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What makes a scientist?

Being a scientist is a tough gig. This is because science has become a very specialised field, with a strictly defined and specific educational pathway that has to be taken to participate in research.

There are such rigorous requirements that a once useful bachelor degree is now completely insufficient to get a foot in the door of any research institute. A career research scientist must have a minimum PhD level qualification, and even at the conclusion of the torturous process of gaining that qualification, there is no guarantee that a career in science will eventuate.

Even those people with a post-doctoral career in the field work in an untenably precarious environment, surviving year to year, entirely dependent on the success of funding applications, scrabbling for pieces of an ever shrinking pie.[i]

Hand in hand with the extraordinary challenges facing scientists and anyone who wants to be one, we have experienced an explosion in science media, opening unprecedented access by lay people to all sorts of incredible discoveries, amazing images and hypotheses. We have a fantastically switched-on science media, populated by writers who know how to present science in a way that is cogent, simple and comprehensible to people who are not particularly 'science-minded'. We can all now follow science with the same ease with which we can follow our favourite sporting team or television serial.

With the advent of search engines and the volumes of information they yield, the interested 'ordinary' woman and man can study science as deep and wide as they choose. Compared to, let’s say, a medieval serf toiling behind a donkey, all of us can easily access the torrential flow of advances and understand them too . . . but this is not the same thing as having an active role or participating in the direction science is taking. The ordinary person’s role is limited to that of spectator. We can know all about science, avidly watch it progress, cheering and groaning from the sidelines, but only the elite scientists are allowed to play on the field of knowledge.

It seems we can either be a scientist or an 'ordinary' person, and the demarcation is difficult if not impossible to cross.

However, this division between a person who can ‘do’ science from those who ‘cannot’ was not always quite so clear-cut in times past. Without rigorous, national school examination standards, and such stringently maintained, career pathways for which university training is requisite, demonstrable interest and skill were sufficient for an ‘ordinary’ person to gain entry to many fields of endeavour. Medicine was one. Science was another.

There are a couple of very beautiful examples of this phenomenon – two very ordinary people who were absolutely crucial to the formulation of one of the most profound astronomical developments of the 20th century; the discovery and experimental confirmation that the Universe is expanding.

Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming[ii],[iii] was a woman who had been employed as a maid in the home of Professor Edward Charles Pickering, Director of the Harvard University Observatory. It was either in a fit of disgust for his male staff, or struck by her obvious smarts, that Pickering offered Fleming a job in the observatory to catalogue his laboratory records.

This was in 1881 and Harvard was a strictly male enclave, so Pickering’s offer was astonishingly progressive on a number of counts. Nothing about her background suggested that she would be the correct person for such a role; she had a minimal amount of formal education, not even to high school level. She was in all respects a very ‘ordinary’ person. In spite of this she went on to become a widely acknowledged and highly skilled astronomer.

Pickering went on to employ a number of women, mockingly referred to as “Pickering’s Harem” by some, but others, who appreciated the skill of these women, called them “Harvard’s computers”. Fleming, with the female staff now under her charge, produced an exquisitely detailed catalogue of more than 10,000 stars. The work of these women enabled the Observatory to gather a massive amount of accurate light data from a vast portion of the night sky. Williamina Fleming developed a practical lettering system for classification, allowing this vast body of data to be stored and sourced in a systematic way. In her years at the observatory she discovered and catalogued more than 200 stars and nebulae.

Fleming went on to receive many accolades, including being made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of London. It was said of her that, "Many astronomers are deservedly proud to have discovered one variable star and content to leave the arrangements for its observation to others. The discovery of 222, and the care for their future on this scale, is an achievement bordering on the marvellous."

Milton Humason

In 1919, eight years after Fleming’s death, Edwin Hubble took up a position at what was then the cutting edge, state of the art Wilson telescope. He was the man who would be credited with the 'red shift, expansion' theory of the Universe.

This telescope was built in 1908 in the mountains of California by teams of men using mules to haul the construction materials through the difficult terrain. One of these labourers was Milton Humason.[iv] He hated school and so, with his parents' consent, he left the confines of the classroom for the freedom of the mountains at age 14. The deal was that he would return to school by the end of that year . . . a deal on which he reneged. Humason drove equipment by mule team to the observatory site and was offered a job at the facility, initially as janitor, then night assistant.

In that role he demonstrated great technical skill and such a deftness of touch with the sensitive telescope and photographic equipment that he was offered a role as a full-time member of the astronomical staff. The quality of his work gained the trust of Edwin Hubble who made him his assistant. Humason did invaluable work measuring the spectral patterns* given off by far distant galaxies, gathering the accurate data upon which Hubble and his theory depended.

Humason was a great observer, a crucial skill in science. He also had immense patience and precision with the very tedious experiments that required critical attention to detail over several nights to gather the material for a single photographic exposure. He had an innate understanding of and appreciation for experimental science, and so he developed different approaches to the research techniques that delivered greater levels of refinement. The school dropout became an astronomer of high repute, and was accoladed with senior appointments and an honorary PhD.

