Monday, May 14, 2007


Except for those of us who got hooked early, I think science is a tough sell. There's little money, and the job market is flat (despite years of hearing about shortages of scientists), and there's almost no way the hours one puts in will pay off financially. That's the bad economic news.

Science is hard work, plenty of it boring, in relative obscurity, with a fair amount of isolation. So there is a social downside.

And if you are looking to 'change the world', being an activist or lawyer is going to look like a more direct route. Science is knowledge production, and one has damned little control about how or if it is used. So the impact of a single scientist is going to be limited.

Scientific superstars have a supporting cast that does the work and get none of the glory. So science has a sort of serfdom feel to it. (Worse, there is some sort of quasi-monastic bullshit that surrounds science, that makes people act like the serfs ought to be grateful for their squalor.)

And yet...

It's awesome, captivating, enchanting and mesmerizing. I still can't believe that I am paid to do this, even if paid poorly relative to others who have put in similar time in academia. It was worth the years in school, and the postdoc, and the realization that, in my general field, I could have gotten a BS in chemical engineering and gotten both more money and more respect. But I wouldn't have the ability and freedom to really find things out. In my opinion, there is nothing better.


At Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

How early would you say is early enough? I'll admit that I HATED science classes until chemistry in high school.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Blogger David Eaton said...

High school is early enough, sure. I was enamored of science, while still hating a lot of 'science' classes, much earlier than high school. But a friend of mine that I work with never considered being a chemist until college.

He was always logical, motivated to understand things, and tenacious. The person I think that science "loses" might be someone like you, who has the chops to do it, but can't see its appeal because of deficiencies in the way it is presented. And there are quite motivated and bright people that just don't know that the world is orderly outside that order imposed by people.

I'm reminded of young woman I tutored in grad school. Very accomplished, probably headed into a career in law or something. A sorority type, a child of privilege, someone who had figured out how to navigate and manipulate the human landscape to go places and, importantly, to get things done. She asked me, in all earnestness, "So, do we believe in atoms?"

I suppressed a snort, and the desire to vent. Instead, I patiently probed what she knew, and set out to ascertain why she would ask such a thing. Before it was over, I realized that some otherwise intelligent people do not have the first idea what constitutes a good reason for believing something to be true.

Sure, she was wronged by a system that did not alert her to basic physical facts. But more viscerally, she and lots of people don't understand what constitutes evidence, or reasoning, nor do that get how knowledge of the world is produced.

If this same young woman went on to be a lawyer or CEO or what the hell ever, but went with an appreciation of how to sort the world in a reasonable (if not strictly scientific way) then I think society would benefit hugely from whatever she did as whatever she becomes. Without it, she will just add noise and confusion to the system.

So I think we should evangelize to harvest the gems (like yourself) so that they are not lost to some part of the scientific process, but we should also strive to engage those who will damn well never be scientists, to help them understand how stuff works. It's like vaccination- it costs time and money, but everyone benefits for the suppression of contagion. The contagion in this case being ignorance.

To re-answer your question, I wouldn't give up on people even after high school, but I would begin the preachin' early. Elementary school or sooner.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

It was just the classes I hated, though. Outside of school, I was an astronomy/entomology/particle physics/etc. nerd, but I never thought of my outside interests as particularly scientific. Something that still sticks out in my mind, especially considering my current research, is the fifth-grade science project I did on crystal growth (and the associated low grade). Granted, crystal engineering is more voodoo than anything else, but... It's not difficult to hate a subject when it's presented badly. (I hope my elementary school science teacher is retired.)

At Friday, May 18, 2007, Blogger SubitoPanda said...

"But a friend of mine that I work with never considered being a chemist until college."

And for some, they never will learn until they go to college, much as we try. I don't think I would ever have discovered my love for biology and chemistry if not for the labs I took. I'll never forget how fascinating it was, using PCR on my own DNA, running it through gel electrophoresis, and checking for a specific gene.
But as awe-inspiring as that was, if it hadn't been coupled with the staggering sense that chemistry suddenly made -- how everything somehow fit together and could be explained...well, I would probably be miserable, and stuck in the liberal arts department.

At Friday, May 18, 2007, Blogger David Eaton said...


I think that the scientific outreach has to continue into college. Making a big emotional impact through labs is not a bad way.

I came to chemistry via physics. My undergrad experience with Gen Chem was that it was so soul-killing and boring that I abandoned chemistry on the spot, though I had loved it in high school. When I changed direction, it was by taking pchem and organic. So much snapped into place, and it immediately colored everything I saw. I never looked back.

I wonder- you say that chemistry made sense, and in a staggering way- was this in Gen Chem, or later?

At Saturday, May 19, 2007, Blogger Wanderer said...

Glad to see someone write it out clearly!

That feel of serfdom, lack of ample recognition sometimes seems scary if you're about to invest your life to scientific pursuit. One does (at least I do) question as to what is the end reward of it all...

And the last paragraph from your post puts it in perspective of its worthiness. Thanks for sharing this!

p.s. - perhaps we could also do with some more money and recognition for scientists, in addition to the creative satisfaction of the work :)


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