Some misconceptions about science, and scientists

Some misconceptions about science, and scientists

One of the surprises gleamed from our years of tutoring high school students is the misconceptions about what a scientist does, the creativity that science requires, and the notion that one must possess an inborn understanding of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity to succeed in even the most basic classes. Admittedly the creativity aspect is not so obvious in high school or the first year or two as an undergraduate science major, because introductory classes can involve the applications of specific formulae and rote textbook learning. If the student learns the material properly, memorization and rote learning should play a minimum role, but the perception remains. And it is not entirely incorrect! Creative ventures often necessitate the mastery of fundamentals that are not necessarily scintillating, and require learning through repetition. And science is not alone in this regard.

Early on I heard a comment that being a scientist is a lot like being an artist. I would agree, but I would take this one step further and add that being a scientist is a lot like being a jazz musician. Both require the study of seemingly stilted and arcane rules that often make no apparent sense but which, once mastered, allow for endless creativity. All jazz musicians initially struggle with the Mixolydian mode, major 13 add 11 #9 chords and 7:4 key signatures. Ultimately though, as challenging as those fundamentals prove, one masters the theory, one learns to play standards, and then one begins composing their own music. This is where the real reward comes in, both in terms of the enjoyment of the process and in terms of the praise they receive from their peers and the audiences that enjoy their compositions. And just like the jazz musician who composes an original score, a scientist too strives for the novel idea. There are peer reviewed research journals for every branch of science; you may have heard of the more prominent ones such as Science, Nature and Cell, and every issue is filled with original, creative ideas and the elegant experiments designed to test those ideas. It is an absolutely creative process, and one that entirely depends on original thought: it just seems that the years of inherently analytical fundamental math and science required to develop that thinking proves attractive only to those who like to memorize, or who like to follow rules, and that answers to scientific questions are always either yes or nor without any gray areas of right or wrong.

(Incidentally, peer reviewed journals are often referred to in the scientific community as “referee journals”, and I remember the first time I heard that term I thought of some dude in a striped shirt blowing a whistle and holding up a hand signal if they encountered some questionable data. Although paper submissions include questionable data all the time, I have never been able to affirm the striped shirt part, though it would be pretty cool if it actually happens).

Another common misperception of science is that even the most fundamental classes require an inherent ability to “see things like a scientist”, and if a student does not have this in some abundance? Forget it, chemistry class is going to be one long year of dreadful misery. According to this line of thought, success in science requires a “science brain” (or its close relative “math brain”) and that such a brain is incompatible with Shakespeare brain, creative writer brain, or 17th century Flemish art historian brain (more about this in a bit). While some students unquestionably take to science more readily than others, everyone eventually CAN master even the most challenging high school science course, which tends to be calculus based physics covering mechanics through electricity and magnetism. In fact, while many won’t agree, most students can probably handle the first couple of years of a college engineering major, which is going to include some notoriously difficult classes. But remember, struggling to understand a lecture, or struggling with a problem set, does not mean someone is somehow inept or incapable. It does not mean someone can’t get it, lacks talent, is stupid, or is “just not a science person”. The fact one struggles with a problem means they are engaged with, and wrestling with, the problem. That is how you learn! Think of it as going to the gym for your brain; you tend to get stronger physically when you pump weights that are harder to lift. We have tutored close to 2000 students over the years, and of that number there were exactly 2 that truly could not master a given class. This does not mean science is going to be their favorite class, but it does mean they can do well, if they study correctly and don’t allow themselves to get discouraged. Incidentally, one contributing factor to a child’s less than stellar performance in a math class is often a parent or parents who themselves are anxious about math. In fact there is some data to back this up; see for example: “Parents’ math anxiety can undermine children’s math achievement”.

So we are saying that science requires a creative brain, and that scientists have to think creatively and originally, and we have used the analogy of scientist as jazz musician. Now let’s take this a step further, and ask if scientists are capable of other forms of creativity outside of the laboratory, or is their creative thinking restricted to the lab bench? One can never make generalities about an entire demographic, but the purpose of what we are doing here is to try and get rid of some stereotypes so let’s look at a few examples. We are all familiar with the band Queen, yes? Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, was a graduate student in astrophysics when he left to, well, become the guitarist for Queen. (He actually went back to finish his PhD in 2007; you can read his thesis here: “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud“). By the way, one of Queen’s absolute best songs is “Year of 39”, written about a group of astronauts who leave Earth and travel at near light speed to a distant planet, only to return a year later to find everyone has aged by decades because of time dilation, while they have only aged a year. It is a song about the “twin paradox”, as predicted by Einstein. And Brian May is hardly alone – consider Benjamin “Tex” Logan, one of the truly great fiddle players of our era, who was a Bell Labs engineer for his day job. Dr. Logan’s work at Bell includes a patent for work that reduced echoes in telephone landlines (remember those?) as well as a mathematical model to convert CT scans into images. As a fiddler, he often backed up Bill Monroe, generally regarded as the “father of bluegrass”. According to Grammy winning bluegrass guitarist Peter Rowan, “Tex always brought raw creative power to every note he played.” Not so nerdy! You might find this link interesting: Bell Labs, Bluegrass, and Dr. B.F. Tex Logan (see starting at 1:12).

Another often repeated theme is that science is a lonely profession, which might damper enthusiasm for some. It is probably safe to say that many if not most high school students have no idea of what they want to major in when they get to college. Some know they want to major in science, but there are those who liked science in high school but don’t want to pursue science in college because they feel they are very social individuals and that science is such a lonely pursuit: hence, science is not for them. Actually, the opposite is true. Once you begin doing research internships as you get towards your junior or senior year in college, you will discover that research labs tend to have a very “communal” feeling to them, which is always fun even if you are not otherwise into that sort of thing. The “solitary worker” at the lab bench is in fact surrounded by a half dozen other solitary workers at the lab bench, and there are labs up and down the hall filled with lots of very smart, interesting people doing the same things that you are. Furthermore, you are absolutely connected to other scientists in your field, all over the world, who you will see at conferences and seminars. And when you get a paper published, you might have someone contact you out of the blue from a lab halfway across the world, and suddenly you have a new colleague you will interact with for years. Science is anything but a lonely pursuit.

Lastly let’s consider a misconception surrounding scientists as teachers; ie those who leave the lab bench behind to teach high school science. First, this is not necessarily because someone was a failure in science. Academic labs are dependent upon grants, and it is tough out there in grant land. Grant funding can dry up, and one does have to make a living. There is also, in any lab you ever encounter, that one person who says “I want to teach” when pressed for their post graduate plans. But in addition, a common stereotype is that someone with a PhD, who might also have done a postdoc in their field, is somehow “too cerebral” to teach high school students. The thinking seems to run along the lines that because you have spent so much time studying one particular area of science, that you no longer can understand how a teenager might struggle with Newton’s Laws. While it is true that one must go back and review such fundamentals after five years of graduate research on Dark Matter, fundamentals are not lost during those long years in the laboratory. Indeed, as you go further in science, you will have a greater wellspring of examples and analogies from which to draw, and as the saying goes, “knowledge never hurts”. This does not imply that those with a bachelor’s degree, who have a calling to teach straight out of college, cannot make terrific high school science teachers, and we all know plenty of them!

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