17 July 2012

Career Day Biographical Notes

I'll be talking with a career day crowd Friday, which reminded me that many of the questions the coordinator offered for the speakers to consider are also relevant to my purposes in the blog. For this note, I'll take up the more biographical side of things.

The only thing I can suggest is universal in scientist biographies is that we all think, and did so from an early age, that the universe is very interesting. Or at least some part of it is. I wasn't very excited about insects when I was young (they're more interesting to me these days, now that I'm ... less young). But a friend who is an entomologist, with particular interest in bees, has always been. It seems common, which saddens me, for kids to be taught not to ask questions, and not to find the universe so interesting, somewhere between, say, 10 and 18 years old. Scientists are ones who never lost that interest. The proverbial childlike sense of wonder about the universe is with us still.

Often that wonder and interest translates to doing a lot of learning. Sometimes we did it in school, and sometimes on our own. Not all of us were interested in school, or got particularly good grades in it when young. If not in school, then many did their learning by a lot of reading on our own (my path) or going out and observing the world (my biologist friend). But there are also scientists who weren't terribly interested in studying or practicing science prior to college; interested in the universe, but not so much or in a way that they'd start watching the bees in their back yard, or reading their way through the library.

My path also included a small telescope, messing around with electronics, taking apart clocks (they were mechanical in those days!), playing and watching baseball, running around, swimming, watching some good TV shows, and watching a lot of bad TV shows. And I read a lot -- some math, science, and history, and a lot of science fiction and mysteries. The telescope was the sort of 'Christmas' telescope that serious amateur astronomers intensely dislike -- poor mount and not very good optics. Worse, I sometimes used it watching through the window (you can hear their wails from here). But ... bad as it was, and my use of it ... it opened a new universe to me. I could see Jupiter's moons, that Saturn was blobby (not good enough to show me rings), and a huge increase in number of craters on the moon. I was practically Galileo!

Through the end of high school, at least, I haven't noticed much difference between the people who eventually became scientists and those became engineers. All the preceding applies to both. Indeed, in high school, I'd decided I was going to be an engineer -- Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (I was going to get both degrees). Conversely, the descriptions above apply to many people I know who never went in to science or engineering. My exchange student son, for instance, went in to business and now works in IT at the Deutscher Bank.

You don't have to be good at math to be good in science. Needs saying. I was, so I do kinds of science that use a lot of math. But not everyone is, and even those who are ok with math don't always like to do it. There are areas of science that don't use much math.

Which brings up the suggestion end of things: Try a lot of different things. Try math, biology, physics, chemistry, meteorology, oceanography, just plain walking through the woods, and watching city pigeons. Make mud pies, run, play sports, learn a musical instrument, learn languages. Do some reading, some observing. Fool around with ideas from my project folder. Make up your own projects and see what happens.

For the parents, do support and encourage your kids in trying things, but don't suspend your parental judgement. The idea of trying lots of different things, without worrying about whether you're good at them, is one my mother applied in raising my sisters and me. It was one of her most brilliant ideas, which I've stolen for my own parenting. But this didn't stop her from steering me away from inventing my own rocket fuel when I (a very clumsy 10 year old) was interested in trying that.

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