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The Romance in Science

  1. Aug 18, 2011 #1
    For all of you naturalists: physicists, biologists, geologists, etc (not engineers or applied scientists):
    Has watching or reading iconic documentaries and books by successful scientists such as Greene, Sagan, Feynman, Dawkins, Cox, etc. ever been an inspiration for your career choices?
    How realistic is the impression that the celebrity scientists pondering the mysteries of time, space and evolution seem to project about the beauty, wonder and awe of the the workings of the universe?
    Also can one live a life that caters to these fantasies because its one thing to give your all to something you can work on for the rest of your life because its interesting and its a completely different one to try to grasp the perfect opportunities to fend for your family and daily needs?
    Any experiences, reminiscences, regrets, advice or epiphanies would be welcome.
    PS: I personally wasnt lucky enough to find the opportunities to pursue my romantic dreams w.r.t. a career in science but thats only because I tried to be realistic. Its haunting me though....
    Have any of you been lucky enough to blend your scientific interests with your paycheck?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 18, 2011 #2
    Sure. Patrick Moore, Sagan. Feynman, and Star Trek got me into this game. My real career ambition has always been to be a starship captain.

    That's a hard question.

    The way that I would answer it is that the view from Mount Everest looks really nice. What you don't get when you just have snapshots of Everest is how @#$@#$@# painful it was to get there, and how frustrating it can be if you make it 10,000 feet up and realize that you are on the wrong mountain.

    By the time Sagan presents something, it's already been "figured out" which means that it doesn't give you a good impression of the process of figuring stuff out. On the other hand, for some of us, the pain, frustration, and annoyance of trying to figure out stuff adds to the romance.

    I think I'm doing it. Also I don't think that the two conflict. Something that I've found is that the part of me that does a lot of "deep thinking" about the mysteries of neutrino-electron scattering is also the same part of my brain that does a lot of "deep thinking" about how labor markets work.

  4. Aug 19, 2011 #3
    I might have an odd story. I got a BS in astrophysics maybe 10 years ago. I worked at a research telescope as a service observer and then became an environmental scientist for the county for more money. Hated it, quit and took wad o' cash and traveled, convinced myself I also hated all science due to my (naive) belief in relativism.

    Married, had son.

    Afterwards, realized I needed insane amounts of money again. My brilliant plan? Become a high school physics teacher. It was by far the fastest way for me to get a stable career, just needed a quick 2 year master of arts and could begin teaching immediately on provisional certificate. I figured I'd just suck it up and do it for cash despite hating science.

    Anyways, I took a class on the history and philosophy of science which was required for the masters of arts in teaching that I never took for the astrophysics degree. It totally changed my outlook. I realized I had matured infinitely academically, basically. I found not only strong counters to relativism but a totally new way of looking at science. For example, I had never known Faraday was so driven by a belief in god. I mean, I've always been an atheist and here's one of my most admired scientists from EM and I never knew these other basic details. I had missed a lot just sticking to the facts, there's so much metaphysics in physics. I also read Thomas Kuhn and was punched in the face to the extreme. Shocked, I set out to read counter arguments and so forth...much reading ensued. Since then I've gotten a basic awareness of most of the issues in history and philosophy of science and can comfortably settle on realism again...while respecting the other side.

    I love teaching physics with a concentration on history and philosophy. It feels more honest than the bizzare stereotype propagated by most intro texts. I sort of found out the hard way and I don't want any budding scientists to fall in the same trap I did.

    My ideas concerning the nature of science are the most beautiful things to me. I have enough money. Sure, a bugati veyron would be nice but whatever. So would being a starship captain.

    I never was into the iconic documentaries nor pop-sci books. I was always a star gazer when young. That was where I became alive. Recently though its books by great scientists and commentators on science like Mach, Koyre, Jammer, etc that make me unable to put science down.

    One time a professor asked a group of budding teachers a question: "Would you be sad if you were unable to study your discipline?" Physics in my case. It didn't take long for me to be overwhelmed by emotion considering for the first time the lack of the study of physics.

