On Parents and Physicists

By Mark Trodden | October 12, 2005 11:42 pm

First Clifford and then JoAnne have recently written about what their families think of them being physicists and whether they understand what it is their children actually do. These are interesting questions, not only because they explore the personal side of being a physicist, but also because a close look at physicists’ parents might shed some light on the kinds of backgrounds that help kids to succeed in science.

Certainly, physicists come from highly diverse backgrounds. Just looking around my own department, I see many different nationalities, several generations, and people whose parents came from very different strata of their home societies. In my case, I come from the North of England, where my parents are both working class people, of great intelligence, wit and curiosity, but without college degrees. My Father works in a factory and my Mother works on a market. Some colleagues I meet have similar backgrounds, others come from parents in business or finance, yet more come from long lines of academics, and some have one parent who is a dedicated homemaker, as my Mother was when my brother and I were young children. On the face of it, a pattern doesn’t leap out.

But there is one characteristic that comes up again and again when I talk to my colleagues and students. It came up in Clifford’s comments on his post and JoAnne’s post touched on it also. As Clifford put it

“In general, they are of course very supportive, which is what matters most. They have a sense that I’ve achieved something in whatever it is that I do (whether they understand it or not) and so are proud of this, which is very nice to know.”

This is it – our families tend to have been very supportive of us, no matter what we wanted to do! This is absolutely crucial for children – I know it was for me. My parents always, unfailingly, told me that they didn’t care what I wanted to do with my life as long as a) I worked hard to do the best that I could at school and b) I was happy in what I ended up doing. They didn’t care whether or not I made a lot of money, whether I achieved any kind of status, whether I was famous, or any other specific at all. Looking back, I think this was truly remarkable, especially since it sometimes happens that kids from families that don’t make a lot of money are often encouraged to take care of their financial future before anything else.

As in Clifford’s case, and JoAnne’s, my parents only have a very loose grasp of what I do. Of course, they are unbelievably proud of me (if you ever meet my Mother, you’d better prepare for a good dose of bragging, albeit in a delightfully lovable and sweet way). But, much more than that, they take incredible delight in knowing that I’m happy and that I get up every day to do something that I love. Without their unwavering support, which gave me the confidence that a kid needs to explore their options and gradually home in on their direction in life, I may never have taken the steps needed to become the way I am.

This is what I find to be something of a common theme among physicists (and academics in general). Doing what we do requires a large investment of time, a long period living on a much lower income than one could command elsewhere, and a comparable period living on a somewhat better salary, but with absolutely no job security and no guarantee that one’s career will be able to continue in one’s field of choice. I’m not complaining about the rules of the game, but protective parents may be inclined to worry about their kids taking this route. To make it worse, in a similar way that economic disadvantage can put increased pressure on the parents of prospective physicists, the worries of parents from other underrepresented groups in science may also be increased when they don’t see others who look like their children following the same path.

Those parents who see through the small stuff and are supportive no matter what, are truly special. They seem to be one of the important ingredients in many physicists’ careers. I, and many physicists I know, are spectacularly lucky in this regard.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Science and Society
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Nice post Mark. You are right – patterns in the parental background of physicists are hard to discern. Although most of the folks surrounding me at Stanford come from academic backgrounds.

    For me, my Dad was drafted (Korea) and didn’t go to college. Luckily he had high test scores in the army and was stationed stateside – he taught radar classes. (Of course being stateside in the early 50’s, he was one of the troops sent to Nevada to witness atomic bomb tests. He has incredible stories about being forced to walk across groundzero 15 minutes after the blast.)

    My mother did something amazing for her time. She left home, graduated from college with a degree in English and minor in Math, and moved 1500 miles away from her family to teach in a boarding school for rich girls in El Paso, Texas. (Sandra O’Connor graduated from that school). I cannot deny the influence that my Mother had on me, her help in understanding Math as I went through school, and her stories about being the only woman in her college Math classes.

    That said, I don’t feel like my parents took my career seriously until I landed my faculty postion at Stanford. I still remember them being shocked. Sorta like “Gosh, I guess you *are* good, afterall. Who would have guessed!” (That was actually a direct quote.) Up to that point, I always had the feeling that they thought I was marking time, not being serious about this science thing, until I got pregnant. Well, the pregnant thing didn’t happen, and now they are proud, very proud, and bore all their friends. I could not have better or more loving parents. So don’t get me wrong, they are very dear folks, but I just don’t feel like they expected me to do anything.

