September 28, 2010
The scientists we feature in Smithsonian magazine are sometimes perplexed about why we’ve included details about their personal lives. It’s the science that matters, they say, so why would anyone care about their art collection or television-director father? Bob Hazen, the mineralogist at the heart of our October story on the origins of life, had a similar reaction when he found out that the writer, Helen Fields, had included details about his weekend home and collecting habits. The answer to his “why” is found in the issue’s editor’s note:
Fields says the stories she most likes to report are about how science actually gets done—“how it works and the people who do it. I think science often seems like these grand ideas are handed down from on high,” she says. “But they come from people with dogs and kids and interests.”
That isn’t a surprise to anyone who has a scientist for a friend or relative. If all there was to a person was their research, lunch conversations would get boring and repetitive pretty fast. But if you don’t know a scientist personally, it might be easy to buy into the stereotype of the man in the white lab coat holding a brightly colored, bubbling test tube or flask (which is nothing more than dry ice in colored water, but it makes for a nice TV image) spouting research findings in dry, jargon-filled language.
It doesn’t take much, though, to show that stereotype is just a stereotype. (Sure, some scientists wear lab coats, but those bubbly, bright liquids are a rare find in the real world of science.) For example, after a group of seventh graders visited Fermilab, their drawings of scientists changed from being mostly white men in lab coats and glasses to a diverse group of men and women wearing regular clothes. And the PBS science show NOVA has been running a web series, “The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers,” in which you can learn about scientists’ hidden passions, like rock music and Native American dance.
Science can be so interesting/perplexing/thrilling/(insert your own adjective) that the people doing the research sometimes become nothing more than background noise in a complex world. But the researchers behind the science are important and interesting parts of the story, too. And learning more about them can help to demystify science and get more people interested in it. That’s something we all should want.
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