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Saturday, March 17, 2018

What is So Special About Being a Scientist?

What is so special about being a scientist?
The answer is – NOTHING!
In this short piece “What does it mean to be smart?” I wrote: “No one is born smart. But EVERYONE is born POTENTIALLY smart. Healthy infants (99 % of population) may have slight deviations in the potential of smartness, but the actual level of being smart mostly depends on one and one thing only – LUCK (when and where one was born, parents, friends, teachers).”
When people ask me what I do and I say that I teach physics, they often say something like “You are probably very smart”, and I say “I just got lucky”.
There is a general public perception that to become a scientist one has to be born a scientist.
This perception is absolutely wrong.
Our skills and knowledge is the result of our training. Our training is the result of the culture we grew up in. There are no Mowglis. If baby Einstein was left in jungles and raised by monkeys he would become a monkey - a very smart one, but still a monkey. 
Human Albert Einstein was smart - no doubts about that. But what made him stand out from the crowd was not his technical skills - in fact, for several fundamental research papers he used help with doing math.  What made him stand out from the crowd was his infinite curiosity and unparalleled imagination (two qualities which contemporary scientific world  - which looks today much more like an industrial complex than a hundred years ago - values much less than advanced technical skills, e.g. "How much of the NSF fundamental research in education is really fundamental?").
The majority of scientist I have met during the last 20-ish years have been born in a nice family, surrounded by nice culture, attended nice schools with nice teachers, and as the result, had a good background for attending a college. They did not struggle, they did not have to overcome challenges, they just were following the road which had led them straight to where they are now.
Doing science requires one skill, the same skill which is required for digging trenches – consistency. Even with a small spoon one can dig a large tunnel, if the one is patient enough to do it for a long time.
Someone might ask, why then so many students struggle when taking science courses?
Middle and high school students struggle due to only one reason – they have a bad science teacher (bad luck). College and university students may struggle because they don’t have sufficient background (because they didn’t have good science teachers), or the teaching faculty is not good at teaching.
Both problems (the quality of school education and the quality of college education) are solvable. Unfortunately, too many officials formally responsible for solving those problems spend too much time on speaking about solving those problems and too little time on actually solving them (e.g. “Education reform needs a new paradigm”; “Three myths of higher education”).
Ninety nine percent of scientists are no different from people from any other professions – all they do is "walk their path" - professional path, and as long as they move their legs they propel themselves ahead – like everybody else. BTW: like everybody else, scientists can be very sloppy, and they usually don’t know much beyond their professional area (which often rather narrow, "one-dimensional", the result of a long-time "boring" in the same direction), hence often they do very stupid things or make stupid suggestions. However, because they are considered to be smart, they rarely accept the fact that they may be stupid, too.
An interesting fact: everything what is said about scientists is also true for about 99 % of businessman. Examples are numerous. Even so-called "college dropouts" like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg first had to get good school education, good enough to get in a top-notch university, and then drop out from it. The story of Chris Gardner is so unique, that Will Smith made a movie about him.

As a case study of becoming a scientist I want to tell about my path. My generic letter of interest I used when applying for jobs shows that the only reason I am where I am, is that I was always moving myself.

This short video describes essentials of teaching science. And some of the posts from this page, like 

provide a clear description of what does it mean "to think as a scientist".

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