I went to college with one of the world's sexiest scientists. To be specific, he's the world's 28th sexiest scientist. I say that objectively, because last month, Business Insider officially named their top 50 "Sexiest Scientists Alive,"  and my former classmate John Dabiri was ranked 28th. (I can only assume that I was ranked 51st. No other explanation makes sense.)
Dabiri is currently a professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. I've always heard him described as a brilliant scientist, and I recall reading an article about his 2010 MacArthur "genius grant," but until the Business Insider piece, I had never contemplated his sexiness. I swear.
What a weird idea for an article, I thought, as I scrolled through pictures of sexy professors, sexy postdocs, sexy grad students, sexy TED-talkers, and sexy founders of sexy tech startups. But it evidently struck a chord with the clicking public because the page has been viewed more than 3 million times in less than a month. Either the world likes to see pictures of sexy scientists, or a small number of people about whom we should worry like to see pictures of sexy scientists repeatedly. (This is, granted, an improvement over the pre-Internet days, when you'd have to stash issues of Scientific American under your mattress and then lamely explain to your mother that you only read it for the articles.)
As you may have noticed, I used the word "sexy" twice in my article title, guaranteeing 6 million page views. To improve beyond that, I'd have to call it, "Sexy, Sexy Scientists Doing the Harlem Shake With CUTE PUPPIES OMG While Distributing Freeware."
Turn-ons: Funding, confirmed hypotheses, free doughnuts, long walks on the beach during which we identify and catalog nautiloid cephalopods
Turn-offs: Smoking, lack of hygiene, abundance of hygiene, Lamarckism, Nature
Dream date: I know we said 8:00, and I started something in the lab that was supposed to finish by then, but it's taking longer than I thought it would. No, I don't know when I'll be able to leave. No, I can't even guess. Can't you just get started without me? I don't know, order some mozzarella sticks or something. No, it's different than the last few times this has happened. Come on, I've explained this before. I can’t just "leave at 5:00" like all of your friends' spouses. I told you, I'll be there when the 25 ml of liquid in this conical tube says I can be there!
Most embarrassing moment: The entirety of graduate school
Looking for: Someone with whom to recapitulate phylogeny
I asked Dabiri what he thought about being the 28th sexiest scientist alive. (And thank goodness "alive" was one of the criteria, because no one wants to compete against sexy Enrico Fermi—or any sexy dead organism, such as the various genera of sexy Oligocene Megalonychidae.) "I was flattered, of course," Dabiri said, "but since I'm not a regular reader of Business Insider, I figured that would be the last I'd hear about it. I was wrong about that!"
As the article grew in popularity, Dabiri's friends teased him about his ranking, and random passersby would congratulate him on campus. He laughed it off, but he started to feel uneasy on behalf of some of his fellow awardees. "I do think it would be more difficult if I was more junior (i.e., untenured) and/or female," he said. "I think the authors probably didn't realize that they'd strike a nerve among academics, but given the well-known gender equity issues in most fields, the article was probably not a good idea."
If the online comments are any indication, the article actually struck two similar but strangely incompatible nerves—first, implying that sexiness is not a quality typically associated with scientists, and second, diminishing the 50 scientists' research by giving them 3-million-click fame for their sexiness and not their intellect.
Science is hardly the first profession to include a sexy subset. Sexy firefighters pose for calendars, sexy librarians dance on card catalogs, sexy teachers keep you after school, sexy nurses give sponge baths, sexy construction workers sweat, and sexy proctologists are brought before displeased boards of ethics. (Some professions seem to be inherently immune to sexiness, which is why you never hear about sexy opticians, sexy decoupage instructors, or sexy grief counselors.)
I've had the darnedest time figuring out how to feel about the Business Insider article. Showing sexy scientists humanizes us in an important way—it says, hey, we're just like you firefighters; we just happen to know the name of every erogenous nerve with which we get our groove. But it also highlights the wrong aspect of our careers. "Ultimately," Dabiri agrees, "I think any scientist would prefer to be on a list of the smartest or most creative scientists than the sexiest."
So how do you make your research sexier? Glad you asked! Cosmo-style, here are seven simple ways to sex up your science:
Many scientists would probably like to see the Business Insider article buried in the dustbin of online history, where it would join pets.com, ASCII porn, and Internet Explorer. But we can't dismiss the notion of sexy science so easily, perhaps because we do strive for sexiness, albeit in a more broadly defined way. We talk about sexy papers, sexy grant proposals, and sexy experiments. In this context, "sexy" means "appealing by virtue of uniting popular or unlikely research strategies," but the effect is the same. As the adage says, sex sells. (Or, if used to vend half a dozen unhealthy gametocytes, sex sells six sick sex cells. See, this is what happens when you try to write after reading Fox in Socks repeatedly to a 2-year-old for a week straight.)
We do sexy things all the time. We make slick seminar presentations, rope in far-flung collaborators for the sake of sounding exciting, get all zippy and glitzy with graphics, and assign our savviest undergrad the task of modernizing the lab Web page. ("Hey, Brayden, put some more HTMLs up there.") We want to work on something so fascinating or important, even by nonscientific standards, that it crosses the barrier into Sexyland.
We do these things, in many cases, against our intuition that the beauty lies in the science itself, not in the sexy presentation. When the sexiness becomes the focus—and when 3 million people click on the sexiness, but our latest article in the Journal of NoOneCares will probably be read five times over the next decade—we curse the absurdity, the necessity, and the absurdity of the necessity to make our science sexy.
And that, I think, is why Dabiri and his 49 sexy co-awardees need not worry about this accolade destroying their careers. In a sense, they've accomplished what we all hope to accomplish: They've investigated some fascinating science while happening to appear physically attractive. Whether or not the article was ultimately detrimental, millions of people have now read brief descriptions of their fascinating work while "sex sex sex" pounded in their brains. That has to help.
Remember that the next time a scantily clad Swede knocks on your door and says, "Congratulations! I'm from the Nobel Prize Committee. And I hear you've been very naughty."