There is a 20,000-strong group on Facebook called We're scientists AND we're sexy, which describes itself thus: it is possible to have brains and beauty. Its discussion topics are various: chat-up lines ("We fit together like the sticky ends of recombinant DNA" and "I wish I was DNA helicase so I could unzip your genes"), inspiring quotes from colleagues (sadly only one post there) and looks versus brains.
The last ranges through discussions such as how being intelligent is good enough, therefore scientists don't need to be attractive too, and how scientists spend too much time alone in the lab so fail to develop sophisticated social skills, with much talk about how this is all in flux owing to the pressure of having to "schmooze and butter up" potential sources of financial support. "We have to become more business-like and sell, sell, sell our ideas as well as ourselves," one poster declares. "We are fronting a revolution, people. It's natural that we would become more attractive in the process ... It's not brains vs looks anymore, it's both!!!"
And it does seem that the changing nature of higher education is driving a change in behaviour. As universities move from being predominantly public-sector enterprises and are forced into the commercial world, different rules apply. A study of the legal profession in the US, catchily titled Beauty, Productivity and Discrimination: Lawyers' Looks and Lucre, found that attorneys in the private sector were more attractive on average than those in the public sector. And those better-looking lawyers were charging higher rates, not just billing more hours. When one considers that private-sector lawyers have to tout for business unlike those in the public sector - ie, they are providing a service and their clients determine the rates - there are some signs of things to come for academics.
So if you thought that you were going to throw on any old thing for that 9am lecture, think again: students apparently expect you to be smartly dressed and to have taken care over your appearance, says sociologist Catherine Hakim in our cover story. Those jeans and T-shirts you are so fond of? Sorry, they have to go, because they can be perceived as "insulting to a lecture audience". They say: "I couldn't be bothered to dress for you lot."
Dr Hakim's theory of erotic capital, which seems to have attracted more interest than the national debt, says that investing time and effort in your appearance and social skills pays dividends, even for academics. "It is not frivolous or superficial," she insists, pointing out that her theory has received widespread acceptance as the missing asset in the personal capital triumvirate: human, social and now erotic.
It is easy to dismiss the theory as vacuous, as style over substance, and having no place in the academy, but are academics really any different from other people? They are as susceptible to charm and charisma as anyone and are, of course, constantly seduced by ideas. They are happy to list their research grants, reel off their publications and flaunt their intellect, so why not their attractiveness? It is but one of a human arsenal of weapons. And if they find society resistant to their charms, they can take advice from that porcine intellectual stunner Miss Piggy, who says: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye."