The Flaming Lips nailed it. Not only do the scientists racing for ‘the good of all mankind’ on the opening track of 1999’s The Soft Bulletin capture that fear of being beaten to discovery (‘the cure that is the prize’), not only do they encapsulate the fevered obsession that accompanies specialization (‘both of them side by side, so determined’), but Wayne Coyne screeches that the academics in Race for the Prize aren’t superheroes. After all, ‘they’re just humans, with wives and children’.
Type ‘scientist’ into google image search and you’re realize that The Flaming Lips had a rather uniquely well informed idea of what a scientist is. The stereotype of the bespectacled, chemical wielding maniac still abounds and Brian Cox is a rockstar.Scientists, it seems, aren’t normal: they’re brains wrapped up in lab coats and those pristine gowns have time and time again been the most highly cited publicly perceived accessory of the scientist (in Argentina it even forms the national symbol of learning).
Although identified most strongly with the white coat, clinicians only began wearing them towards the end of the 19th century in an effort to portray themselves as scientists and to distance themselves from the mysticism of quackery. Early photographic evidencetraces late 19th century doctors moving from beige coats to white and gradually wearing the black coats reserved for dissecting cadavers less and less. Whether the white coats were chosen specifically to unite medicine with science, to announce a change in hospitals from buildings to which one went to die to clinics of healing or to act as a cloak of purity when engaging intimately with patients’ bodies, the coat stuck at least until 2007 in the UK when the NHS phased them out to be replaced by scrubs, citing a fear of spreading infectious diseases (another reason for their original adoption).
The Draw A Scientist Task devised by David Chambers in the 1980s asked participants to sketch their interpretation of a scientist before and after meeting one. Almost universally participants first drew a bearded, white, spectacled man in a lab coat. This was adopted by the Who’s A Scientist project in which seventh graders were introduced to physicists at the Fermilab high energy accelerator in the US. All the children engaged in the project realize dtheir mistakes and the subsequent drawings and descriptions all illustrated ‘normal’ men and women who were, oddly, pretty interesting.
This was 10 years ago but last week the internet hummed with news of a similar project: science communicator Allie Wilkinson’s This Is What A Scientist Looks Like blog. As a collection of real-life scientists’ mug shots, the contrast to google’s image search is stark. Yes, at least one of the images belongs on Awkward Family Portraits and yes, there are way too many ‘hilarious’ fancy dress costumes, but these are – to plagiarize Douglas Adams – just these guys, you know?
I don’t particularly mind my lab coat. Actually, I borrowed mine about three years ago from a rather petite girl in Bristol and never gave it back. Finally I’d found one that didn’t swamp me and retained my slightly-pretentious-but-in-a-nice-way demeanor. But I don’t have to wear it all the time: I’m lucky in that I don’t work in a ‘wet lab’ which means I don’t have to dodge acids, alcohols or fluorocarbons. Neither did Einstein, and yet the crazy-haired modern mad scientist meme is sadly modeled largely on him.
This coat is regarded as the uniform of the scientist but throughout my time spent in academia I’ve learnt that this is a fallacy. In fact the closest thing scientists have in terms of a uniform is a pair of headphones; no matter what specialization you’ve chosen, all forms of science require at least a little mindless data entry, repetition and nail-biting, finger-crossing interludes whilst something does something to something else. Why not listen to Bjork whilst that happens?
D. W. Cathell in his 1882 The Physician Himself and What He Should Add to the Strictly Scientific recommended that the physician should ‘[avoid] forcing on everybody the conclusion that you are, after all, but an ordinary person”. Any uniform is a wall to understanding and the proliferation of The Scientist meme proves that the public still view scientists as out of the ordinary, maintaining the 19th century mythology medics constructed for themselves.
But those who seek to counter the public (largely erroneous) misconception of what The Scientist is must be aware: the fight for the recognition of normality can backfire. The person who feels comfortable uploading a picture of themselves onto a publicly available tumblr blog also, one would imagine, likes to put themselves out there generally (this is more than evident in the amount of links to blogs and twitter accounts that accompany the photographs). And so the balance tips towards the extrovert. Carl Zimmer’s latest book is a perfect example of this. Science Ink gathers together images Zimmer had amassed on his blog after calling for scientists who had work-linked tattoos to forward photographs to him. I won’t pretend it’s not a fun book (and as I studied for my undergrad with one of the legs showcased, I can’t be too mean-spirited) but is an anatomically accurate tattoo of a chloroplast really that normal? Well maybe it isn’t. Let’s return to the Lips.
Race for the Prize’s heroes were obsessives. The song finishes with the lament ‘There’s is to win. It will kill them’. No matter how ‘normal’ scientists are, there’s always a hint of addiction and the very act of science itself is time (if not all-) consuming, dependent on repetition, thoroughness and compulsion. Without a willingness to sacrifice at least a little time others can spend in the pub, the scientist is doomed to fail. So perhaps I’m being too harsh. Is this unnatural obsession, or just a necessary passion for their work? Underneath their coats the geologists in Zimmer’s book have geological logs (which really are beautiful) painted on their backs, the biochemists have equations, the conservationists have bees. Surely the site of an osprey on the leg of an ornithologist is a sign of sincerity in their work, a permanent mark that reminds us of how deep their commitment to their subject really goes? Maybe this is what we really want in our scientists?
This Is What A Scientist Looks Like is an enjoyable romp through a hitherto hidden diversity, but the #IAmScience hashtag that paraded around twitter last week was much more informative. In describing how scientists began their careers it generated a collection of vastly different experiences and inspiring stories; people who pursued science at the expense of anything outside it’s realm (childhoods, friendships, relationships). Perhaps we might conclude that, actually, scientists are a cut above the rest, believing more than most in their ability to make a difference and improve society, life, the world. But then I remember their fondness for wearing conference t-shirts and I despair.
They’re just humans, with wives and children. They’re nothing out of the ordinary, there’s no such thing as a mad scientist and none of them are superheroes. Although the Batcave… now that’s a lab.