Science…define

I’m working on one of my outreach talks at them moment, the one with the generously ambiguous titles ‘Scientist – who are they?’.  I like the title, it started out as a better title than ‘scientists through the ages’ when I wanted to talk about who scientists were and who they are now.  Now its a good generic catch all for whatever I wish to discuss about science on any given day.  I try to keep it fairly balanced in terms of discipline and not stand on my ‘yay chemistry’ box too much!

For some reason, I decided that I wanted to start off this talk by defining what science was.  This was harder than I initially thought it would be.  I put the question to Twitter folk and got back a few answers that included the words observation, measurement, experiment, scientific method.  These seem fairly satisfactory terms to use in conjunction with science, but I felt I was looking for something more fundamental so I got out my trusty dictionary.

science n 1 the study of the nature and behaviour of the physical universe, based on observation, experiment and measurement. 2 the knowledge obtained by these methods. 3 any particular branch of this knowledg: medical science. 4 any body of knowledge organized in a way resembling that of the physical sciences but concerned with other subjects: political science. [Latin scientia knowledge]  *1

This definition was, to me, far more satisfying but still had those key words of observation, experiment and measurement. I also liked the hat tip towards other subjects that wouldn’t be obviously classified as ‘nature and behaviour of physical universe’ such as polysci, or many social sciences.  I’ll use this definition in the talk.

I intend that the session will be more about who scientists are than what they do (although the two can never be teased apart entirely) so I thought I’d do an image search for scientists.  (Google, images, first page screenshot below). *2

This is largely the point where things went downhill.  I can see a little work might be needed on overcoming stereotypes! But this got me interested – what about specific discipines?

Well, predictably, Einstein features heavily in the images for physics.

What about chemistry?

Of course, chemists must have glass items with funny coloured liquids in them.  How could I forget. There are also a couple of images relating to pharmacy (historically chemist and pharmacist have been terms that were largely interchangable).

And lastly biologists:

Now this looks a little more interesting….or does it?  I see a lot of microscopes.  So physicists have black/chalk boards, chemists have dodgy coloured liquids in glassware and biologists have microscopes.  A few of these pics look very interesting though, involving exciting locations and animals – I can see the appeal of biology, particularly when natural history is has a continued presence on TV.  I also looked at geologist (people standing in front of rocks mainly), ecologist (people sitting on grass mainly) and mathematician (similar to physics).

The big surprise came when I searched for female chemist and female physicist respectively.

For the chemists, we get lots of women holding flasks, but women who are not recognisable (to me) as being particularly famous chemists.  They largely look like stock photos of lab workers. There are a few exceptions to this.  For the physicists, my reaction was ‘wow, who are these people?’.  I recognise a couple of faces (no, other than Marie Curie), and I’m sure a couple are not necessarily physicists (Laura Palmer of TwinPeaks fame springs to mind), but it does look like the physicists are doing a lot better than the chemists for images.

So where does that leave me in terms of updating my talk?  At this point I’m not too sure.  My Google searches seem to largely reinforce the sort of stereotype of ‘mad’, predominantly male scientists, and that biologists get to go to better places to work than the rest of us.  Obviously this isn’t a message that I particularly want to pass on, but I’m up for challenging stereotypes.

*1 Collins new English Dictionary 1997

*2 I’m aware that Google search results vary depending on your search history, location etc. If you try this and get anything interesting, please drop a comment.

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