I had a friend in college who spent a lot of time dissecting frozen rat brains (or something), which I always thought was funny but she swore was part of important neurological research.Yglesias is poking gentle fun, of course, but I found his tossed-off comment distressing. It indicated that, even at Harvard, it was difficult to bridge the 'two cultures' divide. Two things that I found disappointing: he didn't remember the 'how' correctly, and he couldn't connect the 'how' with the 'why.'
|A section of placenta. While I love chemistry, biology really|
has got us beat on the picture front.
Photo credit: ispub.com*
slide, where they can melt and adhere. The slides can then be stained for morphology and presence of DNA, RNA or protein. The pictures that they can capture can be stunning. The most visually stunning 'how' technique in biology -- and he makes it sound like she's mashing frozen Hot Pockets.
What may be more disappointing is that Yglesias didn't remember (or his friend failed to press into him) the 'why' of what she was doing. Doubtless, there was an unknown region of the brain, or a key receptor or a new protein that would have shed light on some aspect of neurology. But sadly, that information is lost to him.
It got me to thinking about chemistry and people's perception of us as chemists. What do people think of us? Do they know the 'what' of chemistry or the 'how'? Do they know the 'why'?
What do people think of us? Well, according to this ACS study from 2000, honestly, they don't think of us at all. When they do, they're mostly vaguely positive. They're not so sure about the chemical industry (and these days, they're probably not keen on the pharmaceutical industry, either.)
Do they know the 'what'? To be blunt, I think the public thinks they know the 'what': we're chemists. We work with chemicals. (What are chemicals? That's someone else's post, I think.) To hear the jokes, of course, we're always making bad smells or blowing ourselves up. Thanks to AMC (and lots of other reasons), chemists and chemistry is also connected with recreational drugs. I don't think anyone blames 'Breaking Bad' for the perceptions of chemists (although some might), but it certainly doesn't help much.
Certainly, the federal government knows what we do -- that's a relief. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' description is pretty pat: "Conduct[s] qualitative and quantitative chemical analyses or experiments in laboratories for quality or process control or to develop new products or knowledge."
Do they know the 'why'? I don't know. I assume that they do. Chemists certainly do -- most chemistry papers make a least a head-fake towards the why: "We're making whateverol because we think it might have anticancer properties." "We're looking at the properties of gallium-arsenide quantum nanodots to make faster computers." "We're studying this polymer to make cheaper, greener plastics." That's the easier part, and the place where I think the public's perception of chemists is the closest to reality.
Do they know the 'how'? I think their perception of the 'how' is grossly distorted. In short, chemists look at chemicals. Check out these pictures -- there we are, chemists, staring at chemicals stored in glassware. Sometimes we look at them in the light, sometimes we look really hard at them, sometimes we raise them above our heads, sometimes we look at them with inspiration, but we look at them. Pages and pages of stock photos of chemists, and not a single photo that looks anything like a technique that I would recognize (although, it should be noted, that there is a wide diversity in what chemists look like.)
|Professor Test-Tube on the right is a crowd favorite, I'm sure.|
I have no great science communication insights to share (yeah, no kidding. -ed.), nor solutions to the clear problems with the public perception of chemists. As someone who can't stop talking about chemistry and science with his friends and family (no matter how hard he tries), all I have to offer is the following that I've gleaned over the last two weeks of thinking over this problem:
Don't go for the 'why' just yet: I think it's tempting to go for the 'why' too early. When you tell people "I work on cancer drugs", it's not likely to make people ask you more about your work. I think it may end the conversation about your work and it's a lot more likely to get people to tell you about their health problems (which you may or may not want). It's an escape hatch, and someday, you're going to meet someone who's more interested in what and how you actually do your work as a chemist.
Can the 'how' be just as interesting as the 'why'? For day-to-day bench chemists, of course, the 'how' can be the most interesting part of being a chemist. The 'why' is taken for granted and the 'how' is our day-to-day lives. While it's difficult, I think it's possible to make the 'how' just as interesting as the 'why'. For example, Matt's kitchen chemistry posts are a great way of using cooking techniques to talk about chemical principles. While I think there are real challenges in telling a good story about a NMR or a HPLC, I think these are problems that may be surmountable.
Does it all matter? While I am sorely tempted to say that public perception of chemists doesn't matter, the cold truth is that it does. The chemical sciences (and industrial chemistry, certainly) are deeply intertwined with the economy and with the political, legal and regulatory systems of government. Communicating chemistry with candor and clarity is one of the few means we have to make sure our voices as chemists are heard.
If you've gotten this far, dear reader, thanks and I'd love to hear your thoughts. (And many thanks to Dr. Free Ride and her post on communicating chemistry informally -- it was an eye-opener.)