You would constantly be depressed and tired

By Sean Carroll | January 21, 2006 9:36 am

From the BBC, via 3 Quarks Daily, a survey of British schoolchildren on their views about scientists.

The Science Learning Centre in London asked 11,000 pupils for their views on science and scientists. Around 70% of the 11-15 year olds questioned said they did not picture scientists as “normal young and attractive men and women”. The research examined why numbers of science exam entries are declining. They found around 80% of pupils thought scientists did “very important work” and 70% thought they worked “creatively and imaginatively”. Only 40% said they agreed that scientists did “boring and repetitive work”.

Over three quarters of the respondents thought scientists were “really brainy people”. The research is being undertaken as part of Einstein Year. Among those who said they would not like to be scientists, reasons included: “Because you would constantly be depressed and tired and not have time for family”, and “because they all wear big glasses and white coats and I am female”.

We obviously need to start posting more pictures of ourselves in our cool black leather lab coats. This white-lab-coat stereotype cannot stand.

Update: In the comments, Anna points to a fun site at Fermilab, describing the impressions that kids have of scientists both before and after visiting the lab. These drawings are by Amy.

Impressions of scientists

The pictures are great, but the written descriptions are even better. Here is Beth, before::

The scientist has big square-shaped glasses and a big geeky nose with brown hair and blue eyes. I see a scientist working in a lab with a white lab coat . . . holding a beaker filled with solutions only he knows. Scientists are very interesting people who can figure out things we don’t even know exist.

And after visiting:

My picture of a scientist is completely different than what it used to be! The scientist I saw doesn’t wear a lab coat. . . . The scientists used good vocabulary and spoke like they knew what they were talking about.

Note “spoke like,” not simply “knew what they were talking about.” That Beth is a smart cookie.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • Mike

    I have never worn a lab coat in my life. My normal lab attire of jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers should be perfectly comfortable for most young people if not very stylish.

  • Moshe

    Wow, such a rare combination of complete fantasy and ultra-realism, I guess they are being fed Hollywood movies and blog posts…

  • Anna

    Some years ago, the Education Office at Fermilab asked 7-graders to descibe scientists before and after a visit to the lab. The results are interesting and quite funny (and include drawings as well). Take a look:

  • Quibbler

    There’s a chemistry outreach program at my uni that asks the kids they work with to describe chemists. The keep getting answers like “scientists are hippies” 😀


  • macho

    As a kid, I looked forward to the white lab coat– and I’m still kind of bummed that theorists don’t get to wear them.

  • Doran

    The only students I know that are jazzed about wearing white lab-coats are medical students, so I am not sure why this stereotype of scientists continues to hold sway. From the experimental end, would a better picture of a young physicist involve sliding circuit boards into a detector two stories tall then having to mop up a fluid leak with a broom and saw dust?

    Or from my own experience, just staring absent-mindly into the glow of cathode ray tubes when your supposed to be working.

  • Dumb Biologist

    Buh…but I DO have unkempt hair and work in a white lab coat…

  • Clifford

    macho…. don’t be so conformist…did anyone tell you that as a theorist you were forbidden from wearing one? Dare to take the path less travellled! :-)


  • Julianne

    My favorite lab coat stereotype is the female scientist seen in movies. She’s always a barely disguised bombshell who gets nerded up with a lab coat, heavy glasses, and a bun. Then, through some plot twist, she’s required to squeeze into a sequinned strapless dress and heels, revealing a body that looks like she spends 23 hours a day at 24 Hour Fitness. She takes off the glasses, pulls the pins out of her bun as her magnificent head of hair shakes loose and Voila! She’s not a nerd! She’s Sandra Bullock!

  • Clifford

    Julianne: I agree that can be so ridiculous as to be funny…. I describe almost exactly the same thing in this post:


  • Julianne

    They do get it right sometimes. I quite liked Anne Heche in “Volcano” — cute but practical clothes, cool gear, and a general aura of pragmatic competence.

    On the other extreme, I remember David Letterman interviewing Denise Richards before the debut of whatever Bond movie she was in. He asked her about her character, and she replied that she played a nuclear physicist. The audience immediately burst out laughing, because the poor thing could hardly pronounce it.

  • Mark

    Yes, the Denise Richards example is a classic, as is Elizabeth Shue in “The Saint” (as is Keanu in “Chain Reaction”).

