Thursday, November 10, 2016

So You Want to be a Scientist

I often meet with high school students interested in pursuing a career in physics or a related field. A lot of the advice I give them regarding their high-school course work is obvious. Take the most advanced math classes that your school offers. Take the most advanced physics classes. But one bit of advice regarding high school courses is both surprising and often unwelcome to these students.

And what is that advice?  Take the most advanced and the most rigorous English classes that your school offers. Why? Because the ability to write quickly, lucidly, and logically is one of the most useful skills that a scientist can possess, a fact that's not often appreciated. There are plenty of scientists who reach a roadblock after they've gotten their data -- they find writing to be such a painful process that it takes them forever to write up their results. (Idiom alert:  scientists don't "write down" their results, they write them "up"). One of my former department chairs told me that more scientific careers go down the drain for that reason than for any other. I cordially disliked my high school English classes, a sentiment likely shared by most math and science nerds. But looking back, they were probably the second-most-useful classes I took in high school (the first, of course, was typing).

But even students who hate their high-school English classes can take some encouragement from the built-in advantage they already possess as native speakers of English. This is a huge advantage in science, and one that is often unappreciated by those who have it. In the first part of the 20th century, scientific publication was split between German, English, and French (in that order). But after a couple of unfortunate international incidents, English became the language of science. Only the Russians (until the fall of communism) stubbornly persisted in publishing in their native language, with the unintended consequence that their discoveries were sometimes ignored and then later duplicated in the West. I don't see the dominance of English in scientific publishing ebbing any time soon, although the improvement in computer translation might make it a bit less of a hurdle for nonnative speakers.


Kathy said...

I think you're advice regarding English should of apply to literally all the billions of students whom don't want to pursue careers in science :)

Seriously, as a non-native English speaker, I'm often appalled at what native speakers do to make their language a barrier to communication.

On a related topic, how high would you rate history in importance to scientists, in particular the history of science?

Robert Scherrer said...

We scientists are notoriously ignorant of the history of our own profession. The textbooks (by necessity) always present science as a successful march forward, leaving out all of the mistakes, dead-ends, and wrong pathways that scientists have taken in the past. I am not sure how important it is for scientists to know all of the mistakes of their predecessors. It only takes a few months' involvement in real research to learn that the idealized picture presented in the textbooks bears little relation to reality.

Kathy said...

The chemistry text book I had in junior high school (written by the teacher's husband, BTW),contained plenty of history related to several developments. Later in high school a teacher loved to expound on mistaken old ideas, but mostly to mock them. I, for one, remain convinced Phlogiston was a serious attempt to explain combustion, even if it was hopelessly wrong.

More on point, the anomalies in Mercury's orbit, and the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment, persisted as an irritant on Physics for decades until Einstein managed to explain what the bleeding hell was happening. This reminds me of the current conundrum of dark matter, dark energy, gravity's stubborn refusal to be unified with other forces, and the lack of unexpected results from the LHC.

None of this points the way to a solution or solutions now, but it lets you know such situations have happened before.