    Nerdsville, no?
  5. Aug 19, 2011 #4


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    Hey absurdist and welcome to the forums.

    I have seen a few documentaries on things like string theory and black holes and so on. I was interested in it but I realized that while it is interesting mathematically (I am nearly finished a math degree), I have decided to focus on other things because I've found those other things a lot more interesting.

    I don't think its a complete misrepresentation (or at least an intentional one), because these guys (and gals) are really passionate about what they study and they try to project that passion on to the general public, and pretty much any passionate person will do the same thing no matter what the topic at hand.

    In terms of jobs that allow people to do this as a career, there aren't many people that get this luxury. Even if you get to do this, you often have to do all the "boring" stuff like some teaching, competing for research money, and other associated tasks.

    I don't know if "romance" is the right word, but there is plenty of interesting stuff in even basic mathematics and science that isn't as abstract as say string theory. My interests have to do with things involving computer science, mathematics, and statistics purely because I have spent a long time delving into these things. I initially got into programming just to understand how 3D games worked, but one curiosity lead to another curiosity and quite honestly I never would have predicted what interests that would have led to.

    I think that if you really don't care much for all the tedious crap that surrounds the interesting stuff, then its best to try something else where you can handle all the tedious crap in conjunction with the stuff you find interesting.

    Also with regards to science, a lot of what is actual science can be really boring. In science you have to do things like check, double-check and recheck measurements, calibration of instruments, correctness of code for analyzing results, and so on. It's not all about having an Einstein moment. Having said that though, some people don't mind this and can put up with it and look forward to what the data says about some specific hypothesis.

    If you ever want to become a scientist, it's a good idea to think about the reality that you will spend most of your time doing mundane things like checking things many times over, making lots of small changes and doing extensive documentation, and the other things required to really do proper science. I found this out when I did work experience, so after I took up programming I decided to do mathematics.

    Math has the same kind of thing where you have to check very carefully what you are doing, but one advantage is that if a piece of math has a solid proof and is based on good assumptions, then as long it fits the criteria it is right. With science you have to physically setup the experiment to confirm it and then there comes the issue of accuracy and all the issues you deal with in setting up the experiment.

    With math anyone can read the work and follow it and if something is wrong, it's actually very systematic to show this. For example for general proofs, all you need to do is find one counter-example, and the hardest mathematics is usually some statement about a general class of phenomena. Also most people can do most kind of mathematics with some pen and paper and a computer. The cost of doing mathematical "experiments" is for many purposes, very very cheap.
  6. Aug 19, 2011 #5
    Thanks everyone..Enlightening stuff.
    K see the reason I use the word romance w.r.t. naturalists is because this dimension of fascination I don't think can be delivered by a career in engineering (mine) or any other perhaps. Scientists are said to be staring right into the eye of God (metaphorical/einsteinien) .
    With all this negative energy in posts here about physics phds in academia and the fact that in order to shift to a substantial career, pure science should be abandoned for industrial etc, I feel that it is getting very challenging even for the most dedicated and talented physicists and biologists (the predominant natural scientists) to rehash the version of romanticized science the media feeds us. Hence you are lucky however science satisfies you.
    Now I noticed all of you mentioned how at some point things can tend to get a little tedious but you always have your ultimate target to look up to. That Im perfectly okay with: Its part of the package, the journey to the watershed, to that Eureka!.
    The thing about this romanticized version of science is that for my generation especially with rising college tuitions, recessions and lack of opportunities (unless of course you are pretty well off financially in which case youd have no woes to rant about here) an engineering career or a more applied career seems more pragmatic considering the demand, availability of scholarships and relative market stability.
    Now you may disagree with me over statistics, but with respect to the reason most undergraduates undertake science is how its a philosophical, existential pivot. I mean its everywhere Its defines us in so many ways: evolution.....etc. "We are all stardust" was an apt explanation by Sagan.
    It is becoming harder and harder to chose science for its beauty because it always gets trumped by an engineering, finance or management degree.
    Perhaps I take to pessimistic a view on this and I will always regret not having majored in theoretical physics to find the unified theory, explain dark matter, the fundamental constants but given your satisfaction with your careers, do you see hope for our love in science to rekindle??
    Also is it wrong to study science for existential explanations? Do you think that should be a separate aspect of human growth?
  7. Aug 19, 2011 #6
    If you want to understand God, drop a rock and see it fall. One problem with a lot of pop science books is that they focus on the very, very early universe of which we understand practically nothing. If I drop a rock, I understand how rocks fall. If I spend decades thinking about the early universe, there is a good chance that I've gone off on the totally wrong trail, and therefore end up understanding nothing about God or anything else.

