Name a living scientist.
If you’re like many people, the first name that came to you was Stephen Hawking. Perhaps Jane Goodall or Neil Tyson. It almost certainly wasn’t May-Britt Moser, a neuroscientist who won the Nobel prize in medicine last year. Or Peter Higgs, Nobel laureate in physics. Or Rajini Rao, research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. Or me.
Therein lies a central problem in the way we view scientists. If you think of a teacher, plumber, or engineer, you likely think of someone you know personally, or at least casually. They are people who live in your neighborhood, send their kids to the same schools your children attend, and shop at your favorite grocery store. But a scientist? They’re some internationally known genius whom you might have seen give a talk once. What’s worse, only 1/3 of Americans can name a living scientist.
It’s not like scientists are particularly rare in the world. In the U.S. alone there are about 200,000 PhDs in the life and physical sciences. Not to mention all the non-doctorate scientists working across the country, or those in the social sciences. If you look up the closest university in your area and check out their science departments, you’ll see lots of scientists live and work in your neighborhood.
Science can be a passion, but it’s also a job. It’s what we do day in and day out, just as teachers teach and plumbers plumb. Outside our jobs we have and raise children, wash dishes, do laundry, and shop for groceries, just like everyone else. We have hobbies and interests beyond our jobs and we worry about getting that promotion, or caring for elderly parents. And like most everyone, we aren’t household names.
So the next time you’re at a sports game or the grocery store, look around. A few of your neighbors are likely to be scientists.