The Scientist's Image

By JoAnne Hewett | February 14, 2006 1:49 am

Much has been said here about the image that the public has about scientists – how we dress, how we work, what makes us laugh…In particular, one study concluded that children did not picture scientists as “normal young and attractive men and women.” Fermilab did their own study, asking 7th graders to draw pictures of scientists before and after visiting the laboratory – with markedly different images resulting from meeting real scientists at work.

And this topic came up at SLAC over the weekend. The annual DOE Bay Area Science Bowl was held at SLAC on Saturday. I unfortunately had a conflict this year and could not participate, but it’s a great event and a pure delight to watch the kids think about science and reason their way through problems The winning team was from Harker School in San Jose and they will compete in the national Science Bowl held in DC at the end of April. Good luck to Harker School!

In the midst of the action last Saturday, this group of science-oriented teenagers saw this picture:
Their comments were:

Gosh, scientists obviously work hard because in this picture they are working late at night, have used up the blackboard, and are wearing their pajamas.

You know that’s a real quote, because no one could make that up if they tried! Next time I put on a skirt and heels, I will try hard not to think of it as pajamas! However, note that the kids did not think it strange that a group of women would be discussing science….now that’s real progress! Pajamas and all…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • Jeff Hodges

    I hope these images stick with them. Some of their language (such as “I know scientists are just normal people with a not so normal job” from Amy or David‘s “They are just like you and me”) seems a bit over-rehearsed and force-fed. However, I’m happy to see the change in genders in the images from all-male to mixed with a direct relationship to the gender of the artist. Self-representation is a step in the right direction!

    Andy still makes them look devious as hell. Which isn’t so bad. Better devious and plain-clothed, than insane and in a lab coat. Taking over the world is best done wearing cargo pants, anyhow.

  • Ponderer of Things

    Looks like the “House was built too small” Geiko commercial. Or the “Being John Malkovich” mid-floor. It seems like the ceiling is 4 feet high, forcing everyone to get on their knees.

  • Clifford

    Um….. do you have a larger version of the Slac Think Tank picture? I barely recognized you… I’m sure your fans want more clarity…. and who are the other thinkers?

    Ok… and what is the Think Tank, exactly? Do you get sent there when you’re bad? Or when you’re good?


  • Uncle Al

    Wait just a second… Is that a para-substituted benzene ring? Cheater! There is a division of labor in the sciences: Chemistry has all answers, physics has all the questions. That had better be a Feynman diagram.

    How can you divine the secrets of the universe without cold pizza?

    Better devious and plain-clothed, than insane and in a lab coat – Jeff Hodges

    Try the lab coat. You haven’t lived until benzopinacol crystallizes from a sealed flask filed filled with an isopropanol solution of benzophenone and left in sunlight (and remember the drop of acetic acid, and LCTE). Then, a meal of delicious insanity,

  • Pingback: Pharyngula()

  • Aaron

    To be fair, the lady in white does kinda look like she’s wearing pajamas. Also, I think it’s really cute that they’ve used up so much blackboard they’re on the floor. Such enthusiasm! :)

  • JoAnne

    Clifford, yes the SLAC Think Tank (also called the FishBowl) is a real room and is rather cool. It’s a discussion room for the theory group and is on the theory floor. It has blackboards from essentially floor to ceiling (my favorite kind) on 3 walls with the 4th wall being all glass. It is constantly in use for spontaneous physics discussion – we do not allow meetings to be scheduled in the room. I designed the room when we remodeled (to get our grad students out of cubilces) and set up the no-meeting rule. The other theorists in the photo are Helen Quinn (standing) and 2 former theory grad students Yue Chen (kneeling, now at UCSF) and Yasmin Farzan (sitting, now teaching back in Iran).

    As to the picture size – Sean always scolds me for posting pictures that are too big, so now I only post postage stamps.

    Aaron, is is not unusual at all for me to be kneeling or sitting on the floor when writing at the bottom of the board – but I am usually wearing jeans instead of pajamas! I knelt spontaneously during the photo shoot and then the photographer flipped and wouldn’t let me move. So, I kneeled and pointed at the board for about 45 minutes and ended up with huge bruises on my knees that lasted for 4 weeks!

    Uncle Al, that’s most definitely a Feynman diagram! It’s a vacuum polarization graph, which describes the effects of quantum fluctuations.

