Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"It's Easy To Be Right.... "

I really, really, REALLY shouldn't be picking on sophomores, because I don't want to be THAT petty. But honestly, quote like this shouldn't make it into any kind of publication because it just conveys the wrong idea to the public on why many of us work in science.

The news article describes what should be a very enjoyable event where the public and other non-science students get to learn a bit about astronomy and talk to astronomers.

A lecture last night, “A Study in Scarlet: The Spitzer Space Telescope View of the Triangulum Galaxy,” was presented by Dr. Joannah Hinz, senior research assistant in the infrared astronomy wing. The lecture focused on the Triangulum Galaxy, one of three spiral galaxies in our local galaxy group.

The program, its directors say, aims to give everyone from old and seasoned astronomers to young and eager students with their first telescopes, a view of the universe’s expanse. Steward Observatory has been hosting public, evening lectures on astronomy since 1922.

A very commendable event, and something that should be done more often in many places. But then, they had to get soundbites, and this is where things go a bit sour.

Steward Observatory is paid for with taxpayer money and the lecture series is one way in which astronomers can give back to the public by sharing the exciting research they conduct, said Thomas Fleming, associate astronomer and senior lecturer at the observatory.

“You really have no idea how big the universe is,” he said. “If you don’t look to the stars, you’re ignoring 99.9999 percent of the universe. Every other department deals with what happens on this planet, we have the whole rest of the universe.”

Well, that's not quite true, is it? Considering that the search for dark matter actually might also be possible at the LHC is one example (unless, of course, what is meant by "department" here includes physics AND astronomy).

But then, things go REALLY sour here when they quoted a "... sophomore astronomy and physics major.. "

{think carefully, ZapperZ... there's still time to back out!}

“I like being right,” Pye pye Zaw, a sophomore astronomy and physics major said about why she choose to study the stars. “It’s easy to be right in a field where no one knows the right answer … Also, I really like shiny things.”

So I gasped a bit when I read that.

The history of physics is littered with WRONG ideas and conclusions during the development of the understanding of something. So while no one knows what is "right" when something is right at the cutting edge research front, EVENTUALLY, the right answers will come, and that's why we will see many fallen theories, descriptions, ideas, etc. Forget about the attitude of "I like being right", but having the delusion that one's idea is right simply because we still don't know what the right answer will be is astoundingly irrational.

The problem with this is that now it is out in the public, it gives a huge opening for opponents of science ("This is an example of egocentric people they're training to be scientists"). Sure, one could argue that they're using something that came out of the mouth of a sophomore in college, but I've seen many science critics use less to attack science and scientists.

Maybe this student will gain a bit more wisdom as she grows older. Still, I wouldn't use any of such phrase if she intends to apply for undergrad internships. I certainly wouldn't hire her if I see such statement in her application essay.


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