    One reason that I have been able to get as far as I can is that I reject the distinction between "pure science" and "applied science." After all, if you can't figure out how to use math and science in order to improve society then what good is it?

    Also, this career is all about asking questions and thinking about things. If you end up just absorbing what the media tells you without thinking about it, then I really think you've missed the point. Maybe Sagan and Feymann and Roddenberry are wrong. Something to think about here. And then there is the interesting question of the chain of knowledge. Sagan got me into this game, but then who got Sagan into his game?

    There's some *really* interesting that happened in the Ukarine in the mid-19th century. One thing that seems to have been true for Sagan's parents, and certainly seems to be true for mine is that thinking about the mysteries of the universe keeps you from getting too depressed and giving up when people are trying to kill you.

    But then what do you do if things get *really* *really* *really* bad. What happens if there are no jobs at all? What do you do if your entire country falls apart (which is happened to not a few number of astrophysicists that I know)?

    And is the market really that stable? I don't think it is.

    But is that a bad thing?

    You'll find out that if you do get a Ph.D. in theoretical physics that you also may not find the unified field theory, explain dark matter, or understand the fundamental constants. One thing that you'll find is that often you spend years of your life, only to find that you are on the wrong path, and at that point you've done something useful if you make a note of it and then let everyone else know that what you did led to a dead end.

    And then there is the question if whether you really want to know the truth.

    I don't think it's a matter of wrong or right. I do think that you should be prepared to be more confused about the universe after getting a Ph.D. than before.
  8. Aug 19, 2011 #7
    I would have to say for me, my inspiration was Julius Sumner Miller... not the standard "iconic" perhaps... but my day's equivalent of Bill Nye (and perhaps more accurate to the reality of my current profession... performing for the audience while helping them learn physics concepts). I do love how he used to have the marker and paper nearby to scribble down explanations.

    I like how he was not polished up for the press (though perhaps purposefully) and ESPECIALLY how he was not dreamy about the universe....more, like two-fish-quant says... amazed by just seeing the rock fall.
  9. Aug 19, 2011 #8
    Carl Sagan is directly responsible for my choice of major (aerospace engineering). I read and watched Cosmos when I was still a pre-teen. The idea of traversing the heavens in search of the wonders of the universe was so mind-numbingly attractive that I settled on engineering before I'd even hit puberty. The romance continues - I'll always have a deep curiosity towards all things science, and it's all thanks to Sagan.

    My decision to be an engineer wasn't about being Scotty though. It'll be the pinnacle of my life if I happen to design a single bolt or pin or screw in the vehicle that will eventually take humans to Mars. I want my name on something of that magnitude, no matter how small it's written.
  10. Aug 19, 2011 #9
    But where else do you look at in order to even start answering a few of the questions. You have to admit, there is no other means to achieve this end.
    I completely agree but commercially applicable discoveries esp in fields such as astrophysics theoretical physics (string theory, etc), cosmic and biological evolution have something of the effect of classical music on theoretical scientists because unless they accidentially come across something (like the accidental invention of the non stick frying pan as dawkins often brings up), they are only in it for the sake of its epistemological significance for us as a race. Can they a few decades from now explain major phenomena and help develop a technology. But I think the metaphysically science is not delivering enough einsteins, newtons and diracs.
    I attribute this to the lack of opportunities that pay reasonable wages and help contain a love for science.
    My point precisely. This line of thinking cannot be resorted to if you are an engineer. Only science allows you to touch the periphery of the most philosophical topics.