  • Plato

    Maybe the kids have inherited the “religious views” of the white lab coat having showed signs of the Frankenstein syndrome passed from our parents /parents? :)

    I think this is how the story went :)(oh, let it load)

  • Burrow

    All right! I won’t turn into a complete geek upon graduation! (act like one, maybe, but not look like one)


  • PhilipJ

    Re: depressed and tired, the kids are almost right, they’re just describing us lackey grad students! :)

  • Sam Gralla

    As admirable a goal as undoing the lab-coat stereotype is, it might be useful to teach these kids some science during their visit, too, instead of just that scientists wear normal clothes and do things besides science…

    that said, the pictures are highly cute

  • Clifford

    Sam Gralla,

    As I’ve pointed out several times on this blog, helping kids realize that scientists are regular people is one of the most important steps in teaching science… one so often overlooked! Once a kid makes the connection that if scientist do science and if they are regular people, then other regular people (such as the kid) can do science too. Suddenly, you’ve lost a whole layer of barriers to them being being open to being taught, and to them wanting to find out more on their own.

    So I urge you to not underestimate how valuable this is.



  • Babboon

    It might also be valuable to teach what science actually *is*. I remember that when I was a little kid, the “scientific method” was a list of steps that I had to re-memorize at the beginning of each school year. I paid attention those select days of the year in which movies were presented. In any case, Hollywood is about as good at describing the scientific method as it is at describing the scientists themselves.

  • amanda

    Let me get this straight. Scientists are these people who depend for a huge chunk on their income on a system of grants which is such that the money gets cut off the moment there is a hiatus in creative output. And this creative output has to be maintained until retirement.

    And then somebody is surprised when the kids think that scientists are permanently tired and depressed? What do scientists smoke that would *prevent* them from being permanently tired and depressed? Aren’t the kids just acknowledging reality?

  • Dumb Biologist

    Psst: Don’t tell the kids when they grow up they’ll practically have to memorize the contents of manuals provided by these friendly folks…

    …just to name a few. Then tell them deviation from GLP standards, most especially during a random audit from any of the sundry regulatory bodies out to get you, could lead to anything from minor sanctions to immediate termination, loss of all funding, even prosecution! Woo-hoo! Get used to lots of decidedly unsexy latex, uncomfortable cotton smocks, and big goofy goggles kids!

  • Amara

    Well, with images like this for the media, it’s no wonder that Fiorella Terenzi and Lynda Williams tried to break out of the goofy stereotypes and portray a different perspective about scientists. Diversity is good….

  • Sam Gralla

    Hi Clifford,

    I agree that it is valuable; it just seems a shame that you don’t see evidence of kids being more excited about *science* in the after than the before. I don’t know–if I were a kid coming back from really being shown fermilab I might draw some particles zooming at each other faster than a speeding bullet… or a giant underground room with big machines in it… rather than a normal-looking man spinning a basketball. When all the after pictures have either no reference to science or only the same references used in the before pictures (beakers, e=mc2), one gets the feeling that the kids didn’t really learn anything about what actually goes on at fermilab. It would be nice if the program would do both, eh?

    If you want to get more kids in to science you have to convince them not only that they don’t have to be abnormal but also that scientists do really cool things (besides get to “do whatever they want and still get paid”–see Katie)

    But this is a silly thing to argue about, since neither of us knows just what the program was like, or how they asked them to draw these pictures. And my bone to pick is a small one anyway.


  • Clifford

    No, It is a big bone…. but since (as you say) we do not know the content of the sessions…. it makes sense to bury that juicy bone somewhere in the yard and we can knaw on it later.


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  • Harv

    I’ll also point out the value in breaking stereotypes. I was at the telescope for one run to get my thesis data and a group of tour guides in training came into the building. As it was only 1pm and I was unable to sleep, I was sitting in my PJ’s watching TV. I was asked about what I was observing and such when one older guy piped up with an embarrassed look. “So are you an astronomer?” he asked sheepishly. When I nodded, he continued, “I though they were… older.” I could also read in his face, “and male, and not prone to wearing blue striped flannel PJs.”

    His face then lit up as he said, “I’m going to have to encourage my granddaughter more in her interest in science and astronomy.”

    And this was already a guy interested in science and astronomy.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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