  • Moshe Rozali


    I was actually under the impression (no hard data, just an impression) that most scientists I know are from upper-middle class families, usually with some tradition of higher education. Not fitting either one of these criteria myself, I completely agree with what you write.

  • http://urbanist.typepad.com Jarrett

    I wonder if English professors can say the same.

  • http://www.angrystanek.com Becky Stanek

    To make it worse, in a similar way that economic disadvantage can put increased pressure on the parents of prospective physicists, the worries of parents from other underrepresented groups in science may also be increased when they don’t see others who look like their children following the same path.

    My parents have always been very supportive of any crazy thing that I pursue (or that my brother pursues, for that matter). Also, my mother was the only woman working in her (bank insurance) office when she started, at age 22, so I never had any fear of dealing with a male-dominated field. I realize that this experience is similar to JoAnne’s, and I wonder how many women in physics had a strong female role model.

  • citrine

    My mom and many of her friends and relatives studied Biology. Because of this, my mom was fully supportive of my interest in the sciences although she never got my fascination with Physics and Math!

    My dad’s side of the family is not at all intellectually inclined. (His sisters and female cousins are bored homemakers whose only interests are shopping and partying.) However, my dad was very bookish and obtained a degree in Economics. He was also very supportive of me although he had no interest in the sciences. His mom paid for my education in the USA. She never got over the horror that I didn’t wear any jewelery (an issue of tremendous significance to S.Asian women) but realized that I had a redeeming quality – an intellectual bent that was worth nurturing.

  • janet

    Mark, I can’t think of a better tribute to good parenting.

    One of the mistakes that even loving and well-meaning parents make is to have a very specific idea of what they want their child to do and be, and push the child in that direction. I think better things happen when parents take the attitude that their job is to help their children become the best adults they can be, even if they end up doing something that the parents didn’t expect or even know about.

  • Frank

    Suppose you were in the position where your children ask your advice whether to pursue a career in physics or let’s say as a medical doctor; it seems that they will have much more chances to “succeed” as a doctor (it’s easy to find a lot of frustrated physicists failing to become a professor at Stanford!). So what would you tell them as a physicist?

  • http://fwfr.com Lil

    I recall reading somewhere, a little story told by, I think, Marcus Chown? about how he tried to explain his study of physics to his mother. Because his mother had seen Richard Feynmann interviewed on TV and had been impressed, Chown wrote to Feynmann asking if he would send a note to his mother to explain why she should care about Chown’s explanations. Feynmann did write to Mrs. Chown and his note said, “Dear Mrs. Chown, Ignore your son’s attempts to teach you physics. Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is. Best wishes, Richard Feynman.”

    I think too many parents become obsessed with housekeeping and soccer practices and the like and not enough with simply loving and playing with their children.

    There is a saying, “Blessed is the man who has found his work, for there is no greater blessing.”

  • janet

    Actually, these days morale among doctors in the US is pretty low, and the prestige of MDs is not what it used to be.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Frank. I’d tell them “Do as well as you can in school, and find your own way to what will make you happy. If you are well-educated and well-rounded, making a good career for yourself will always be possible, and whatever it is you choose, I’ll support you. And once again – work hard and do as well as you can in school!

  • http://www.damtp.cam.ac.uk damtp dweller

    Good post. I’ve often wondered whether physicists undergo some common experience that pushes them in the direction of science. Given the wide variety of economic backgrounds that physicists come from it’s probably correct to say that a common thread is having supportive parents.

    I used to be pretty vexed by my parents not understanding what it is that I do, but as the years have gone by this has become less of an issue. It’s around those “big” times in my life that they seem to get it: graduation, going to grad school, good exam results and so forth. Probably the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with my parents trying to figure out what is is I do is when they first came to Cambridge to visit me when I started grad school. I could tell they were pretty sceptical about my decision to get a PhD (I’d just recently turned down the chance to become a solicitor and the potential earnings were huge compared to what my working class parents earned in a typical year) but they became visibly happier as I showed them around the town. The look on my mother’s face as I brought her in to see King’s was priceless. She said “Son, I don’t know what it is that you do but if you’re happy and if you get to live in a place like this, I’m happy.” That was a pretty cool day.

  • Mike

    Neither of my parents went to college, but I was told from a very early age that I should plan to go to college. I think this was mostly my mother’s idea. Other than that they did not push me in any particular direction. I discovered science at a fairly young age around 8-9 and I was fascinated by the space program. I probably did not have a realistic idea of what it means to be a scientist until I spent the summer after my junior year at Fermilab, but the unrealistic ideas kept me going until I did.

