by Shane L. Larson
To my colleagues in professional science:
There has been a tremendous and acerbic backlash over the last week against a current popular practice of K-12 students emailing professional scientists with a list of questions they would like the scientists to comment on. I too have received these emails, and I have to very clearly state (in case you haven’t already been in one of these debates with me) that I have an unpopular view on this issue: I vehemently reject the view that we cannot respond to these emails. It is part of our professional obligation to society to respond to these notes.
In the spirit of intellectual debate, which is the purported hallmark of our discipline, let me recount some of the many aspects of the arguments that have been swirling around.
The Scenario. Emails will sail into our inboxes from (usually) middle-school science students, that asks the scientist if they could answer a series of questions. Here is a typical one that made its way into my inbox.
These emails are often clearly part of a classroom activity assigned by a teacher. There are those of us who diligently respond to as many of these as we can; we share them among our colleagues when we can’t get to them ourselves. But many of my colleagues simply don’t see the point in engaging scientists this way; they feel like they cannot or do not have the ability to respond to these requests. Which is where the debate begins to swirl.
(*) They can just look this up on Wikipedia! Perhaps. But even a casual inspection of science pages on Wikipedia will reveal that it has become an increasingly difficult resource to use, particularly for non-scientists. Wikipedians have taken the viewpoint that entries on the site should contain all the information one could traditionally find in a book. Many entries, especially those related to science, have wide ranging and rambling connections from all branches of science and more often than not divert into mathematical rambling. One earnest sixth grader asked me “Can you explain what a black hole is?” I would say the Wikipedia page on black holes is decidedly NOT for a sixth grader!
(*) These are thoughtless stream of consciousness questions about topics that they just picked out of a hat. They didn’t put any thought into these. Perhaps in some cases that is true. But it is understandable — we’re talking about middle-schoolers. For example, almost everyone has heard of black holes, but very few know enough to ask better questions than “what are they really?” But a carefully constructed answer from you can (and will) spark deeper interest, and can (and will) provide a better foundation for the next time they have a chance to ask a scientist a question — perhaps in class, perhaps in a public lecture, perhaps as part of an organized interface activity (like Adopt A Physicist).
(*) They should learn to read and process information from online and print sources; it’s a necessary skill. That’s right, it is and they should. But they are perhaps 12 years old, and you are saying that from the far end of a PhD in modern science. Learning to read and process information, and more importantly learning how to find reliable sources of information, is something I spend time teaching my undergraduates and my graduate students. It is not as easy as you make it sound when you speak from behind your PhD. I’m sure if you talked to their teachers, you would find that they are doing activities to practice learning the skill you so ardently insist they must learn. But when you are a K-12 student, it is hard to exercise whatever mastery you have of that skill to glean something important about the modern frontiers of science.
(*) I don’t have time to respond to all the requests I get. Does responding to a lot of emails from students and random members of the public take time? Of course it does. Just like answering your own students. Just like answering your collaborators. Just like answering your department chair or dean. Just like doing research. Just like writing grant proposals. We all have tremendous pressure on our time; that is a fact of life and simply the state that modern science finds itself in. And the truth is that we all spend time on what we value and prioritize; if you don’t value something, then you don’t do it or you don’t spend time on it. If you do value something, you make room for it and devalue something else — it all boils down to priorities and the calculus of not being able to do everything. If you aren’t doing something because it takes too much of your time to do it, you have to be willing to say, “this isn’t important enough for me to spend my time doing. I have other things that I think are more important.”
I get a handful of these requests, but not so many that I can’t answer them; far fewer than I get from my own students, to be perfectly honest. If I do get too many, I share them among colleagues. Given that our lives as scientists are dedicated to solving the hardest problems known to our species, I find it hard to believe that someone inundated by an unanswerably large number of these requests cannot figure out a way to get responses to these students.
(*) I don’t see the pedagogical value of having students email a scientist. Students shouldn’t have answers hand fed to them. It is NOT for you to decide what is pedagogically useful, it is for the teacher who made the assignment. They have their own learning goals and their own objectives for everything they assign their students, just like you do in your own classroom. It is NOT for you to judge what they do in their classroom any more than it is for me to judge what you do in your classroom.
You should take one of the sets of questions you get, and try to find the answers on your own. Try not to view webpages and books through the lens of your professional degrees; if you find that hard, ask your own kids or a neighbors kids to evaluate a resource you think is useful. I think you will be surprised — while there is much good science out there for people to find, there is a lot of not so good explanations as well. The signal to noise ratio is very low; you and I have been explicitly trained to work through that.
But the most important reason for me to respond to a student inquiry is they will get something different in a response from me and you than they can get from any book. Perspective, experience, personal reflection — the human side of science, the personal side of science, an illustration of what I think is important as a scientist, the history and heroes that I think are important that aren’t always described in books.
When I answered the questions above, what did I add that couldn’t be had elsewhere?
How long does it take to produce a star? Sure, you can look up the collapse time for a molecular cloud to stars, but I also talked about the scope of the question, pointing out that one could have also thought about the previous generations of stars that made the material that is needed to create a star system like ours.
Do stars have color? I made sure in my answer that the student heard the names Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
Do I believe in life elsewhere? An opportunity to talk about a personal belief, and where that interfaces with research science on the topic — a chance to illustrate the all too human part of science. I also pointed at one of the finest explorations of the question I have ever seen — Peter Mulvey’s song, “Vlad, the Astrophysicist” (YouTube video here); the intersection of science and society at its finest.
In the end, I think it boils down to this: we like to make loud noises about the current state of public understanding of science, but tucking our heads down is part of the reason the world is in the state it is in. It may have been okay 40 years ago to keep your attention narrowly focused on research; but 40 years ago the Cold War and the military-industrial complex allowed science to enjoy unprecedented support in the form of funding and societal tolerance. That is not the world today; science is regularly challenged and questioned, in society and in the halls of government, much to the detriment of our civilization and the future of our planet.
But all is not lost. There is tremendous interest on the part of students and the public about science, in large part because of the very prominent and inspiring successes of our experiments that society has invested in: LIGO, the LHC, the Hubble Space Telescope, and many, many others. A few of our august bunch are very prominent in the public eye: Brian Cox, Lisa Randall, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Before them there was Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, and (still!) David Attenborough. They have set a fire in the minds of your neighbors and in the minds of every science teacher on the planet who are now trying to light that same fire in the minds of their students. They will do their best to light an ember, but only you and I can fan the flames. There is something unique and special about communicating directly with someone who has seen the Cosmos through the eyes of the Hale Telescope, or someone who has stood over the arm of LIGO, or watched a vista of Mars slowly unfold as Curiosity sends us a picture from over the next rise.
Out of an entire class of 7th graders, will you move and inspire all of them to a life of science? Of course not, and you don’t need to. But many of them will remember later in life that they once talked to a scientist who took time out of their schedule to respond to them. And a few will be inspired.
In one of the many dilapidated boxes that my mother has carefully preserved is a bundle of letters I received in my childhood. One is a letter I received in 7th grade from an astronomer (physicist?) at the University of British Columbia, who took time to write a paper letter in response to an earnest inquiry from a young boy who wanted to know what it took to become an astronomer. I have another letter (undoubtedly a form letter?) from someone at NASA in 1986, assuring a worried and spiritually crushed young boy that NASA would, eventually, return to space in the wake of the Challenger disaster. These are paper responses, with stamps and envelopes and everything; not even as easy as an email.
These were scientists who made the time in their busy schedules to respond to a inquiry from a student, and in the end I think it made all the difference in the world.