Take a scientist…

Here’s a blog about a topic that has annoyed me for a long time: the portrayal of scientists and science in fiction.

Some background info: I lived and worked with science types for many years. I married one (until he decided to go into IT). I studied science myself. I did my PhD in one of the University of Sydney’s less glamorous faculties (Agriculture), and spent about four years on campus, after which I worked (yes, my job description was research scientist) for Australia’s national research body (CSIRO) in North Queensland. Our project’s area of expertise was pasture ecology – how the botanical composition of rangelands changes under influence of grazing pressure by animals (domesticated and otherwise). I have also seen the workings of various projects at the University of Queensland, James Cook University (Townsville campus), the Australian Museum and various other museums and research institutions. I’ve been to scientific conferences, heck, helped organise them.

And it pisses me off when fiction portrays science and scientists in a way that shows that the author doesn’t have a fricking clue what sort of people become scientists, and what their daily work involves.

Let’s debunk some myths:

The scruffy unworldly scientist myth
This cliche says that all scientists are somehow careless about their own appearance, detached from the world and a little weird. Yeah, right. Go into an average tea room at any university science department, and you’ll see: 1. people of all ages, 2. people of all races, 3. men and women, 4. few, if any, ‘mad scientist’ types. Honestly, these days working in science involves interacting with lots of people to obtain funding. You can’t do that if you have too much hair growing out of your ears, or if you’re dressing in a 1970’s brown corduroy suit. Go and pull the other one.

The lab
All scientists work in a lab, right?
Actually, they don’t. I hardly ever did, since most of our work was outside, a lot of it fairly physical. Some lines of work do involve labs, sure, but…
Few scientists spend most of their days doing hands-on groundwork. By the time you can call yourself a research scientist, especially if you’re really successful, you’ll be spending your time communicating (going to conferences, giving lectures), writing up papers, meeting with potential funding bodies and the like. Most senior scientists regret having to leave the hands-on work behind, but it’s a necessity. It is their function to provide their project with money, kudos, people, and interesting opportunities. A scientist is not single unit. He/She has a team, sometimes shared between two or more scientists. The team are young university-educated assistants (with degrees in various subjects like lab techniques, computer techniques etc), as well as technicians (who do the organising and a lot of the physical work). A scientist often has students to his/her disposal. These can be undergraduate, postgraduate (Masters or PhD), or postdoc. In other words: a research scientist DOESN’T do lab work, and certainly doesn’t do any work alone.

Aha, but then the scientist must be rich
Yeah, and my name is Santa Claus.
Science is very poorly paid. OK, a leading research scientist has a decent salary, and can afford to live in a decent suburb and have a new car, but being in science is a labour of love, and will never make you rich. Moreover, the type of person who chooses to be a scientist is not someone who is ostentatious in wealth. It’s a gross generalisation of course, but you’ll find most scientists fall within these parameters: unassuming, neat, even-tempered, ‘sensible’. They also tend to be non-smoking and non-religious.

So every time I read about a chain-smoking scientist who talks like James Bond, has one-night stands and drives a Ferrari, or the scruffy type who does all his work in his secret lab, I just cringe. It’s painfully obvious that this author has no idea what a scientist does. So now please excuse me while I fling this book across the room…


8 comments on “Take a scientist…

  1. Hehehe. Speaking as someone who also has a science background (cognitive psychology and then AI and HCI R&D) I completely agree with what you’re saying here. I used to work a lot in collaboration with people in various universities and there actually were some scruffy people about – especially at Cambridge for some reason – but they were no more scruffy than some of the people I know who work in IT.

    The one scientist I met, who almost did fit the stereotype, was the brilliant and influential Karen Spärck Jones, Emeritus Professor of Computing and Information at the University of Cambridge when I knew her. Sadly she died a couple of years ago.

  2. *gasp* – you mean Rufus Sewell’s character in Eleventh Hour isn’t drawn from life??

    I grew up with a doctor dad and ex-nurse mum, and have the same reaction to cliche portrayals of medicos and medicine in fiction. I bet cops and lawyers (and their kids) have the same reaction.

    The only scientist I’ve ever written was a thoroughly bad lot, but only because of his politics, not his science. And nary a lab-coat in sight!

    • The only time we ever wore lab coats was when going into the seminar room, where our organisation was trying to prove that yes, it is wholly possible to recreate an arctic climate in the tropics. Oh. You’re saying they did this just so that the labcoat-wearing scientist cliche could be upheld to the eye of the seminar attendants who came from outside? Geez.

    • LOL. No, him going into IT meant that we could buy where we wanted to when we came to Sydney (remember that bit about scientists and money?)

  3. Another thing they don’t do is talk only in words of five or more syllables. Using stilted and formal phrasing.

    Sure, “some” do that. But mostly, they’re just regular folks who talk about their kids, drink beer, and like music.

    • That is also a very good point. In fact, the best scientists are those who can make a six-year-old understand what their work is about, because they have the best grasp on the overall impact, direction and function of their research. Be wary of scientists who hide their imperfections behind impenetrable language.

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