The truth is that neither Williamina Fleming nor Milton Humason would get a foot in the door at an astronomical observatory today.

Fair enough we might say. Times have changed. We have to know so much more than at any time in history to forge a path in science. And surely, with all of the advancements that have taken place, you have to be trained to think like a scientist if you want to be one. If they were alive today, both would have had to stay at school until age 17 or 18 and may have gone on to university . . . they may have taken the only currently acceptable path to a career in science that has been determined by the system . . . they may also have fallen by the wayside and never given science a thought.

  • If they did pursue science, took the long pathway through university training to emerge suitably trained, gowned and accoladed, would this have made them better scientists?
  • Would it have made them more sensitive, more aware and more dedicated to the pursuit for understanding?

We take the current requirements for education and training in science so much for granted that we rarely stop to ask such questions of ourselves and the system within which we live and operate. But it is important that we do stop and do ask, because the way we make scientists determines the quality, nature and direction of the science that affects every aspect of our lives.

Any question about the importance of the current way we make a scientist cannot leave out consideration of the qualities that Fleming and Humason exemplified in their work:

  • skilful observation
  • attention to detail
  • care
  • manual dexterity and a sensitive approach to mechanical processes and equipment
  • precision
  • order
  • patience
  • the ability to work with other people collaboratively
  • a high level of discipline not locked up in a rigid unyielding approach

These qualities allowed them to gracefully advance the practice of astronomy with their innovations.

Does our education system foster and develop these qualities in our young people, encouraging them to bring them to their chosen careers in science? Fleming and Humason had love for the science of astronomy, evident in their dedication and care and were uninhibited by a lack of formal education.

  • Does scientific education develop this level of dedication and love and foster real freedom in thinking and exploration?
  • Or is the style of thinking as confined as the four-walled, desk-bound space that is the classroom?

By creating a narrow educational funnel through which people must be poured, we are not just selecting 'the best and brightest', we are simultaneously eliminating the unique, the non-traditionally gifted, and ones whose love for science vastly exceeds the limitations of their capacity to recall and regurgitate what they have been taught is science, and their will to toe the line to that which has been prescribed as the only acceptable version of science.

Scientific education and its pathways have emphasised teaching young people to survive in a loveless system, one that thrives on competition and relentless comparison, rejecting the ones who simply cannot compete.

That might make scientists who do well in the ‘elbows out’, thrust and grab grant application process, but will they be able to deliver a human-centred science, one we so urgently need to take us to a deeper level of understanding of the nature of life, and our responsibility within it?

It is worth considering whether we are educating our scientists to be obedient to a system of narrow thinking, binding their minds so strongly to the worn, lineal track, that they cannot begin to conceive of the spherical, richly multi-layered, nature of life. There is the risk that they become so confined by what they know that they are untouched, unaware and un-awed by the enormous volume of unknown that surrounds us.

These questions become important when we see that science is failing us so very profoundly.

We are an ill species, suffering a litany of physical, environmental, psychological and sociological maladies. We are making our planet unbalanced with our wayward rapaciousness and aggression. We yearn for science to solve these dilemmas, yet as clever as we have become, we are caught in a rut from which we cannot escape. Our solutions come thick and fast and with them come a multitude of their own problems for which more answers must be sought.

Science education has played its part in shaping the rut, and this calls for an honest appraisal of the entire system from the ground up.

  • Dare we look at the restrictions enforced by the educational pathways we have forged?
  • Dare we see that there are no 'ordinary' people who must be kept at the sidelines, only allowed to watch the real scientists play?
  • And what of the emphasis on the absorption of masses of knowledge?
  • What if we restored the primacy of observation and understanding that is openhearted and willing to be humbled by all that we do not know?

If we place Fleming and Humason on a pedestal and see them as somehow different to us, especially talented or lucky or a quirk of that particular time, then we miss an important point.

They show us that great science can be accomplished, free of the binds of formal education and formal pathways, and that science has the capacity to shake paradigms and break the imprisoning beliefs that we have used to isolate ourselves into the tiniest corner, imagining we are somehow separate from an ever-expanding Universe that is constantly beckoning to know ourselves as part of its magnificent whole.


*Spectral patterns are a breakdown of light into its multitude of component wavelengths. White light is constituted by a mixture of different colours, each representing a different wavelength. This is the colour spectrum. Different stars emit light with a different mixture of these colours and they can be accurately measured and charted. Accuracy, attention to detail and precise recording is essential for this work.

References:

  • [i]

    http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/01/16/3926579.htm

  • [ii]

    http://oisf.org/the-big-bang-and-before-3-lemaitres-universe-hubbles-law/

  • [iii]

    http://www.sheisanastronomer.org/index.php/history/williamina-fleming

  • [iv]

    http://www.lcas-astronomy.org/articles/display.php?filename=milton_humason&category=biographies

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