by Shane L. Larson
In many idle moments, the Walter Mitty complex deep in my brain takes over and I imagine my other lives. My other lives where I sit in the center chair as the thrumming pulse of the warp engines almost imperceptibly penetrates every panel on the bridge. My other lives where all my physics know-how is useful for something, like emerging from the zombie apocalypse and helping a rag-tag band of survivors rebuild some semblance of civilization. My other lives where I wear a cape and spend my waking hours saving the Earth from alien galaxies from beyond space. I think that I am not alone, a fact that is amplified by the propensity of television escapism and blockbuster action films.
The desire to be more than we are reflects a profound reality about the human psyche: we are more than we imagine. Not in the pseudo-heroic ways of television and movies, but in the deepest ways. Humans are defined by the depth of our curiosity, and by our ability to imagine what the secrets of the world are and discover the truth of our musings. The power of these two traits is awesome and disquieting — with this power we can change the world, for better or for worse; we can be heroes or villains.
The most conspicuous example of our elusive innermost nature is an altogether human invention — science. In all the Mittyesque moments of my daydreams, it is always the scientist that prevails and is responsible for the ultimate security of the world. This too reflects a profound reality: scientists are heroes, because we can save the world. Imagine any of a myriad of problems, real or imagined, our race and planet might face: a viral pandemic, rising sea levels, low crop yields for our food staples, a rogue comet inbound for central Oklahoma, an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse. Now imagine the means to prevent said disaster — given enough time and resources, the solution can be found by those who practice science and engineering. In even the smallest ways, our everyday lives revolve around science and engineering and technology, a fact that as a society we often forget. Without science, your dairy products would not be pasteurized, you would not be able to Skype with your grandmother in Greece, you wouldn’t have a GPS to play geocaching, your high blood pressure medication would not exist, and there would be no such thing as superglue to mend your daughter’s favorite toy. Scientists are the heroes of the modern age.
But modern scientists have lost sight of this through arrogance, apathy and ineptness. Collectively, academic scientists are trained to focus our intellects on single matters, on narrow specialities that are often only one small part of a much larger scientific discipline. The work is often esoteric and prone to explanation only in terms of jargon that a specialist can understand; far too often we scientists feel it is impossible, or undesirable, or beneath us to explain exactly what it is we are doing and why. Perhaps more importantly, scientists have convinced themselves of their own importance without carrying society along with them. We think we are heroes, but one is often hard-pressed to find a member of the public who agrees. It is not uncommon for a physicist to sit down on a plane, and strike up a conversation with the person in the seat next to them. Those conversations usually go like this:
- CUTE PASSENGER: So what do you do?
- PHYSICIST (swelling with pride): I’m a physicist.
- CUTE PASSENGER: Oh. (makes face like they have just eaten a bug) I hated physics in school. Excuse me, but I’m going to talk to this dentist about root canals.
The exchange above ends quite differently if one says “astronomer” instead of “physicist.” Why? The mere mention of physics should not inspire dread and distaste; it should inspire wonder and awe. The happenstance of sitting next to a practicing physicist should create a nearly uncontrollable urge to ask questions about the world around us. Somewhere along the way, astronomers have had much better public relations than physicists.
Why should this be the way it is? Why do our fellow humans regard scientists with indifference, or worse, contempt? We live in an age where every passing day sees our civilization increasingly coexistent with technology, increasingly dependent on the products of science and scientific research: computers, pharmaceuticals, electricity, hot and cold running water, preserved food, synthetic fabrics and materials, and a million other contact points between science and the lives of modern humans. The devaluation of science is almost inexplicable.
No matter what explanation one gives for the decline of science appreciation in society, there is one brutal truth at the bottom of the barrel: it is a failure of our own making. We the scientists have wrought the current state of affairs, as evidenced by the way the majority of us approach our profession. There is a pervasive attitude that one should not divide one’s time betwixt the all important goal of research and the act of communicating that research with people who aren’t as highly trained in your subfield as you are. We accept with alarming regularity poor performances in teaching and rather than accept the hard and brutal truth that we suck at teaching, we allow ourselves the comforting lie that science is too hard for the vast majority of students. We take talented young students, passionate about communication and science education, and regularly counsel them away from educational activities (“if you’re serious about a career in science, you shouldn’t spend too much time on that stuff”), or counsel them out of science altogether (“they weren’t serious about science in the first place”).
If one were an ecologist studying scientists, one should be puzzled by these self-destructive habits. How can this be? Scientists are people who have advanced degrees, doctorates in quantum chemistry and nano-technology and bioinformatics and imagine themselves to be among the most brilliant minds our civilization has given birth too, and perhaps they are. But if they cannot, in the face of their own marginalization by society, train their minds to be capable of explaining what they are doing and why it is important to their Uncle Leroy or the mail carrier or the greeter at Walmart, then maybe they aren’t as intelligent as they imagine themselves to be.
Yet scientists have the audacity to be surprised that society picked up our fumbled ball and ran with it. Look at the very loud and vocal challenges to established scientific practice in classrooms, in politics, and in medicine. Challenges that stand tall and gain ground not because they have merit or veracity about them, but because we as scientists have become complacent. We are complicit in the slow decline of our society’s understanding of what science is, how science works, how knowledge is obtained, and most importantly, how scientific knowledge evolves. Scientists are our own worst enemies.
But all is not lost. There is some deep kernel of true understanding about science in our society, a deep seated belief that scientists are and can be heroes. This is something that Hollywood often gets right. Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock is a “chemistry super-freak” (by his own admission); James Bond is supported by Q and his vast army of technicians; Beaker and Professor Bunsen are among the most popular of Muppets; Indiana Jones is a mild-mannered (and handsome) archaeology professor by day. And the list goes on.
Part of our job as scientists must be to live up to the dreams and expectations of society that Hollywood is so good at preying upon. Scientists should become less impressed with our own intellectual self-importance, shed the more curmudgeonly aspects of our characters, and embrace the superheroes we can be. Because in the final analysis, it is only we who can save the world. Climate disaster, asteroid impacts, zombie apocalypse… pick your own disaster. It is going to be scientists who work our way out of the mess and set humanity on the trail again. There will be others, of course — we’ll need social workers, mechanics, architects, soldiers, farmers and doctors. We’ll need our governments to bring resources to bear and our spiritual leaders for moral support. But the people who understand what is going on, who can model and predict the likely outcomes of the future, and create ways out of the Disaster of Colossal Proportions, will be scientists.
One of the greatest superheroes of all time is Batman, and it is no small wonder — he is an ordinary dude, with SCIENCE as his weapon. Ditto for Tony Stark. Do scientists have the chutzpah to live up to the reputation of the heroic scientists from the comics? Do we as scientists have the courage to put on the cape, to take off our tunnel vision glasses and stand up for the future of the human species? The world’s problems are not getting smaller, nor are they going away. It’s time for scientists to stand up and recognize that our jobs are more than our computers and our beakers. It’s time to take responsibility for educating our neighbors, teaching our children. It’s time to fight through the bureaucracy and ignorance and apathy that threaten to reduce human civilization to a minor footnote in the history of the Cosmos. It’s time to stand up and be someone Walter Mitty would be proud of. It’s time to put on the cape, and be heroes.