My parents let me make gunpowder and nearly blow up the basement. Is that why I became a scientist?

What's to come?
June 8 2012 10:46 AM

Boom!

My parents let me make gunpowder and nearly blow up the basement. Is that why I became a scientist?

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The idea that our still unstudiable genetically determined temperaments shape life choices underlies my own reflections on “me and science” and “me and medicine.” But what I really know or at least remember about my family, upbringing, household, schooling, and the world of the 1940s and ’50s still makes a pretty good case for environment. What it doesn’t explain is why my older sister (librarian), younger sister (artist), and brother (lawyer) were not similarly drawn to science or medicine, but my siblings have taught me well enough about their lives for me to know deeply that no two children in a family have the same parents even though they share genes drawn from the same set and live in the same household.

Dr. Paul Plotz
Dr. Paul Plotz

Photograph by Rhoda Baer.

Finally, I do not know how to translate my own life experiences—fortunate and happy—into a prescription except to draw on the observation that I was set on the path to becoming a scientist and a physician early in life by direct opportunities to experiment and to observe afforded to me by the good fortune of my tolerant and nurturing family and later the welcoming support of schools and institutions—in my case almost all government institutions—designed to foster a career.

I will close by telling of a recent encounter with fourth-graders at a science fair in a local public school. A couple of projects struck me as outstanding—one on the unlikely subject of whether a soccer player’s preferred kicking foot is on the same side as the preferred writing hand. It was based on a sensibly designed plan with a group of soccer players on the teams in the experimenters’ league. The project took less than half a day to execute and not much longer to analyze. The design was excellent, and the two kids who had done it pointed out to me (the judge) every obvious way it could have been improved. I told the teacher privately that these kids did a terrific job and that they should think about becoming scientists. She leapt up, fetched the kids back to the gym from out of their classes so that I could tell them what I had said to her—which I did, with the suggestion that they think about a life in science. When they had left, the teacher told me that the lower grades had lost their science teacher for next year and that most of her fellow classroom teachers did not like to teach even the little science they knew and said why not drop science entirely since money is short. My own experience strongly suggests the benefits of having interesting real science experiences for children when they are young, supported by useful math skills and scientific thinking all though their education, taught by enthusiastic and good teachers.

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Also in Slate’s special issue on science education: Make magazine’s Dale Dougherty on learning science by building rockets and robots and Fred Kaplan on why another “Sputnik moment” would be impossible. Also, share your ideas for fixing science education in the Hive. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

Correction, June 11, 2012: This article misspelled Lise Meitner's first name.

Paul Plotz is a physician and scientist in Washington, D.C.