That Funny Creature, the Scientist

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“Scientist”  invokes a lot of responses:

  • Nerd/Geek
  • Weirdo
  • Really smart
  • Socially awkward
  • I have no idea what they’re talking about…
  • Has lots of funding (from my colleagues on the liberal arts side of campus)
  • Thinks they’re smarter than everyone else
  • Cannot relate to “normal people”

So what is a scientist, really? I offer a few alternative definitions:

  • Someone who never grew out of the toddler-hood “why?” stage of development
  • Has an overdeveloped sense of curiosity, which may get them into trouble someday (apologies to Princess Bride)
  • Highly motivated to figure out how things work, with or without a practical application
  • May have forgotten how to talk without the shorthand of four syllable technical words (yes, it really is easier to use one long word than four short ones…)
  • Her brain may be able to draw the 20 essential amino acids from memory while simultaneously being unable to remember where she left her keys five minutes before 

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Notice that I don’t say anything about “smarts”. That’s because I’m not convinced that unusually high IQ has anything to do with whether or not a person can do science. I think curiosity is more important, as is the ability to deal with failure–a lot. We joke that research is called “re-search” for a reason. Toddlers aren’t bothered by not getting a good answer to their why. They keep asking. Scientists are bothered, but we keep asking anyway, because we kind of can’t help ourselves.

Along with not being about smarts, science isn’t about being able to memorize equations or terms. It’s about seeing a bit of data and imagining what it might mean. It’s about being relentlessly driven about why the data don’t look like what you hypothesized, and what that might mean, until you figure it out. It’s about a love of learning.

I think every kid is a natural scientist. Most grow out of it as they get older. Parents can encourage kids to keep enjoying science by engaging with the (certainly annoying at times) why questions, by encouraging them to keep asking why as they move out of that stage, and by modeling curiosity and enthusiasm for understanding things, rather than just memorizing facts. When I was a kid (before Google), when a question came up at the dinner table, my dad would go grab the encyclopedia, because he just had to know the answer. When we’d butcher farm animals, he’d show us the hearts and explain how they looked different across species. My mom was the same way. As a nurse, if the patient’s vitals looked weird, she had a hypothesis on why. She’d look through the charts and try to see if there was a pattern. She’d make extra calls to understand what was going, and she’d contact the doctor with an informed hypothesis. When she taught us, she encouraged us to understand rather than just memorize, to see the principles at play behind the rules.

So why does this all matter? Well, for one thing, selfishly, I like to not be put in a box or on a pedestal as a scientist. I love having conversations where people tell me about weird stuff and we try to figure it out, or they use me like an encyclopedia–basically, where they treat me like a normal person with some useful skills. Second, it’s sad to see kids stop caring about learning or lose the intrinsic motivation and start merely chasing grades. Teaching to the test or chasing A.P. classes can easily encourage this. Feeding kids’ curiosity may be the antidote to educational burnout. And finally, in a world where there is a rush to judgment about so many things, maybe, just maybe, what we all need is to slow down and ask but why? more often.

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