Thursday, February 14, 2008

Discovered Science

Not long ago, I sat next to a Business Man on a plane and we started chatting about random things. We went through the basics of what we do and where we do them etc., and he was very surprised to learn that people such as me exist -- that is, that there are scientist-professors who spend their time researching things about the world. He said that he often watches the Discover Channel and that he particularly likes shows about science and scientists, but he said that these shows gave him the impression that all the really major questions have been solved already.

Au contraire, as we say in my francophone research group. I reeled off a list of Big Questions in my field of Science, though I was aware as I was doing so that there were at least 2 possible opposite responses to this list: (1) How fascinating that there are still so many interesting and essential things for Physical Scientists to figure out; or (2) What have you guys been doing for all these years that you haven't figured these things out yet?

His actual response was a bit more ambiguous; something along the lines of "Well, I guess you can't believe everything you see on TV." But then he wanted to know more about my research, and he asked a lot of questions as I explained my work. His interest seemed genuine, and my hope is that I convinced him that Science is interesting and that Scientists still have many important things to discover.

I am actually not much of a travel-chatter, and prefer to work or read on planes. I don't mind doing the occasional Roving Ambassador of Science thing, however, especially if it takes my mind off the fact that I am on a plane, one of my least favorite places to be.*

* incomplete ranked list of some of my least favorite places to be, in order of decreasing preference, for illustration purposes only: faculty meeting, airplane, viper pit

11 comments:

Buffalo Sally said...

Dear FSP, Roving Ambassador-
On a recent plane trip, I conversed with an older female traveler about "all the crap" I have had to go through being a female in physics. At the time I was interviewing for a 2nd postdoc position because I could not tolerate the hostile environment of my 1st postdoc position. I had unbelievable things happen to me during my 1st postdoc position with mostly Asian men. And at the Big Name Private University they deliberately sweep the dirt under the rug about how hostile the environment was for women in science. Anyway, the woman seating next to me and in front of me could not believe that women in science are not encouraged more, and protected more from hostile Asian men and the like. I don't know if I felt better discussing these issues with them, but I did get the message out. As I climb up the ladder, some men become more threaten and it makes the climbing more difficult. Does anyone else have trouble with Asian men in science?

BugDoc said...

Polls done by Research America, a science advocacy group, have shown that ~70% of Americans think research is very important and the the US should be a global leader in scientific research. However, when asked where scientific research takes place, ~26% cited a university of pharmaceutical company but greater than 70% had no idea.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

Some of us just come to science late. I discovered an interest in geology, partly because I moved to a state with huge opportunities for studying this (i.e., not many trees). Now I'm working on a bachelor's degree in geology, one course a semester. I'll be 80 when I'm finished, I think, but I'm enjoying it nonetheless. And another thing -- one of the reasons I never approached science with joy was because I categorized it with math. You know -- "I'm not a science/math person." BUT. I've realized that I AM a science/math person; I just never had a good science or math teacher! What I'm learning is hugely fascinating, and I'm anticipating a third or fourth career once I retire . . .

Rosie Redfield said...

Students commonly share your seat-mate's misconception that all the important science has already been discovered. I tell them science is like the real number line - everything we look at reveals an infinity* of new things we need to find out.

(*Well, maybe not quite an infinity.)

CAE said...

I had a similar experience with a friend of my parents who said that I was the first person she'd ever met who actually "did science". After she got over the hilarity of hearing that I actually did wear a white coat and latex gloves, she got really interested in what I did and said she was going to go and read about it.

I get more chances to be a roving ambassador in Canada than I ever did in the UK, where scientists are seen as "boffins" and a depressing number of people seem to go out of their way to be proudly ignorant about science.

Ms.PhD said...

buffalo sally,

not just Asian men. good for you for getting the word out.

and good for FSP for freeing one more mind, at least a little.

go, roving ambassador, go!

and now i'm off to the viper pit.

amy said...

I get this all the time because I'm in the humanities, and people just don't see how you can do research in a humanities field, but I'm really surprised scientists encounter this. It makes me a little worried about our primary and secondary education system: are we not teaching kids about science as a practice? Are we only teaching them a big bunch of facts that scientists have figured out? What about at the college level? Are people who don't major in science, but who take a few science gen ed courses, getting an accurate picture of what happens in the science world?

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

One of my math major friends in college said that a freshman had asked him, "What's the point in getting a PhD in math? Aren't all the questions figured out?"

I should point out that this was a pretty snooty college. Ignorance is not confined to the business world, unfortunately.

Global Girl said...

To Buffalo Sally: Yeah, I do, on a daily basis. And apparently it's ok by everyone around.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

Here from Mad Hatter - I get this all the time along with the idea that it must be the coolest job ever. And while in some parts that is true I suspect that is based on the same Discovery Channel views, i.e. they think it's all glamour of watching the animal but they don't realize you may spennd two weeks trying to get that view.

usagibrian said...

I think there's a combination of things going on. 1) It seems like many of the "Big Questions" are answered. 2) The Big Questions that remain require a degree of basic understanding beyond the lay person's ability to grasp (or are presented in lay settings as if they are settled when it fact there's still a fair amount of controversy). 3) Related to both, the remaining Big Questions can't be solved in your basement lab. Astronomy may still have the most active "farmer/scientist" community that contributes new information to the field as a whole, but no backyard astronomer has the equipment to, say, detect extra-solar planets.

On an unrelated note, may I say what a pleasure it always is to read the wry humor in your posts? That list of least favorite places will be a great comfort when the memo informs us our academic staff summer teambuilding retreat will be held in a viper pit on a airplane.