Scientists and “Being Smart”, part 1: Relating to “Normal”

The always wonderful Chad Orzel has just written a new book and New York magazine published a fascinating excerpt that’s been resonating a lot with my friends, science-minded and non-science-minded alike. Orzel relates how people often tell him that he’s so smart when they learn that he’s a physicist. While it is incredibly flattering to have other people say you must be smart, Orzel points out it comes with an unacknowledged downside:

There’s a distracting effect to being called “really smart” in this sense — it sets scientists off as people who think in a way that’s qualitatively different from “normal” people. We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.

A bigger problem with this awkward compliment, though, is that it’s just not true. Scientists are not that smart — we don’t think in a wholly different manner than ordinary people do. What makes a professional scientist is not a supercharged brain with more processing power, but a collection of subtle differences in skills and inclinations. We’re slightly better at doing the sort of things that professional scientists do on a daily basis — I’m better with math than the average person — but more importantly, we enjoy those activities and so spend time honing those skills, making the differences appear even greater.

A friend in law school argued that this can be a benefit: people seem to have fewer uninformed opinions that they’re compelled to share regarding fluid dynamics than philosophy. I think that’s true to a point, though people also have lots of uninformed opinions on issues that are more controversial, like GMOs, ecology, and climate science. What I think is useful to consider is the nature of how all these fields relate to their people’s lives. People use the end results (whether that’s a tangible product or knowledge) of scientific and engineering research, but they don’t need an understanding of those systems to be able to use their products. People are in sociological, cultural, and political systems everyday and so they have at least a folk or commonsense understanding of how those things work, and so they react when people in these fields tell them their knowledge is incomplete, if not often wrong.

But you also see this a bit in misunderstanding of science: part of the reason people have strong opinions on things like food, ecosystems, and the climate is that they also interact with those systems everyday, and so they have a folk understanding of those too. The discrepancy between someone’s folk understanding and that of a scientific observer is why we have the”this winter is cold so global warfming is a myth” meme. There’s a reason this meme is so resonant to some, though. It’s common in science communication to just treat non-scientists as empty buckets waiting to be filled with scientific information that they’ll appreciate (or maybe even “f***ing love” it), and to assume the major limit in public understanding of science and scientific issues is that they just don’t know enough. This is called the deficit model, and what’s key to know about it is that it is typically wrong. It’s true that a random non-scientist won’t know as much about a given scientific field as someone actually working it. (There is a good chance they know something about it and you should engage that, though). What’s really important, though, is that people don’t engage with science in a vacuum. Everyone brings their own baggage, in the forms of folk knowledge, cultural assumptions, moral values, and more. Scientists, and science communicators more broadly, need to engage with those issues beyond just pure scientific knowledge to truly engage with the public, otherwise people think you’re treating them like idiots.

It’s also generally more interesting to approach science communication this way. Sure, I like informing people of the latest trends and results from research (and studies show people are interested in science news) or other neat concepts that come up in my work and as someone in the field, I’m more aware of this information. But I’m not going to have an equal back and forth about the topic of my old research with most people at UVA, except for the dozen or so people working on similar projects, because it took several years to get to that point. And that can be fine! I know I listen to law students, history majors, sociology majors, philosophy majors, policy students, biologists, and more have incredibly deep conversations on their areas of expertise all the time and learn a lot just from listening.

Even without finding someone who studies the sociology of science and technology, though, I can probably have an interesting conversation with almost anyone about social or ethical implications/questions related to my work. When I did work on the CO2 converstion project, lots of people right away grasped at the implications for climate change work. And that’s the kind of conversation that’s probably most helpful in grounding science and engineering into normalcy.

