Name That Scientist!*

9 Aug

The New York Times today has a Name That Scientist quiz today, accompanying their article on scientists engaging in politics.

I think you should take the quiz a) Because it’s only ten questions and it’s kind of fun, and b) Because my ramblings will make a little more sense then. So, go, click, guess. I believe in you.

First of all, the quiz wins points for its inclusion of 4 female scientists (out of 10 total questions). At first I thought it was a little light on the life sciences, but I suppose 3/10 is about as good as can be expected. The quiz also wins points for including Carolyn Porco, whose tweet brought it to my attention to begin with, and who is basically one of the coolest people alive. She has worked on Voyager and Cassini, has given two TED talks, was a scientific advisor for the 2009 Star Trek, and is a Beatles fan. If you ever need a role model, look no further.

Now, here is my problem with the quiz:  recognizing scientists by sight isn’t exactly a perfect metric of one’s engagement with science, or of said scientists’ visibility to to the public. For instance, Lisa Randall. I read her book, Warped Passages, on plane rides to and from my college orientation week in the early summer of 2008. I had a cold so bad I could barely hear. And it was the first time I ever felt like I truly understood relativity. (To the extent that I can understand relativity.) But did I recognize her picture? No. I did guess based on the physics-looking chalkboard scrawls in the picture provided, though.

Perhaps this quiz is a stealth test of reader awareness of perceptual cues. Dawkins, for instance, is in front of the Darwin statue in the amazing Natural History Museum in London.

The halo of light emanating from Charlie over there was purely unintentional on my part, and probably had something to do with the insane amounts of sun during our London trip.

Carolyn Porco and Neil deGrasse Tyson are both shown with planets. Jane Lubchenco seems to be making a toast. What that says about environmental scientists, I don’t know.

So the pictures do provide some science on their own–but mostly, this quiz is like a matching game, with very little intellectual content. Kudos to the NYT for providing links to articles on each scientist, but it would have made a bit more sense for information to be the main point of the exercise.

As to the article itself, well…  I agree wholeheartedly that more scientists should be involved in public policymaking, if only so that more science is involved in policymaking. Science works. It’s ridiculous not to base our actions on predictable consequences when we already have such systems in place.

At the same time, though, and on a purely selfish level, a part of me thinks that life is short and I don’t want to waste a minute of mine on politics. Give me a lab and give me funding, and frankly, the rest of the world be damned.

There is, of course, another and thankfully more prevalent part of me that only wants that lab and that funding in order to help people. That was my original reason for studying neuroscience at all–I wanted to study what made people behave irrationally, and fix it. I like to think I’m a little more realistic in my old age, but the point stands. I want to use science to help people, but if given the choice, I find it easier to do science than to argue politics. And I would bet I’m not the only one.

On a side note, I thought it was interesting that Nora Volkow was one of the answer choices. I’ve been working with a lot of NIDA information and publications this summer for my internship, so her name has come up a lot. NIDA is a good example of science beginning to be used in politics in an effective manner, proving that it is totally possible. Also, apparently Volkow is Trotsky’s great-granddaughter? The more you know.

*Are asterisks the universal sign for “I love this, but I recognize that it is problematic”? Because that’s generally how I use them.

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One Response to “Name That Scientist!*”

  1. Mediocre Renaissance Man August 9, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    I got an 8 out of 10! However, I tend to read tons of Wikipedia pages about the people I am interested in, and therefore I have seen more photos of my favorite scientists than those who simply read their works (which is still good). Also, I think I had at least two lucky guesses in there. :)

    Perhaps if they had included some famous quotes by notable scientists and asked who said what? That could have added to your score, I’ll bet.

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