Take Me Out
to the
Nano Lab

5 May 2013

Baseball logo from The Simpsons. 20th Century Fox
Baseball logo from The Simpsons.

When most people think of a scientist they usually picture a guy who looks like Einstein in a lab coat. Admittedly that does hit close to home for a some, but for most scientists it’s way off base. It would be just as accurate to imagine that all baseball players look like Hank Aaron in a Yankee’s uniform.

What most people don’t picture when they think of scientists is a sports team, yet the similarities are striking. Most scientists don’t work alone, but rather in research groups. Just like a sports team these groups have their superstars, their solid supporting members, and their rookies. Just as a baseball team competes for prestige and ticket sales, research groups compete for status and research grants.

The analogy also highlights less noble aspects of athletes and scientists. Every sport has its history of less than ideal behavior. Players make mistakes, have bitter rivalries with other players, and some even cheat in ways both small and large. The same is true for science. Einstein was certain the universe wasn’t expanding, and even introduced the cosmological constant to make his equations agree with his assumption. Newton and Leibniz hated each other. Piltown man was a fraud in paleontology that lasted decades.

The human side of science isn’t often revealed to the public, but when it is it can create quite a stir. A case in point is the leak of the climate research emails. Browsing through them you see how scientists talk among themselves, how they trash-talk opponents, and how they try to put themselves in the best light possible when publishing their research. What you don’t see is a massive conspiracy to commit scientific fraud, as some climate skeptics would have you believe. Anyone making such an argument might just as well claim Sammy Sosa’s corked bat proves the outcome of all baseball games is a rigged fraud.

Science, like baseball, is a human endeavor. It has noble wins and ignoble failures. Trash talking and poor behavior does not invalidate the process. Despite our human frailties, science works. So the next time you think about scientists, ditch the lab coats and think of us in your favorite team uniforms. Cheer us when we make discoveries, boo us when we behave badly.

And if you could get us one of those lucrative sneaker deals, that would be awesome.