Sunday, May 22, 2011

Science Heroes

Back in January, I attended a NSF Science Communication workshop entitled "Becoming the Messenger," hosted by Chris Mooney and Joe Schreiber. Very early on in the first morning session, Chris Mooney stated that most people could not name a scientist. Were they to describe one, they would speak of an older white man in a lab coat, probably with crazy hair. Very few, if any, would list a scientist as one of their heroes. This got me to thinking about my science heroes.
I really didn't have one when I was little. Albert Einstein and Issac Newton weren't names I knew. Even if I had, I don't think I could have really related to them. They both have vastly different experiences from me. My first science hero came into my life as I was finishing my master's degree. Everyone kept telling me how wonderful the books Simon Winchester wrote about earth science were. I picked up "The Map that Changed the World" quite randomly as a reading choice. I am not going to tell you I thought the writing in the book was amazing. It was an arduous book to read for pleasure. I was, however, captivated by the story of William Smith who was a surveyor for many coal companies. He went around and meticulously cataloged the rock types and fossil distributions of rock formations above and below coal seams. Eventually, he began to connect the dots and realize that the bodies were laterally contiguous, leading to his construction of the first geologic map. Here was this humble guy who did what many scientists of his era could not, because he was interested, detail oriented and tenacious. His map was stolen and published by someone else, ahead of  Smith's own publication. This ruined him financially and he was sent to debtor's prison. While the geological society later rectified their mistake, he spent a lot of years being looked down upon because of his background. He was unflinching in adversity that would have made most of us quit. This trait, coupled with his humble beginnings, is why he was my first science hero.
My more recent science hero was brought into my living room via, of all things, The Colbert Report. I watch this show in large measure because I am fascinated by Colbert's interviewing technique. You have to be on your toes to stand up against that man and get your message across. One night, he announced his guest would be Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist. I admit, I sat there fully expecting to watch an old, crazy-haired white guy get sliced and diced by Colbert. Imagine my surprise when not only was this not a crazy old white guy, but he also gave a really good interview and got his message across. Then, as so often happens, I forgot all about it until I saw him on the Colbert Report again and I became a fan, despite his Ivy League education. You can tell from his interviews that he is incredibly bright and very well educated, but he also has heart. He cares about people as well as science. That's important to me, because I am very interested in helping people engage in science.
Now that I have told you about my science heroes, it's time for me to ask, who are yours? Did they come into your life early and encourage you to be a scientist? Or did they come later and provide critical encouragement when you needed it, to help you stay on the science path when you feel like you've hit the wall? Is it incumbent upon us as scientists to become science heroes? What are the risks associated with doing that?

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