A Rant Among Friends

by Shane L. Larson


When you grow up and get a job, there is inevitably a Saturday night when you are talking on the phone with your mom, or enjoying a glass of Chianti with your date, and you have to answer The Question: “So what exactly is your job?” Then you fumble around for a few minutes trying to explain actuarial tables, or managing the supply line for a 7-11, or what a Toyota service manager actually does. Most careers are not reducible to a simple, one sentence sound bite understandable to relatives or members of the opposite sex. Almost certainly every job has different parts and pieces, each of which are worthy of their own sound bite!  If you love your job, then you want it sound exciting and sexy; you want your sound bite to be a sales pitch that might convince someone else to join your profession.

What's in the Fear Closet?

What’s in the Fear Closet?

As scientists, in particular scientists who are also university professors, my colleagues and I spend a lot of brain power thinking about this last part — how do you make sure people adopt science as a profession? I’m not yet besectacled and grey; my hair hasn’t yet gone the way of Big Al Einstein’s, so maybe I don’t yet have the wisdom (cynicism?) of my more elderly colleagues.  But late at night, when the world is slumbering and my grading is done, I like to open the Fear Closet in the back of my mind. Very seldom are Mike and Sully there to greet me; instead I usually find a big elephant that we scientists like to ignore: we often suck at making our profession appealing to anyone. Furthermore, we have an idealized model of who makes a good scientist that, like an unrealisticly proportioned Barbie doll, is not a good approximation of any person (or scientist) I know. The fears in the Closet all add up to one inescapable possibility: that like the dinosaurs of yore, who never became intelligent enough to save their race from impending doom, scientists could become extinct.

I'm a bit worried about the radio astronomers...

I’m a bit worried about the radio astronomers...

Now I don’t think that is a realistic fear; there are always going to be scientists.  But the landscape of our modern civilization is such that if scientists don’t evolve, we will become relegated to the backwaters of our society, currently occupied by mimes, disco, and Elvis impersonators.

This door of the Fear Closet has been open a lot lately, because scientists have an annoying habit of thinking they know everything, which means we (the scientists) think we know how to make other people love and revere science. I’ve been staring into the Closet with this in mind, and thinking back to my high school consumer affairs class where I was taught the Very Important Lesson: customers have all the power, because they have the choice to spend their money on your product or not.  If the consumers hate your product, they won’t buy it, and your business will fold. If the way you do business becomes obsolete, you won’t have any customers, and again your business will fold. Do you still have a Blockbuster down the street from your house? How about any product from Kodak? Maybe you still watch the XFL?  No? These ventures all failed to respond to the external demands placed on them by their consumer base; they failed to evolve.

Some notable examples of failing to evolve in response to customer needs and desires. Recognize any of these?

Some notable examples of failing to evolve in response to customer needs and desires. Recognize any of these?

This must be true in science too — if people don’t like the way we present and promote and sell science, they will ignore us.  An interesting case study on this point is a very pointed article a colleague of mine linked to the other day, written by Maura Charette (an eighth grader!), reflecting on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers (link to article).

Ms. Charette’s essay is brilliant, and as STEM professionals we should take many of her points to heart. I don’t disagree with anything she says.  But in the interest of inciting discussion, why don’t I summarize what I took away from the article (for future reference, when examining the contents of the Fear Closet):

(0) Ms. Charette writes, “while we hear science and math careers are fun, interesting, and well-paying, the actual scientists and engineers who visit our schools seem very one-dimensional.”  Despite the ascendance of geekdom into the mainstream of popular culture, scientists still maintain a stranglehold on being the opposite of cool; we are the George MacFly’s of the geeks. Not to say that there aren’t superstars among us — the public adores Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. People like Brian Greene and Lisa Randall are at least commonly known names in some circles.  But the vast majority of us exude the exact opposite of what we want to inspire — excitement and fun.  We are, as Ms. Charette so aptly observes, one dimensional. Now it is not possible, nor desireable, for all of us to become great public personalities. But what we must stop doing is discouraging, disdaining, and ostracizing our colleagues who are good at this. Elitism abounds in science; we place far more value (as a group) on the trappings of science — research, discovery, appearing smart — than we do on the interfaces with science — teaching, writing, communicating. Many of those who act in the interface roles are not afforded the same encouragement or respect as those who act in the “popular” roles (this is in fact, a common occurrence in all academic fields, particularly at universities).  Communicating our science to the society that funds (and tolerates) us is as noble a cause as any bench science you care to name, and as it turns out, just as important.

(1) Let’s be blunt — we don’t make science exciting. If I may be a bit bold and exhibit one of the annoying traits of adults, let me rephrase Ms. Charette’s message in my own words (a classic classroom exercise!): scientists suck. Particularly at teaching.  Not all of us; many of us are great teachers (my colleagues at Weber State University Physics come to mind).  But all too often what we teach lacks the fire, the passion, the core of what drew every one of us into the field.

How we teach adversely affects opinions about our craft. We need to consider perspectives that draw people into what we want them to know...

