Scientific Stereotypes

I have had the privilege of meeting and observing hundreds of scientists over the years and can confirm that many (but not all) of the stereotypes about them are true

I have had the privilege of meeting and observing hundreds of scientists over the years and can confirm that many (but not all) of the stereotypes about them are true. This is because certain countries, cultures and ethnic groups seem to be particularly good at certain disciplines. Sri Lanka, for instance, punches some way above its weight in mathematics and physics – a possible consequence of being home for so many years to the late Arthur C. Clarke, who was an inspirational figure for the island’s scientists.

Israel, enriched first by Europe’s fleeing Jewish intelligentsia and subsequently by the Soviet Jewish diaspora, produces an almost absurd number of top-flight scientists and has possibly the highest publication-to-population ratio in the world. Of course, not all physicists and cosmologists are Jewish, but a great many are. Israel is rivalled by Iceland, another country that has had to live largely by its wits. Japan, too, belying an old stereotype, is a nation of innovation rather than adaptation.

Although most scientific papers are written in English, German retains a strong hold over chemistry. It was in Germany that the great advances in chemistry, particularly organic chemistry, were made in the 19th and early 20th centuries. China (a new scientific colossus) and Korea are establishing a strong genetics and biochemistry base, while India does well in mathematics.

Scientists are overwhelmingly male, especially in the top echelons — although there are plenty of women in biology. Surprisingly, although there are relatively few women in other “hard” sciences, quite a number of prominent astronomers are female. I suspect tradition may play a part here — when a few women make significant discoveries in a field, suddenly lots of girls want to follow their lead. Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) helped her brother to discover Uranus, named a comet, and was possibly the first professional female scientist in Europe. Among the present-day female stars in astronomy are the Ulsterwoman Jocelyn Bell, the discoverer of the Pulsar (an extremely dense, hot, dead star, which emits blasts of energetic radiation), and Jill Tarter, who as head of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is Earth’s alien-finder general.

As for one old canard, the socially inept boffin — it’s no longer true. The field of physics, in particular, is reputedly full of wild-haired geniuses who cannot tie their own shoelaces. In fact, physicists, and especially cosmologists, are the rock gods of science. They move with effortless social ease compared with their colleagues in other disciplines. Old Einstein himself was no social dunce; he loved women and song, as did the famously extrovert Richard Feynman.

Moreover, astronomy boasts one actual rock god, Queen guitarist Brian May, who was awarded his doctorate last year for work on the zodiacal light.

With notable exceptions, however, scientists remain terrible communicators. Britain’s scientific community, for instance, includes the only significant population in the country still unable to operate a mobile telephone. What’s more, as a science journalist, I have lost count of the times that, when a hugely newsworthy discovery has been announced, the genius responsible has decided to go climbing in the Andes and will not be taking calls. Someone should perhaps do some experiments to find out why.

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