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Scientists' popular images

Una Smith una at doliolum.biology.yale.edu
Thu Jan 5 14:38:30 EST 1995

Re "A Wrinkle in Time" and inspiration to become a scientist,
I'd just like to say that I enjoyed the book because I wanted
to be a scientist, not the other way around.  I credit the
experimental elementary school taught by Cornell University
graduate students in Ithaca NY for innoculating me with the
science bug.

I have greatly enjoyed the development of the anthropology
professor in Tony Hillerman's mystery novels.  In the latest
installation, Joe Leaphorn takes the plunge and goes off to
China to accompany her on a research trip.  Hillerman has 
also created (male) anthropologists who are cheats, others
who have great integrity, as well as expertise.

Dick Francis, a mystery novelist who usually writes about
horse racing, often relies on brilliant scientist characters
to solve hard problems.  I don't recall any of his scientists
being corrupt, but often the bad guy attempts to use science
to do evil, which is why the scientist has an opportunity to
step in and lend a hand to catch the bad guy.  In one, the
narrator's sister is a renowned scientist and academic Don
who flies her own private helicopter.

There are many, often conflicting images of scientists in
the media:  as hero, criminal, kook, incompetent and expert.
But don't all those types exist in the real world?  I think
scientists are particularly difficult to protray as heroic
because many authors don't know enough science or don't feel
sufficiently knowledgable to create a character who is a
heroic scientist.

In the interest of encouraging greater communication and 
education about science, I have done a lot of work over the
past 8 years to create mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups
on scientific topics, mostly in the sci.bio.* hierarchy.  I
have found it personally extremely rewarding, many times, to
answer what seems like a foolish question from a lay reader,
by first pointing out how the question is not foolish at all
but rather goes to the heart of a difficult and interesting
problem, and then discuss how what we know (what most people
know) can be applied to confine and reduce the problem, to
focus it more sharply.

For instance, there was a question a few months ago about the
difference between apples and oranges.  I discussed the fossil
record of flowering plants during the Cretaceous, pointing out
that many families were already well established before the
evolution of fruits having multiple seed-bearing compartments
from ancestors having just one compartment.  These fruits were
probably evolved, in many different lineages, in response to
a new niche:  directed dispersal of seeds by small mammals that
ate the fruits.  Small mammals evolved during the Cretaceous,
but did not become abundant or very diverse until after the
Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary (when the dinosaurs disappeared),
leaving behind many niches for mammals to fill.  That short
essay was probably read by a few tens of thousands of Usenet
readers, and it generated four e-mail thankyou letters to me.

Recently, in various Usenet newsgroups, there has been a very
annoying thread about how Usenet is male-dominated and women
are rarely heard from.  I don't claim to know why this is so,
but it is a fact that most people who post are male.  There
is some evidence that male readers post more often than female
readers do (and that there are fewer female readers than male
readers in most newsgroups).  There are now 9 newsgroups in
sci.bio.*, all widely propagated and active, and thus widely
read:  I encourage you to reach out and post there sometimes,
as well as in the cosy women's corner of bionet.women-in-bio.

	Una Smith		una.smith at yale.edu

Dept. of Biology, Yale Univ., New Haven, CT  06520-8104

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