    I am now on the other end of the problem with three daughters. My oldest wants be a doctor and is currently majoring in biology. Number two has almost no interest in science at all, and number three is probably somewhere between the first two. All three know that being a scientist is a perfectly normal thing to do, after all their goofy dad can do it.

  • spyder

    One of the points i stressed to the teachers i taught was that not all homes and parents are as supportive as most of theirs had been; and therefore they needed to make an effort to encourage their students to learn and experience a world beyond limited opportunties. I wholeheartedly advised elementary and middle school teachers to take their students on tours of universities. It didn’t matter what tours, although i strongly suggested that the sciences offered better “action”, and that taking students into those amazing research libraries to breathe in those fungal vapors would leave deeply lasting experiences.

    My own parents, scientists with advanced degrees, never stressed that my siblings and myself had to go to universities. They just took us to them, all over the US, all the time whenever we were travelling about. By the time i was ten or so in the mid-50’s, i had been on the campuses of maybe a hundred major US universities outside of Southern California, and had spent what seemed like eons of time on the local ones (UCLA, USC, Cal Tech, all the Cal State’s, etc.). Not unlike Mike’s situation, i was the oldest and went off into the humanities studying religion, philosophy and education getting a Ph.D. My brother (next) is an MD/Ph.D. specializing in oncology and psychology of dying; the youngest, my sister earned a Ph.D. in nutrition and owns her own consulting group. Growing up we never thought about getting to college, but on what we could do after getting through grad school. We discussed it at the dinner table; we argued about the which university was better while driving in the car. Our parents for the most part ignored those discussions and usually redirected our focus on the latest news of discoveries and explorations.

  • Jack

    I’m going to do everything in my power to dissuade my kid from being an academic. I figure that if the persuasion is ineffective despite all the horror stories I can tell, then she must really be cut out for it.

  • citrine


    I hope you are being facetious. Every profession (or whatever course you take in life – be it regarding where you choose to live, whom one chooses to marry, etc.) comes with a set of risks. Isn’t encouraging a child to make the most of their aptitudes and preparing him/her to deal with life’s ups and downs a more constructive take on things?

  • SteveM

    Supportive parents are what matters most if you choose to go into science, or indeed any career no matter what it is. To give you the freedom to pursue your goals and interests without pressuring you, even if they don’t really understand what you are doing. My brother and I were very lucky in that regard.

    My father was an electronics expert and worked in anuclear power plant for 35 years. He did’nt have a degree but he learned by doing,first developing afascination for radio in his teens and then tv. In the 1950s he even built a basic tv. He could fix anything electronic and was always building some kind of circuit.In the 60s and 70s people came to our door with broken radios, tvs and record players since they could usually not afford to replace them, and were always ecstatic to get them fixed. He always did it for free. In the 60s he landed a really good job in charge of electronic instrumentation maintainance in the nuclear industry.

    When I about 7 or 8 he told me some truly astonishing facts. He said everything in the world was made of atoms–everything. The table, the air, even me. Things called electrons travelled around the centre of these atoms and it was flow of these electrons inside a metal wire that gave rise to electricity. He drew it all out of course like a little solar system. He also told me that nothing went fast than light and that radio was like invisible light. He also gave me a radio circuit to build with a coil, tuner, wires, capacitor, transistors and a small speaker. A very simple affair. I did’nt know how it worked but assembled it with a bit of help. But when it was done and the battery was connected and the tuner turned faint music began to emerge above the hiss from the speaker!

    He also said that if you take the distance around a circle and divided it by the distance across the circle (diameter) you always get the same number no matter what the size of the circle. This number is called “pi” he said. I argued that a bigger circle should surely have a bigger humber but he said it was always the same 3.14159. (I already understood decimals and fractions). These are actually three very profound ideas that any 7 or 8 year old could grasp actually if explained right, and he certainly explained them right. A little while later he explained the Pythagoras theorem.

    I have found these memories coming back and are very relevant to this thread I feel. It is now a few weeks since his funeral, after a battle with cancer (perhaps a consequence of his work environment). So I say to Mark, Clifford and everyone else, while you can, tell your parents what they mean to you and how much you have appreciated their love and support.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    That’s a lovely story SteveM. Sorry to hear about your Father – sounds like he was a great guy.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    SteveM :- Thanks so much for that…. -cvj

  • SteveM

    Thanks guys. The blog has been a welcome distraction during a difficult time with sleepless nights. Next paper I get accepted will then be dedicated to him.

  • Pingback: Education and expectations | Cosmic Variance()


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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