This post came about after I heard one of my colleagues introduced himself at a party. Someone asked him what he did for a living. His answer was "Oh, I'm a College Professor". Which is true. But he is a physics professor, and more often than not, he is also a physicist. But I found it rather fascinating that he would introduce himself as a college professor first. I suppose that is more understandable to most people than telling them you are a physicist.
So when you see the word "Occupation" on a form, what do you write? I suppose if you are a physicist working in a lab, and that's all you do (i.e. you're also not a college instructor), you may write "Physicist" in that section. Or do you write "Scientist" instead, to make it more descriptive?
I have described myself as a "Physicist" when someone asked for my occupation. Half of the time, people kinda knew what it was, although their impression of it may be wrong ("Oh, you work with nuclear bombs?" or "Oh, you work with at that big particle lab?"). But the other half of the time, I get this blank, puzzled look and I get asked "Oh? What is that?" The last person who had that reaction was a new dental hygienist at my dentist. I didn't feel like explaining too much because she was about to work on my mouth.
So let's face the fact. There aren't a lot of us out there. The general public does not bump into a physicist very often. In fact, in my wide circle of friends who are not connected with work, I know of no other physicist. I had never, EVER, bump into another physicist in a social setting that is not related to work, or not related to a colleague from work. The probability of one physicist bumping into another physicist outside of work/conferences/mutual work friends is almost as low as detecting a neutrino.
To their credit, some of the people that I've bumped into, when told about my occupation, were curious enough about some of the stuff they've read to ask me questions. I don't mind that at all. I am fully aware that most people have never met a "physicist", and the fact that they have read these things and curious enough to ask me about it was an opportunity not only to educate, but also to correct any misconception and misunderstanding that most people have about many things.
But what if you were minding your own business, and you accidentally eavesdropped on a conversation that was full of inaccurate or outright wrong information? What if, say, you were riding on a train, and the people behind you were talking about the LHC and all the doomsday brouhaha that it would do based on what they've read in the news? Do you just ignore it and let them continue on with their lives with such ignorance, or do you put down the iPad you were reading, turn around, and tell them all the wrong information that they've learned?
Guess which one I did?
Someone once asked me, at a social gathering, if we all should be worried that Fermilab might explode like a nuclear bomb just like a nuclear reactor. This was when the Tevatron was still running. After I recovered from my shock at that question, I asked this person what made him think that such a scenario was even possible? He just shrugged and said that he thought all nuclear experiments were like that and had that possibility.
After I told him that (i) Fermilab is not a nuclear facility; (ii) it doesn't have a nuclear reactor; and (iii) the experiments cannot, in principal, explode like a nuclear bomb, I proceeded in explaining to him what the experiment was about and why, really, in terms of safety, it is rather benign, especially with how difficult it was to maintain the colliding proton-antiproton beam. But it got me to think that, if someone who is above-average in education like him can have such an impression, how do others think and understand all these things?
And that is why, I believe that physicists need to come out of the closet and make themselves known to the average Joe and Josephine. There aren't that many of us when compared to other profession. The general public needs to bump into one of us on a personal level. Wear that "Kiss Me, I'm a Physicist" t-shirt with pride!
But please, comb your hair and leave behind that pocket protector.