This is also why I tend to hate saying I “dumb down” things if I’m talking to people outside of my fields. There’s 11 schools at UVA and over 100 academic programs and I know people in all those are “really smart” and they are also all smarter than me in several things. (And of course, as Orzel points, this extends way beyond other people in academia or even college graduates; it’s just that my life is still mostly school.) The reason I change how I talk isn’t because these other people outside my lab and department are dumb; it’s to acknowledge that they all have expertise in different areas than I do and I want to share some of my expertise with them (without forcing them to also have all my training) in a way they can appreciate. Meeting people where they are is generally just good practice and science communication is no exception.

A Nobel for Nanotubes?

A popular pastime on the science blogosphere is doing Nobel predictions; educated guesses on who you think may win a Nobel prize in the various science categories (physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine). I don’t feel like I know enough to really do detailed predictions, but I did make one. Okay, more of a dream than a prediction. But I feel justified because Slate also seemed to vouch for it. What was it? I think a Nobel Prize in Physics should be awarded for the discovery and study of carbon nanotubes.

One potential issue with awarding a prize for carbon nanotube work could be priority. Nobel prizes can only be split between three people. While Iijima is generally recognized as the first to discover carbon nanotubes, it actually seems that they have really been discovered multiple times (in fact, Iijima appears to have imaged a carbon nanotube in his thesis nearly 15 years before what is typically considered his “discovery”). It’s just that Iijima’s announcement happened to be at a time and place where the concept of a nanometer-sized cylinder of carbon atoms could both be well understood and greatly appreciated as a major focus of study. The paper linked to points out that many of the earlier studies that probably found nanotubes were mainly motivated by PREVENTING  their growth because they were linked to defects and failures in other processes. The committee could limit this by awarding the prize for the discovery of single-walled nanotubes, which brings the field of potential awardees down to Iijima and one of his colleagues and a competing group at IBM in California. This would also work because a great deal of the hype of carbon nanotubes is focused on single-walled tubes because they generally have superior properties than their multi-walled siblings and theory focuses on them.

No matter what, I would say Mildred Dresselhaus should be included in any potential nanotube prize because she has been one of the most important contributors to the theoretical understanding of carbon nanotubes since the beginning. She’s also done a lot of theoretical work on graphene, but the prize for graphene was more experimental because while theorists have been describing graphene since at least the 80s (Dresselhaus even has a special section in that same issue), no one had anything pure to work with until Geim and Novoselov started their experiments.

In 1996, another form of carbon was also recognized with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Rick Smalley, Robert Curl, and Harold Kroto won the prize for their discovery of buckminsterfullerene (or “buckyballs”) in 1985 and further work they did with other fullerenes and being able to the prove these did have ball-like structures. So while the prize for graphene recognized unique experimental work that could finally test theory, this prize was for an experimental result no one was expecting.   Pure carbon has been known to exist as a pure element in two forms, diamond and graphite, for a long time and no one was expecting to find another stable form. Fullerenes opened people’s minds to nanostructures and served as a practical base for the start of much nanotechnology research, which was very much in vogue after Drexler’s discussions in the 80s.

Six diagrams are shown, in two rows of three. Top left shows atoms arranged in hexagonal sheets, which are then layered on top of each other. This is graphite.

Six phases of carbon. Graphite and diamond are the two common phases we encounter in normal conditions.

So why do I think nanotubes should get the prize? One could argue it just seems transitional between buckyballs and graphene, so it would be redundant. While a lot of work using nano-enhanced materials does now focus on graphene, a great deal of this is based on previous experiments using carbon nanotubes, so the transition was scientifically important. And nanotubes still have some unique properties. The shape of a nanotube immediately brings lot of interesting applications to mind that wouldn’t come up for flat graphene or the spherical buckyballs: nano-wires, nano “test tubes”, nano pipes, nanomotors, nano-scaffolds, and more.  (Also, when describing nanotubes, it’s incredibly easy to be able to say it’s like nanometer-sized carbon fiber, but I realize that ease of generating one sentence descriptions is typically not a criterion for Nobel consideration.) The combination of these factors make nanotubes incredibly important in the history of nanotechnology and helped it transition into the critical field it is today.