Lessons for a Young Scientist

Martin Rees:

I sometimes worry that many who would enjoy a scientific career are put off by a narrow and outdated conception of what’s involved. The word “scientist” still conjures up an unworldly image of an Einstein lookalike (male and elderly) or else a youthful geek. There’s still too little racial and gender diversity among scientists. But there’s a huge variety in the intellectual and social styles of work the sciences involve. They require speculative theorists, lone experimenters, ecologists gaining data in the field, and quasi-industrial teams working on giant particle accelerators or big space projects.

Scientists are widely believed to think in a special way—to follow what’s called the “scientific method.” It would be truer to say scientists follow the same rational style of reasoning as lawyers or detectives in categorizing phenomena, forming hypotheses, and testing evidence. A related and damaging misperception is the mindset that supposes that there’s something elite about the quality of scientists’ thought and they have to be especially clever. Academic ability is one facet of the far wider concept of intellectual ability—possessed in equal measure by the best journalists, lawyers, engineers, and politicians.