    Depends if you are the kind who loves science for how it explains nature, yes.

    I am willing to accept that I may never have the calibre to achieve anything groundbreaking but I would've loved the fact that I was sort of part of the process that helps answer these questions.
    My emphasis in this entire thread was to emphasize that engineering completely falls foul of this beauty I mean engineers don't know why they even take up engineering. Sure as hell not for the monotonous reports, supervision work, etc. OK I know we like solving problems but those are only technical, nothing terribly fascinating about that. Its just involves knowing how the parts of some mechanism work together, optimizing them, etc. Dont get me wrong, it does have perks but at the end of the day you run the show while the scientists are out there solving the real abstract problems.
  11. Aug 19, 2011 #10
    How offensive. You know, if I were you, I'd learn to hold a civil tongue towards people who design your damn telescopes. We're partners in this journey of discovery; not enemies.
  12. Aug 19, 2011 #11
    The answer to your questions: initially, yes, but I have always loved anything astronomy/universe related since I was a kid. I used to go to the public library after school when I was in elementary school and would read every single book that the library had on the planets. For some reason, I had an obsession at that time with finding out what a star looked like up close (I obviously did not know that our own sun was a star lol). But since that point in my life, I have been enamored with this field. Also, the “famous” scientist who also motivated me was Kip Thorne, after I had the privilege of exchanging a few emails with him as an undergrad.

    I was an undergrad math major, and then decided to try employment as a civil engineer, construction manager, and am now in data entry. However, since I finished my undergrad, I was married and now have 2 beautiful little girls. After deliberating through the years if I should do engineering “for the money” or something in finance “for the money” I realize that money is not going to bring you joy. Plus, my family is better and happier with me doing what I love even if it’s not going to make me rich. My wife told me this the other day, and trust me she’s gone through a lot with me in trying to decide what I truly want! I think that you have to do what you would do even if you would do it for free. It took me over 6 years to mentally and emotionally mature to where I am now to be able to stand firm in my choice.

    I suggest you do some soul-searching and maybe take a retreat, take up a hobby or do some volunteering. Once you go away from physics and the sciences for a while you will be able to view your goals in your life more objectively and mature in that way. It really worked for me, and now even though I may not make a grand discovery or solve unified field theory or something big like that, I am THOROUGHLY enjoying the process of learning how the universe works in each of my master’s classes. Although I am still working in the data entry field right now to make ends meet, I hope to finish my master’s in physics eventually and move on to a phd in physics or astrophysics. It’s never too late as long as you enjoy the journey and always keep a perspective on life :)
  13. Aug 19, 2011 #12
    You should argue your case better rather than pointing fingers.
    Look angry citizen i don't mean to offend any engineers (myself working towards an engineerng degree) but you have to admit youve picked from those exceptional counterexamples, i mean obviously telescope designers were attempting to optimize their stargazing ventures : Mind you many of them were physicists/astronomers/astrophysicists but lets not argue about this here cuz its tangential to my questions.
    In any case you cannot deny what THE MAJORITY OF engineers really do : all the management stuff, making project decisions and designing, optimizing stuff for Industrial/technological purposes (phds esp focus on the latter). Any experienced engineers are welcome to clarify this. (debatable wordchoice but you get the point)
    I mean yes if you were to design a shuttle orbiting mars youve done something remarkable for humanity but the kind of metaphysical fascination that I've been stressing on (w.r.t. the word beauty, rather grand beauty, not the kind that makes you pull apart a computer, car or gun and go 'wow!') has more to do with actually being actively involved in the scientific process of understanding nature : observing, infering and understanding nature. You become a direct part of contemplating human identity, the scale of the matter, the cosmos,....
    As an engineer you use the scientific method of rational thinking but to discover stuff for the sake of sustaining an economy and maintaing a good living standard which im sure we are all grateful for.
    Engineering is a noble and prestigious career in its own right. I mean our industrial & technological revolutions, refineries, shuttles all depend on our engineers and Kudos to engineers for that. Scientists get to be more directly involved in both the naturalist's love for nature and the engineers love for skillful creating while the engineer uses the latter and applies it to make our lives better.
    You're taking the my argument completeely out of context. That being said the word SOME should have preceeded the word engineers. My bad.
    Many engineers I know took up engineering becuse
    a-its broad (industrial jobs)
    b-they like math and the respective science
    c-you dont need a phd unlike with a science
    d-reasonably well paying jobs
    No element of metaphysical wonder whatsoever. Which is what would be found on the same list if it were probably written by a scientist.
    'I want to help change the world and help mankind' however has adds a more existential note to it, not a metaphysical one.

