine's special issue on "The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, 1997," right up there with Leonardo di Caprio, Brad Pitt and the Spice Girls. In an interview with the journal Science, Sereno said he felt "very tentative" about cooperating with People magazine, but that he hoped "it does science a modicum of good."

Oh, it did, it did, I'm sure. Lisa Randall also gives science a bit of a shine.

When I wrote a Globe column on this topic in 1997, I included People-style profiles of four other hot scientists. Herewith, a reprise of those mini bios:

-- Gavin Studley is not your typical number-cruncher. "I guess most people expect a mathematician to have Coke-bottle glasses and a pocket-protector full of pens," say Studley, 34. "But I just try to be myself."

Which is pretty terrific. Studley has the sun-kissed good looks of a Baywatch lifeguard. He is also the world's leading expert on hyper-dimensional Riemannian topology and a tenured professor at Cal Tech. He begins his day at 6 a.m. with a 15-mile run in the San Bernardino Mountains, then works out at Gold's Gym until time for his 1 o'clock lecture.

"Feeling confident about my body turns on my creative juices in mathematics," says Studley. What's the secret of his traffic-stopping hunkdom? "I eat organic, drink lots of milk and orange juice, and I know a terrific little shop on Rodeo Drive that sells marvelous skin-care products for men."

The 6-foot-2 prof has no scarcity of female admirers, but right now there's no special person in his life. "I'm working on a knotty problem in multivariate complex manifolds," says Gavin. "I can't think of anything that could be more fun than that."

-- "My mom always wanted me to be a cheerleader," says Yale University entomologist Jennifer Lovely. "But I wanted to be in the Science Club. I used to sneak away from cheerleading practice to do my biology homework."

Lovely's determination paid off. She is the youngest person ever to get tenure in the Biology Department at Yale. "I guess you would call me an early developer," says Lovely, 24. Her striking figure is the talk of the campus, and her classes are generally oversubscribed. "There seems to be a lot of interest in entomology," says the self-effacing professor.

Lovely eschews make-up. "When you're sorting bugs in the lab all day you don't have time to worry about your looks," she says. "I wash four times a day with baby lotion, that's it." Did her good looks help her career? The blonde, blue-eyed, mini-skirted professor scoffs at the idea. "In science, everything depends on your data," she asserts confidently.

-- "I want to be respected for more than my mind," says Brookhaven nuclear physicist Tracee deLectable, 37, who is hot on the trail of the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called "God-particle" that holds the key to unifying the laws of physics. But you're as likely as not to find her pumping iron at the fitness center. "When I was in high school, all the smart boys liked me because I helped them with their homework," she recalls. "God, how I envied the girls who were asked out by football players."

When deLectable sets her mind to something, she usually gets it, and when she decided to do something about her looks -- well, ask her boyfriend Jeff, who says, "When we go clubbing, the other guys can't believe she's a nuclear physicist, they think she's a starlet or something." What is it like to be with someone who's headed for a Nobel Prize. "Gee, I never think about that," says Jeff. "As far as I'm concerned, Tracee is just one hot babe."

And that's just the way she wants it. "Brains can only take you so far," says deLectable wistfully.

-- Archeologist Daryl Dashing laughingly recalls the time his looks caused a traffic accident. "I was working on a dig on the site of a new bank building in Mexico City. A couple of girls drove by in a Jeep and started whistling. They lost control of the Jeep and smashed into our equipment van."

Dashing's work takes him to some pretty exotic places, where he spends lots of time in the sun with his shirt off. "I know it's not fashionable for a scientist to say this, but I like looking good," says the 29-year-old fender-bender. He tries to do 1,000 push ups every week, whether he's in the field or back in his shard-filled office at UCLA.

"I was prepared to dislike Daryl because he is so good looking," muses coworker Irma Booker, "but he won me over with his wonderfully intuitive feel for the dig. And, let's face it, he looks great with sweat glistening on his pecs."

"Sure, I pay attention to my looks," says Dashing. "In my line of work, two things are important -- a good shovel and a good moisturizer." The six-foot Harrison Ford look-alike thinks of himself as a role model: "I hope kids realize you don't have to be a geek to be a scientist."

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.