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Phil’s mom, the science person

June 21, 2011

I think of myself as a “science communicator” who can discuss my work comfortably and effectively with the general public, but I have yet to make it comprehensible by my son.

A recent conversation went like this.

“Dad, why are you going to work?”

“I have to grow some bacteria.”

“What are back-oh-teria?”

“Um, they’re like little tiny bugs that swim around in your blood.”

“Are they fish?”

“No, not really….”

Then I changed the topic.

L had more success in telling Phil about a research project that she did as an undergraduate.

“You can catch bees with a net. It isn’t that hard. I did it a lot one summer.”

“Why did you catch bees?”

“I caught them and painted them so that I could identify them.”

Phil paused thoughtfully. “Were you a science person?”

I can’t tell what the word “science” means to Phil at this point, or what aspect of the description made him think that she was doing science. But somehow a reasonable connection was made.

Maybe in a year or two he’ll realize that people who study back-oh-teria are scientists too.

One comment

  1. In college, my advisor Dave Smith told me about how his 10-year old son had counted the frogs in their backyard pond. He caught them one by one and kept track of how many he caught. When David asked him how he knew he hadn’t caught the same frog twice, he replied “I drew their butts”. He’d realized that different frogs had different patterns of spots on them, so by drawing the spots of the frogs he caught he could keep track of which ones he’d caught before.

    This led David to suggest a definition of “scientist” (“science person” to Phil): “If you’re catching frogs and staring at their butts, you’re a crazy person. But if you’re catching frogs and staring at their butts in order to learn something about frogs, you’re a scientist”. For “catching frogs and looking at their butts,” one can of course substitute “catching bees and painting them” or other seemingly-crazy activities.



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