    Scientists or engineers regardless are all working industriously to propel forward the progress of our race and I hope this one distinction between self-exploration and progress is something I haven't been completeyly wrong about. Oh and one more thing the only reason I started this thread was to understand that there are still some scientists out there (not the celebrity ones) who are able to achieve or participate in the kind of stuff lurking about in epistemic mysteries, apart from the usual using of science for a better tommorow.

    Some of you may say that you might have just stopped when you looked in the dictionary for the definition of an engineer vs a scientist but this is sort of a personal thing I need to understand from people.
    Planehunter your experience seems very relatable and Im glad you were able to achieve your goals. In my case I couldnt afford the undergraduate physics degree but there may still be hope for me. Better too late than never.
  14. Aug 19, 2011 #13
    Sry planethunter for skipping the t in your name.
  15. Aug 19, 2011 #14
    You have to as genuinely interested as they are typically. I can see why the romance would appeal to some people though. Think of it this way. Everyone likes candy, or money. Not everyone likes spicy food or tea. It appeals to most people but it is important to reflect on whether it is a genuine interest. As for me, I don't really watch any documentaries, i do if they happen to be on the history or discovery channel but I read about the "culture" of the field.
  16. Aug 20, 2011 #15


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    in my case it is probably a bit simpler, I read some books about the change in physical sciences in the last couple of centuries. After reading about all those great scientist discovered this and that I thought to myself, "I bet I can discover something they haven't"

    That was when I just started high school, I decided I wanted to have a career of academic research in theoretical chemistry
    Towards the end of high school I felt like chemistry isn't really my thing and decided go for theoretical physics instead.
    When I was having a tour around the university, months before the enrollment started, there was a presentation on a relatively new program (15 years old) specialises in optoelectronics, involving both physics and engineering. I though that sounds interesting, might well go for it in case I want to do industrial research one day.
    And that is exactly what happened recently, I feel like I am never going to enjoy writing thesis, articles and whatever. I think i will greatly enjoy being part of the development of products I see people use everyday.

    now looking back to the beginning, how much has changed? not much really. if I do ended in an industrial research position, I will still be able to appreciate the underlying mechanism of the electrons photon and other particles moving around the circuit boards that can end up in a consumer's hand. I still want to discover things that other scientists haven't thought of. maybe more relevant to product development, but is that really a bad thing? If there is spare time I can always read and learn about theoretical physics and think about the way world works. Sure, I probably won't be able to publish articles about it, but personally I'm not interested in nature just to impress people, so for me that isn't a problem.

    One thing that had me stuck between theoretical physics and engineering is that a lot of those abstract physical concepts actually relate all the way to everything around everyone. I guess I'm just glad while I am fancinated by how the universe works, I can relate them to careers that can hopefully help me make enough money for the lifestyle I dream of.

    As to dealing with people, I think its easier to, in a sense, create an on-off switch in my head. Having a dozen differential equations running at the back of my head when I'm supposed to be having fun hanging out with my friends is just about the best way to go insane. That is probably why I tend to get along better with people that are not in the field of physical sciences.
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