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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well. If it's not worth doing, give it to Rimmer. [20120518|14:13]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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When I do an outreach session, one question I'm almost invariably asked afterward is, "What got you into science?" I have a range of answers to this, all of which are partially true and all of which, singly, seem to be accepted by the qeustsions as The Answer. I find this frustrating, because as far as I can tell, for most people there is no Great Epiphanic Moment that lets you know what your vocation should be for the rest of your life. But for some reason, many of us have this anticipation ingrained into us so deeply that we end up wandering around expecting it in vain until we die, and I hate perpetuating it in this way. Although I'm quite happy with my job and the life I've built, I realise there are probably a half-dozen other ways in which I could have been equally happy doing something entirely different.

Here are the answers I give to this question.

  1. Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and/or David Attenborough's "The Living Planet", in which they express pure unabashed enthusiasm for science. These were among a handful of television programmes that I was allowed to watch as a child, aside from the news and "The Muppet Show". (I re-watched "Cosmos" recently and found it a little creepy. He never stops smiling.)

  2. My grandfather. He was an artist, but he was also a craftsman with an abiding interest in science and engineering. He helped me make some wonderful models in primary school - a slice of clay painted to show the layers of the Earth's interior, dioramas of dinosaurs, a papier mache volcano.

  3. My mother the librarian. She brought home stacks of books for me, gradually tailoring them to my growing interest in science as I aged.

  4. The desire to do something "difficult". I found I could get good marks in most academic subjects without exercising the full capacity of my brain. Science, especially chemistry and physics, proved more challenging and hence more fun. We got to build things! Make dangerous compounds! Carry out controlled explosions! What wasn't to like?

  5. The desire to know more about the way the universe works. There are so many questions. We still have so far to go before we can start exploring our solar system, let alone our galaxy, in person. I want us to survive long enough to be able to make all those wonderful science fiction fantasies we have come true. It won't happen in my lifetime, but I'm happy knowing that in my tiny way, i'm contributing to the process of inching toward that goal.

  6. The knowledge that I'm doing something that gives people hope for something more than just surviving on this small dirty rock/beautiful blue marble.

Here are the answers I don't give, but are also true.

  1. The desire to travel. Let's face it, you need money to travel. If you haven't been born to parents who are able and willing to help you do so, you'll have to earn enough to do it on your own. Science, engineering and IT, if you develop your technical skills well enough, allow you to either fund your own trips abroad or go to conferences.

  2. The desire for creature comforts. I could survive in a tent with no hot water and access only to chemical toilets. I just don't want to, or at least not for longer than a week. Again, this comes down to money. I like my lifestyle. I wouldn't, at this point, be willing to live in a cramped flat trying to scrape a living off one of my less developed skills (writing, photography, painting), which is why they are hobbies.

  3. It passes the time in a stimulating manner.

The truth, then, is a complicated mixture of selfishness and altruism, but does anyone really want to hear that?

Bonus weird anecdote: My first outreach event this week was at the ScienceAlive centre in Harlow, Essex. A man came up to me afterward urging me to vote Republican "so they won't cut NASA's budget". Given that NASA's budget was at a high of 4.4% during the Apollo mission and has been on the slide pretty much ever since, I don't think that logic works too well. (Also, no.) I won't be basing my decision exclusively on what happens to NASA's budget (Also, NO.) What gives you the right to tell me how to vote after I've given a talk on Cassini at Saturn - and after I've told you our team's funding doesn't come from NASA - anyway? (Did I mention, no?)

It transpired he'd been watching Fox News. May the heavens preserve the UK from the incursions of Fox News. The Daily Mail is quite enough, thankyouverymuch.

Bonus anecdote #2: My second outreach event was at a secondary school in Tottenham, London, to a bunch of Year 9 students (about 14 years old). The organisers neglected to tell me that I wasn't going to be speaking to the top set, but rather to an "aspirational" group. Read: kids with behavioural problems. I figured this out about halfway through my talk, but damn, that was unnecessarily exhausting without the forewarning. It's always harder talking to a disaffected audience. That doesn't mean I don't believe it's worth doing. But at least if I know this in advance, I'm mentally prepared for the two or three people who clearly don't want to be there and aren't afraid to show that they couldn't care less that I've given up my time to come and speak to them.

[User Picture]From: chibaraki
2012-05-18 14:48 (UTC)
I'm TAing an intro class and I have several students who clearly don't want to be there and aren't afraid to show it... which is mostly funny because I DON'T TAKE ATTENDANCE so they don't have to be there anyway. And actually I wish the one guy who rolled his eyes and heaved sighs through my lectures wouldn't come. I get paid, but not enough for that shit.

I didn't realize until I started teaching how upsetting that kind of thing is when you're trying to teach.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-05-29 14:03 (UTC)
I didn't realize until I started teaching how upsetting that kind of thing is when you're trying to teach.

Yeah, it's put me off doing much more outreach for a while. Especially since I run out of breath and energy so easily the more pregnant I get!
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[User Picture]From: flexagain
2012-05-18 15:58 (UTC)
That's an interesting question, and I'm even less sure what my answer is.

I remember doing a project at primary school (I can't remember exactly what age, but probably high single digits, or possibly just about ten) about space, which was mostly stuff to do with things like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the early Shuttle. I probably knew far more about space and spaceflight than my teachers, even at that age! (In fact I remember arguing with one who was convinced that the Shuttle was launched from an aircraft, whereas I knew that the SCA was just used to transport it).

I've been interested in science and technology (and obviously space) for pretty much as long as I can remember. My father's been involved in engineering all his life, but I don't have any particular memory of him specifically pushing this.

I'm really not sure how I got involved in such things, other than it's always interested me. It's a bit like asking when you first got interested in eating or breathing air. I've been doing it for as long as I can remember, and I haven't ever really considered doing anything else!
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[User Picture]From: flexagain
2012-05-18 16:01 (UTC)
Oh, and as regards Cosmos, I haven't seen it in a long time, but I've listened to the music, and that can be quite ethereal and a little spooky.

I do remember listening to it whilst using the Astronomy Societies telescope, by myself, up on a dark otherwise quiet hillside, when I was a student. That was also creepy, but in a slightly different way to the creepiness you found with Carl Sagan's non-stop smiling!
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[User Picture]From: enterlinemedia
2012-05-22 21:10 (UTC)
Going off topic, New Red Dwarf airs this Fall on Dave. Are you a Red Dwarf fan? I love that show.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-05-29 13:26 (UTC)
I am a long-time Red Dwarf fan, yes. I'm not sure New Red Dwarf is strictly necessary, but will give it a go. :P
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