Many Roads to Science

We’ve collected enough data in our What Got You Interested in Science? poll to draw some conclusions. Not very firm conclusions, of course, as the whole process was wildly non-scientific, and there’s no reason to expect that the respondents were a representative sample in any sense. (The numbers were not bad; the smallest category, “the internet,” received 62 votes so far.) But conclusions, nonetheless!

And the main conclusion is: there are many different things that get young proto-scientists interested in the field. Books, both non-fiction and fiction, play an important role, but no one thing really stands out.


That’s interesting, and not really what I would have expected. Given that there certainly are many things that could get someone interested in science, I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was a dominant source for the pipeline, but instead it’s quite a diverse porfolio.

If we think getting people interested in science is a good thing, the lesson is: there aren’t any magic bullets. A broad-based strategy seems appropriate. Interesting books, educational classes, encouraging relatives, engrossing hobbies and school activities, inspiring movies and TV shows. I approve.

  1. I think the basic principle of attraction is simply early exposure to some aspect of science which captures the person’s interest. I think the people who then became “scientists” are the people for whom that exposure continued and was increased.

  2. I definitely credit Arthur C. Clarke for sparking my interest in science. 2001, Rendezvous With Rama and Songs Of Distant Earth were what eventually led me to pick up Brian Greene’s books and decide, after leaving high school, to learn math/physics in college. So, from my point of view, the results make perfect sense!

  3. Speaking of Arthur C. Clarke…I latched onto a copy of one of his earlier works; “Childhood’s End” and was competely taken by it…in the final chapter, the children took their planet with them- wow! I don’t really regard 2001 as one of Clarkes best works. When asked about “2001” Clarke frankly said that nothing should be read into his work and that he would not interpret it, even though as we all know, there are many profound scientific ideas built into the story.

    Star Trek, “The Next Generation” was really well done…very thought provoking…

  4. I still think that relatives/friends category is underrepresented. It’s like you said, that people remember what they want to remember. So they remember reading Arthur C. Clarke. But they don’t remember Mom or Dad or a friend interesting them in sci fi books. Or even more basically; having access to the media people remember that got them interested. So it can be Mom&Dad, a friend, good teachers, a good school, a good neighborhood library. But important to consider it’s an atmosphere and opportunities that not everyone necessarily sees (and I don’t just mean poor or disadvantaged kids don’t see, i mean in many communities, even well off ones, these things are not present).

  5. I wonder whether books might be over-represented among a sample of blog readers, given that some of us are inveterate readers of everything.

  6. I think an important category was hidden in the box titled “Other”: Natural Childhood Curiosity.

    Instead of books, tv, internet, school activities, and people to tell me about science, my childhood was spent in the desert southwest, observing it for myself. I remember spotting satellites zip across the night sky, and noticing how much the moon moves from one night to the next. I watched a solar eclipse with my head in a pinhole box. I swirled mercury from a broken thermometer in my hand, caught paper on fire with a magnifying lens, and placed soda cans in the freezer to watch them explode. I ran around in socks to build up charge in my finger so I could shock my sister, and tried to figure out how tv antennas were getting pictures from the sky. I watched the Sandia mountains turn purple at sunset, a large fireball zip across the sky, and distant clouds gather into storms. I spent hours looking for four-leaf clover in the grass, collecting cottonwood leaf beetles, and coming across tarantulas and rattle snakes out in the mountains. I watched the Blue Angels jets defy gravity. I located ancient Indian etchings on rock walls and walked high mesa lava flows. I hounded my home ec teacher to explain why we had to cook differently at high altitude. In my teens, I helped my father (who was a scientist) replace the engine in my ’69 mustang.

    I’m was also a girl, who played with Barbie and sometimes wore dresses. What lead me to the sciences (with degrees in astrophysics and mathematics) was that I did not have a lot to distract me from my natural curiosity.

  7. Carl Sagan and a librarian did it for me. I grew up on a small farm and after my parents got divorced, my mother started taking night classes. She took me to to the junior college one night and had me wait in the library. While I was there the librarian sat me down and put on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos video tapes. After that night, my horizons were broadened to the universe.

  8. There must be some mistake… something is missing from the graph. Acommodationists are constantly telling us that religion historically gave birth to science, therefore there ought to be a non-negligible set of people who were led to science by religion, right? I guess it must be covered under “other.”

  9. Your survey has no controls! Just because people think that reading books got them into science doesn’t mean that it did. Perhaps they read science books because they were interested in science, and are now confounding cause and effect.

    God, I’m beginning to sound like my reviewers. 🙂

  10. Teachers seem disappointingly underrepresented in the poll, no?

    I’m with commenter Martin; how about a poll on “What got you disillusioned with science?”

  11. I feel like an opportunity was missed with the mouse over text not reading sci-pie.
    Definitely a wide range of things that got me interested in science and have kept in love with it all for so long.

  12. For those of us who are color challenged: please include a table along with the next pretty pie chart some of us can’t see well enough to interpret.

  13. Don’t forget the synesthetes who see numbers as colors or colors as numbers. You have them all confused.

  14. I think Sleeth really nailed it. I think all of these things (books, movies, friends, mentors, etc) make for great catalysts, but somewhere in there (for some) exists a natural curiosity to these things.

    Frankly some kids grow up wanting to know all about “lizards and stars and magnets and chemicals and aircraft and, and, and…” and some kids just want to be a baseball player or ballerina.

    I bet, though, that there are a lot of potential scientists out there who are collecting bugs and watching the stars, but don’t know that such a passion can become a really great thing. How do we get the most effective catalysts to the right kids?

    Stand Alone Simple: don’t forget that this poll allowed multiple choices. While I had an amazing teacher at one point who directed me to some of my favorite physics and chemistry books, he was not the first or last in a long struggle to keep in to it. Does not make him any less relevant to the result, but it’s hard to point to any defining epiphany growing up.

  15. Regarding Sleeth and Spiv posts:

    My childhood experience would have been very different had science initially come to me secondhand. While Hubble and multiwavelength images of the Milky Way continually awe me and enhance my thirst for understanding, none compare to my experience of seeing the Milky Way from the top of a houseboat on Lake Powell (Utah) during new moon. It is one thing to see images of the Andromeda Galaxy, but another to go outside in the middle of winter and look up over your head and find it with just a pair of binoculars, and then realize how large it is across our sky.

    While important tools, my concern is that tv, computers, books, lectures, etc can sometimes be distractions that distance the youngest minds from learning how to observe the world directly, and to think and inquire on their own.

    On March 16th, 2009 Mark Trodden posted the following comment:

    “…However, I am more nervous giving talks to amateur astronomers than to any other group. This is because, for a cosmologist, I know remarkably little about astronomy…”

    I have found this statement true of many professional scientists. Perhaps to instill interest in future generations, we ourselves may need to counter “Heads Down Astronomy” (pouring through data, writing code) with an occasional bit of “Heads Up Astronomy.” We can show students all the wonderful research going into understanding Sgr A, but maybe we should invest time in taking them, and ourselves, outside on a summer evening to look for the spout of the “teapot” hovering over the southern horizon and say, “right there is the center of our galaxy.”