How we teach adversely affects opinions about our craft. We need to consider perspectives that draw people into what we want them to know…

Why did YOU get into science?  I got into science because black holes are freakin’ AWESOME (and pretty much every 9 year old on the planet agrees with me). When I lay awake at night, staring at the patterns of light on my bedroom ceiling and thinking about black holes, I don’t push tensors around in my head and think about geodesic deviation and metric functions. I think about black holes tearing stars apart; I think of black holes lying in wait at the bottom of the galactic core, waiting to suck up unsuspecting stars and gas clouds.  These are the things to talk to people about and to teach about.  The technical matters are important — no doubt about it — but what people need is that deep seated sense of wonder about the world around them that makes them lay awake at night pondering how high grasshoppers jump compared to their body length, and why the Great Lakes don’t have huge tides like the ocean, and how long it will take the Rocky Mountains to wear down into sad little nubbins like the Appalachians.  You and I stay in science for those reasons, for the wonder of it. We’ve learned the technical tools, and we use them to illuminate the world and make our understanding more remarkable and enjoyable.  But we didn’t come to science because of the technical stuff.  Teach to the passions that draw people.

(2) Scientists place an over-emphasis on good grades. One of the most disturbing things (to me) that Ms. Charette wrote is this: “to pursue and succeed in those one-dimensional jobs, you have to study very hard and get good grades in the most difficult subjects.”  As near as I can tell, someone in eighth grade is already considering giving up on science because of grades.  Getting good grades is the conventional folklore, which scientists loudly advocate, and it makes me want to puke at night worrying about how many kids we drive away from science because of it.  Does having good grades help be a good STEM professional? Of course it does, but it is no substitute for hard work and a good work ethic.  Some of the people I know with the most flawless report cards in math and science SUCK at being a STEM professional!  Why? Because they are good at doing homework, finding out the “right” answer using well known conventional thinking.  But they completely lack any creativity, imagination, intuition, or ability to make brilliant leaps of logic that are so crucial to making important advances in science.

(2.5) Just to prove you don’t need good grades to be a successful scientist, let me bare my soul to the flames of the Internet. I got a C in thermal physics as an undergraduate.  I took Calculus II twice (on purpose) because I didn’t understand it the first time; the second time I decided I wasn’t meant to understand integration by parts and moved on (and I still can’t recognize when to do it). I got a LOT of B’s (and at least one C), and only a handful of A’s in graduate physics.  After my first year of graduate school, the department head in Physics called me into his office and told me I didn’t have a future in science, and I should drop out and go do something else with my life.  To encourage me to see the world his way, he didn’t provide any summer support for me (but did for the rest of my classmates). I ignored him, of course. That summer I went out and found another job and met two of the great scientific mentors in my life (Dr. Kimberly Obbink, and Dr. Gerry Wheeler). I finished my courses, and I completed my Ph.D. without difficulty. In the years since, I like to think that I’ve been a reasonably successful scientist by most of the measures of my professional community.  I had postdocs at some of the best institutions in the world (JPL, Caltech, and Penn State); I’m a tenured professor; I have 50 some-odd publications; I’ve successfully acquired multiple federal grants to support my students and my research; I was “Professor of the Year” one year.  CLEARLY he was right; you have to have perfect grades to be a good scientist. WTF was I thinking?!

My fort!

My fort!

(3) Lastly, let’s review the title of Ms. Charette’s essay: “Is a Career in STEM Really for Me?” Really?  Have we stooped to the point where 8th graders have to be cognizant and concerned with their careers?  In 8th grade I was 13; I didn’t enter graduate school until I was 21 and I didn’t get my PhD until I was 29.  When I was 13, I wanted to be an astronaut, not a relativistic gravitational astrophysicist. When I was that age, I didn’t worry about careers yet; I was BUILDING FORTS!  If you look at my fort, it is clear that there was some STEM in there — obviously some math, as well as some attempts at engineering. 🙂  I was doing “STEMy” kinds of things (as were both my brothers — one is now a diesel mechanic, the other a crop scientist — both STEM professionals).  We know that middle school years are the years where kids lose interest in science, but making them think about STEM careers is NOT the way to keep them engaged!  Neither are marshmallows and straws.  Kids are smart, intelligent, and capable. They live in a world filled with modern marvels that are commonplace to them: smartphones, streaming digital media, microwave popcorn. We need to field science that is engaging enough to compete in that marketplace and we need to do it sooner rather than later (just ask Blockbuster and Kodak how easy it was to catch up…).

Me and Xeno.

Me and Xeno.

So what to do about all of this?  My mother taught me that one cannot simply complain about the world without offering solutions. Be a problem solver, not a trouble maker. Yes, Ma; I remember.  I’m just not sure what to do about it yet; I promise to work on this.

My therapist (Xeno) says ranting is not good for my blood pressure, so I’ll stop now.  But if you have any great ideas, by all means let me buy you a beer and a pizza so we can figure out what to do next!


2 responses to “A Rant Among Friends

  1. Dr. Larson,

    I’m sure you won’t remember me, but I am a former student of yours (I took Physics 2220 and Astronomy from you at Utah State). I have been following your blog for some time. I have to tell you, that if there’s anyone who knew how to make science fun, appealing, and exciting, it was you–and I know a lot of people in your classes felt the same way to one degree or another. I didn’t need the Astronomy credit, but I took your class just because I had enjoyed Phys 2220 so much. Now I’m just about to graduate with a degree in Technology and Engineering Education, and believe me, I’ve been trying to remember all the things you did to make learning and doing STEMy kinds of things exciting and attainable so that I can apply them in my own classroom next year. I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head here…I just hope I can do some things to help in my own small way. If I can be half the teacher you were, I’ll count it as a huge success. Thanks for your example!

    Joe Furse

  2. Shane,

    Contact me so we can talk about what we’re doing at “Ready Set Go” at Northwestern. You can visit the website here: http://rsg.northwestern.edu/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s