“Oi, you’re a scientist, what’s all this I keep hearing about a Higgs or something?”
I was asked this question countless times last July, in the wake of Cern’s announcement of the discovery of a Higgs boson a year ago today.
Most of the time, I would offer a fairly clumsy explanation of the Standard Model of particle physics, how particles acquire mass, and so on. That was the more useful answer in my opinion, although I’m not sure how good a job I ever did. I couldn’t help thinking of Richard Feynman on the weirdness of magnets: “I can’t explain it in terms that you would understand, because I don’t understand in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with.”
The conversation would then often break down into “but what are they for?” and debates on the value of fundamental research. (Aside from pure curiosity, there’s also plenty of technology coming out of Cern, too…)
But what I really wanted to address here is the first part of the question, about me being a scientist. I’m not. I work in admin. Admittedly, it’s admin in a big physics lab, but I’m certainly not consulted for my views on the fundamental structure of the universe. For all I know, it’s turtles all the way down. True enough, my degree was in science, but that involved no physics at all (unless you count the discussions of electron clouds in organic chemistry…).
I once overheard someone in the cafeteria at work explaining their job to a visitor. It turned out that they were the world expert in diagnosing and fixing faults with a particular piece of equipment. They knew everything there was to know about it… except what it was used for. As far as they were concerned, so long as they kept it running, that was the end of it. They had no additional curiosity about the role it played in the grand scheme of our machines.
Despite that, some would consider that person as more of a scientist than me, because their work actually contributes directly to the successful results that are produced. I just sit in the background. That being said, outside work, both of us get called ‘scientist’ by our friends asking questions. In the lab, however, our roles are well-defined as ‘admin assistant’ and ‘technician’. So who is a scientist, and who isn’t? Could it just be a relative term?
A couple of weeks ago, a discussion broke out on Twitter about whether science teachers are scientists. For some, mere curiosity about the world qualifies one for the status, so even children could be scientists. Others suggested that only ‘practising scientists’ are really deserving of the name. That opens another can of worms, however, when you consider issues like retirement or other career breaks.
At what point along the road of academic qualifications do you stop being a student and become a scientist? Do you have to be paid to ‘do science’? If so, what about volunteers collecting and analysing data for environmental research charities? Do you have to publish your results? Do they have to be read and cited? What about researchers in private companies? That last question may be less relevant in physics, but the pharmaceutical industry is a big part of biomedical science, for instance. And let’s not get started here on ‘science fans’, ‘science groupies’ and ‘science communicators’. If I merely know about some ‘science facts’ having read about it in a book, then tell someone else about how the world works, can I be said to have ‘done science’? The debate seems interminable. I don’t have definitive answers to these questions. I’m not sure there are any. In each case, I can think of cases which defy the general case. If you’ve got something to suggest, why not leave a comment below this post?
For my part, I tend to think of the word ‘scientist’ like the word ‘painter’. I can pick up a brush (or half a potato), daub some colour on a page and call it art. Someone might even pay me for it. For me, that would still only be a hobby. Others make careers of it, obtaining the privileged title of ‘artist’. Is there such a thing as a ‘struggling scientist’? Then there are the art critics: they are experts in the field of painting, without necessarily being ‘practising painters’. If a teacher in a school introduces a future Picasso to their first palette, are they not taking part in the painting process?
My painting analogy may seem silly or trivial, but I am not aware of any heated Twitter exchanges over who ‘counts’ as a painter or artist like those we have in science. Perhaps I just don’t hang out with the right people. I’m yet to be convinced of the value of the debate in the first place.
Science relies on curiosity, experimentation, and evidence. As far as I’m concerned, anyone dedicated to these values can be a scientist in some sense, and they can take something meaningful from that. Science needs more people to be involved, or at least to be supportive of those that are. Denying anyone their sense of belonging on the basis that they haven’t personally predicted or discovered their own particle would surely just put people off. From a purely pragmatic point of view, ‘real’ scientists can’t afford to define themselves into a corner and alienate their supporters.
Of course, you may argue over how useful my definition is. Meanwhile, I’m just going to get on with my admin work, and do my best to answer my friends’ questions about bosons. For science!
Image: Cern, the site of the Higgs boson discovery and announcement last year. Credit: Cern/Maximillian Brice