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PORTSIDE  April 2012, Week 4

PORTSIDE April 2012, Week 4

Subject:

Scientists Not Sexy? That's a Myth.

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Fri, 27 Apr 2012 22:07:34 -0400

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Scientists Not Sexy? That's a Myth.

By Adam Ruben
April 27, 2012
Science magazine
http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2012_04_27/caredit.a1200046

Last week, I learned about the pioneering research of
Dr. Katherine Solomon. The head of her own privately
funded lab within an unused storage pod at the
Smithsonian, Solomon's work in noetic science promises
to make the supernatural tangible. Through her research,
we have learned that shared thoughts can attract
objects, that the soul has measurable mass, and that
humankind holds the ability to awaken its own primal
wisdom and achieve godlike feats. Visiting her lab
requires a creepy, 90-second walk through pitch darkness
that no one has yet discovered how to alleviate because
flashlights apparently do not exist.

Dr. Solomon, of course, is an invention of The Da Vinci
Code author Dan Brown. She plays the role of the
intelligent, driven, slightly flirtatious female
companion to Harvard University symbologist Robert
Langdon in the novel The Lost Symbol. Apparently, Brown
had forgotten that Langdon already had an intelligent,
driven, slightly flirtatious female companion in each of
his two previous novels.

I'm not proud that I read this book. But I live in
Washington, D.C., and The Lost Symbol promised to reveal
all kinds of architectural and Freemasonic tidbits about
my home city, so I figured I'd throw literary caution to
the wind and give it a try. Whether the symbology and
ancient whatnot are valid, I don't know. But wow: The
science was pure bull crap.

I know this is going to happen whenever I read a popular
novel or watch a popular film or TV show. I know the
science will be laughably dubious. I know that this
fact, for me, will overshadow any legitimate merit the
piece has. I know I'll find myself screaming, "YOU
MORONS! HOW CAN YOU LAND A SPACESHIP ON A SPINNING
ASTEROID? HOW CAN YOU SYNTHESIZE AN ANTISERUM IN AN
HOUR? WHY DOESN'T IRON MAN BANG HIS HEAD ON THE INSIDE
OF THE SUIT?"

I don't blame novelists and filmmakers for not
understanding what scientists actually do. After all, I
don't understand what lawyers do, and if I had to make
assumptions based on television, I'd assume they just
yell "Objection!", tap folders on desks to straighten
them into a pile, and say things like, "No further
questions," but say them slyly, indicating that there
really are further questions. Oh, snap!

Still, you'd think they'd at least show their finished
work to a real scientist once, just to check.

ROLAND EMMERICH: If Earth experienced severe weather
patterns, how long would those take to set in?
A SCIENTIST: Years, probably. At least years.
ROLAND EMMERICH: Oh, okay. But years are long. How about
minutes? Yeah, let's go with minutes.

Or:

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: Could trees emit an airborne
neurotoxin and cause everyone to commit suicide?
A SCIENTIST: Uh, I doubt it.
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: I appreciate your candor. Then
again, I also see dead people. Tree-based airborne
neurotoxin it is.

Or:

MICHAEL CRICHTON: What if mosquitoes drank dinosaur
blood before being encased in amber? Would it
theoretically be possible to extract that blood and
clone dinosaurs from the DNA?
A SCIENTIST: No.
MICHAEL CRICHTON: So, yes?

Even worse than the major errors, though, are the
frequent small ones, the little assumptions in popular
culture that belie a misunderstanding of how scientists
operate. For that reason, I'd like to dispel, once and
for all, the following eight myths:

Myth #1: Scientists frequently make "breakthroughs."
Truth: Scientific discovery is agonizingly slow. The
only time I've ever run naked through the streets
yelling "Eureka!" is when I forgot to refill my
prescription.

Myth #2: Scientists work in isolation.
Truth: Scientists are even prouder of setting up
collaborations than they are of actual results. Most
scientific talks end with a slide listing all
collaborators like little badges of honor-and the less
similar the collaborator's field, the prouder the
scientist. "Well, you know, I might have discovered a
cure for tuberculosis," a scientist will say, "but what
I'm really excited about is this new collaboration with
an Icelandic poet!"

Myth #3: Scientists possess useful skills.
Truth: Scientists possess useful laboratory skills. But
you should never allow a physicist to wire your house.

Myth #4: Scientists follow the scientific method as it
was taught in high school: Observation, Question,
Research, Hypothesis, Experiment, Conclusion.
Truth: In reality, the way scientists work is more like:
Fiddle Around, Find Something Weird, Retest It, It
Doesn't Happen a Second Time, Get Distracted Trying to
Make It Happen Again, Go to Chipotle, Recall the
Original Purpose of Your Research, Start Over, Apply for
Funding for a Better Instrument, Publish Some Interim
Fluff, Learn That Someone Has Scooped You, Take Your Lab
in a New Direction, Apply for Funding for the New
Direction, Collaborate With an Icelandic Poet, Eat
Chipotle With an Icelandic Poet, Co-Write Scientifically
Accurate Ode to Walrus, Get Interested in Something
Unrelated, Apply for Funding for Something Unrelated,
Notice That 20 Years Have Passed.

The six-step scientific method reminds me of the
Identify-Predict-Decide-Execute system they taught us in
driver's ed. To spot a hazard while driving, first
identify it: I see a truck! Then predict: That truck is
about to hit my car! Then decide: I should prevent this
outcome! Finally, execute: I'll steer away from the
truck! Like the scientific method, the Identify-Predict-
Decide-Execute system is what results when a bureaucrat
is asked to explain driving to a Martian toddler using
PowerPoint.

Are there actually people who drive using that method?
There used to be, but they were all killed by trucks.

Myth #5: Experiments always yield data that teach or
reveal something.
Truth: Let's say you're doing an experiment with five
mice. These particular mice will turn either yellow or
blue. So you walk into the lab expecting to see five
yellow mice, which will point to one explanation, or
five blue mice, which will point to the other. Instead
you would see one yellow mouse, one green mouse, one
striped mouse, one plaid mouse (dead), and one mouse
that has somehow sewn himself a little blue jacket,
though he doesn't wear it all the time.

Myth #6: A personal tragedy can turn a scientist evil.
Truth: Very few scientists are legitimately evil, though
the number rises if you ask graduate students to
characterize their advisers. Besides, it's hard to be
truly evil when you don't have any practical skills.

Myth #7: A scientist can be proficient in all branches
of science.
Truth: Exactly what discipline did the professor from
Gilligan's Island specialize in? Chemistry? Mechanical
engineering? Coconut-based transistor radio
construction? Any time a problem needed solving or a
device needed building, the professor knew exactly how
to do it. That guy could make anything. Except a boat.
People who don't understand science assume that
scientists can master any subfield. That's why we're
often asked for our opinions about scientific news
items, and we can only reply, "Uh . sorry . I know I'm a
molecular phylogeneticist, and this story was about
molecular phylogenetics, but, well, I'm a different kind
of molecular phylogeneticist."

Myth #8: Scientists are not sexy beasts.
Truth: Scientists are indeed sexy beasts. Not only do
our lab coats make us look dapper and charming, those
same coats look even better strewn unceremoniously over
a standing lamp while we make passionate love to you.

I hope I've dispelled a few myths about scientists.
Before you pick up your next thriller novel, remember
that we're not exactly as we're often portrayed.
Hopefully that will make the novel much less enjoyable.
You're welcome.

Adam Ruben, Ph.D., is a practicing scientist and the
author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go
to Grad School.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
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