I was thinking about roles in life for people with autism the other day, and my thoughts turned to The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Lee Cooper.
And I realized a simple thing.
Sheldon is The Man!
More precisely, he's the alpha male of the new age. The Head Honcho, the Big Cheese, A Number 1. All the things I was calling Joss Whedon the other day...
However, he is also pretty hopeless at social intercourse, lacks empathy, and is horribly arrogant about his intellect. In another time, he might have been the villainous Mekon to Eagle comic's heroic Dan Dare; but nowadays he tends to hang around in comic-book stores, receive heartfelt restraining orders from the likes of Stan Lee and Leonard Nimoy, and fail to formulate an effective algorithm for relations with his girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler.
An easy character at whom to laugh.
But let's look at him from another angle. Sheldon Cooper, who, like his friends Leonard, Raj and Howard, displays some very geeky/autistic traits, is a theoretical physicist at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. With thirty-one Nobel laureates to its name as of 2010, Caltech is one of the greatest research universities in the world. The institute's aim is "to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education" and the basic purpose of theoretical physics is (according to Wikipedia) "to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena."
Or in other words, quite literally to work out how the universe works.
Each generation has its own alpha males and there's little doubt that Aspergers would have made pretty poor pioneers in America's era of westward expansion, but today's frontiers are a different matter entirely. Sheldon and his colleagues are working at the cutting edge of science, helping the West maintain its lead in the global knowledge economy and, when they make a discovery (theoretical or actual), potentially altering our relationship with the physical universe around us.
For example, evidence for the possible existence of dark matter (which apparently accounts for most of the mass of the universe and plays a major role in the evolution of galaxies) was first found by astronomers and astrophysicists eighty years ago. A spectrometer on the International Space Station only made what may be the first actual observation of dark matter a day or so ago.
Does dark matter matter?
Well, that's the question to which the answer is uncertain, but research, by its very nature, often provides unexpected replies to unspoken queries. Freeze-dried food, better Goodyear tyres and space blankets were all surprise spin-offs from research into space travel by NASA.
So, to risk a generalization, many of the physicists, scientists and astronomers who are changing our world may be on or near the autistic spectrum. People (like me) who do not necessarily fit in to mainstream society all that well, who might have a liking for comic books (I started out with Superman, flirted with Star Trek and ended up browsing through Buffy...) and who have that slightly obsessive focus on one subject which could lead to the unification of conflicting field theories.
Can we afford to find roles in life for such quirky savants? Even to love them?
A better question might be: can we afford not to?
James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives and works in Glasgow.Suggest a correction