The Making of a Scientist 10/6/19

Opinion by Richard Bleil

A friend of mine asked an interesting question. Why is it that “organic” cream tends to be darker (slightly brown, like cream colored paint), whereas “normal” cream is stark white? Well, I don’t know. All I can think is either something is removed during the processing of “normal” cream, or it is bleached. But then she did an odd thing. She apologized for asking the question, and said that her mind is always wondering odd things but she just doesn’t ask them.

Why in the WORLD would she feel the need to apologize for that? That is the mark of an inquisitive mind, which means her mind is active, and curious, and it’s honestly a beautiful thing. It’s also the first steps of the Scientific Method, that is, making an observation and formulating a question. I told her such, and suggested that she has the mind of a scientist. Then she said another odd thing; she said, “maybe, in another life, I would have been.”

And who is to say that she’s not a scientist in THIS life?

Let’s talk about what makes a scientist. First, is it education? No. If you want to make MONEY in the education field, then you probably need a science degree. But having a science degree no more makes you a scientist than having a nursing degree makes you a nurse if you don’t use it. After my bachelor’s degree (in chemistry) but before graduate school, I went to work for a company in Cincinnati that performed analytical testing on environmental samples, and many of us had our degrees in chemistry. Sitting with my similarly educated colleagues at lunch one day, I brought up an article I had read in the American Chemical Society newsletter about some scientific advancement that I found curious, wanting to know their thoughts on the subject. What I was told was, “when I’m on break, I don’t want to think about it.”

Were they scientists? They had the degree, but not the passion, not the curiosity, not the active imagination. They were technicians, regardless of what their degree was in. A goodly deal of the actual chemistry work was done at the lab by “technicians”, who were high school graduates with no degree at all (they did the “wet chemistry”; they followed a protocol to extract out the items we were searching for and cleaning it up, so all we “chemists” had to do was inject the samples into a machine and read the results). I enjoyed talking with these two. They had a lot of questions about the protocol, samples, implications and so forth. These two high school students were more scientists than my “colleagues” would ever be.

So, what makes a scientist? Is it working in labs? No. Once I started teaching, I never was affiliated with a “prestigious” institution, so I never had access to the overly expensive “scientific journals” needed to get actual publications, so I more or less stopped my “scholarly” work, and stopped publishing in those journals that brings respect to a scientist. Instead, I just taught. I wrote for the general public (things like test-prep books). Nothing really “notorious”. So am I not a scientist? I don’t publish. I don’t get grants. So maybe I’m not a scientist.

The interesting thing about science is that anybody can do it. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of “amateur” ornithologists, astronomers, horticulturalists, entomologists, and more. Most of them never get published, but then again, neither do I. Are their contributions somehow less worthy? Are they less of a scientist because they are labeled “amateur”? Oh hell no. These are legitimate scientists, they are “eyes on the ground”, they are the ones making observations, doing field work, and making discoveries even if only for themselves, friends and family. They are loving the questions, the observations, and every bit the scientist as anybody else.

It is worth observing that the earliest scientists never even had an opportunity for advanced training. They started with simple observations, and questions. This thread of untrained scientists continued throughout history. Even during the “golden age” of science, where huge name scientists like Dalton, Lavoisier, Boyle and the likes, the untrained scientists were doing the work. Sure, these names were the ones getting the credit and the glory, but for the most part they were wealthy aristocrats, who often employed the scientists doing the work and simply taking the credit for what their employees discovered. No, it doesn’t take training; it takes a curious mind.

So, to my friend and everybody out there with inquisitive minds, all I can say is “Science on, my fellow explorers; science on!”

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