  • Clifford


    I think this is an excellent photo and it would be great to see it a bit bigger….a lot of people like to see physicists at work, and all the equations and such….you can post something quite a bit bigger than that and not get scolded by Sean. …And it’s not like it’s pictures of irrelevant stuff like noodles, mountains, flowers, etc….. er…. I’d better stop there. 😉


  • Plato

    Use the a href reference in front of the picture in followed by Img src in . This restricts the size of the picture within the space you have alloted for writing(the size it is now) while, if you target=_blank, after a href, this will open in a larger window.

    This resolves some of the limited space you have for larger viewing and you can close it without closing article.

    Hopefully that made sense

  • Clifford


    The Think Tank is a brilliant idea, and well executed! (I suppose it was either going to be that name or the “Interaction Room”… one or the other)

    Anyway, well done!


  • chimpanzee

    Substance VS Appearance, Form Vs Function

    “It’s all about IMPRESSION ( appearance, form )”

    [ unfortunately, this is how the world operates. It explains how “C students” get elected to the Highest Office (& set new records for Incompetence/Idiocy/Lunacy, mimicing “The Three Stooges”), why Scientists are always at odds with Journalists constantly screw up the “Reporting of Science”, why Science (“Seeking Truth”) gets the short-end-of-the-stick compared to Religion, Pseudo-Science (“Why People Believe Strange Things”/Michael Shermer/Skeptics Society) ]

    My take:
    It wasn’t obvious that the 2 persons on the right were female, so the “all-female scientist thing” wasn’t conveyed.

    “Impressions” (emotional/fuzzy VS truth) combined with “Stereotypes” can lead to mis-interpretation by the general-public. See below.

    Recommendations to Attract More Women and Minorities into Science, Engineering, and Technology

    “Students, and in particular female students, must be able to “see”
    themselves as scientists, mathematicians, etc. The media still
    propagates stereotypes of scientists as being geeky white males. This
    can be an unsavory image for boys, but this stereotype certainly acts
    as a deterrent for girls who have the talent for SET careers. In
    fact, 75% of all scientists depicted on prime time television are
    white males, and a survey conducted by the US Department of Commerce
    revealed that “the more people watch television , the more they think
    scientists are odd and peculiar” [5]

    Kids in middle school are also just beginning to worry about their own
    self-image and reputation. They want to be “cool,” and will tend to
    reject what they believe is awkward or “uncool” in any way!
    We can see the effects of this stereotyping particularly in girls,
    since girls are taught to be more concerned about their appearance
    than boys.

    Even more telling, was an experience I had in the 9th grade.

    After our first test, my science teacher pulled me aside and expressed
    surprise at my high score, exclaiming how unexpected it was that I
    would be a good student in science. “You just seem so outgoing and you
    wear such brightly colored earrings… I just didn’t think you would be
    very smart.” All based on appearances, the teacher was judging me
    according to the stereotypes that are so deeply ingrained in our
    society: the socially inept, nerdy looking guy who doesn’t care about
    fashion. Here’s the most interesting part.

    The teacher was a woman.

    · Public service announcement campaign aimed at young women
    · These could target the idea that technical jobs can be among
    the easiest to maintain while being a full time mother. Today, more
    and more computer jobs can be carried out from a laptop computer at
    · Have real life scientists and professors (preferably female
    minorities) visit schools as part of a campaign to teach students
    about how research and academia works at the University level. The
    earlier students understand their options, the better.

    In conclusion, I’d like to offer my services as a personality,
    actress, and mathematician to help any programs aimed at encouraging
    young girls to pursue math and science. In addition to writing my
    math website at and being the national
    spokesperson for “Figure This,” I am always interested in being
    involved in new programs to build the strength of the SET community.”

  • chimpanzee


    I think this is an excellent photo and it would be great to see it a bit bigger

    In addition to using larger pictures (“text & picture blog”), using videos (“video blog”) can help enhance the “delivery of the message”. With 42 million iPods, there is a real opportunity to “connect to the Masses”, by using the new technology of the iPod/iTunes VoD (“Video on Demand”) medium.

    [ CVJ had the post where USC profs got together to discuss “how to use the new blogging technology”. Stanford Univ is already releasing lectures as publicly-accessible iTunes podcasts, other universities like Duke, Univ of Washington, Univ of Michigan are also using podcast ]

    A video-podcast over iPod/iTUnes is a *syndication* of a video-blog. That’s what I’m doing for the niche-market I’m working in:

    “Our little wonder in the Desert”
    [ this is a good description of Science: “Our Little Wonder”, that has a perception problem by the general public. It affects recruitment of talent, & taxpayer-based funding ] lacks any mainstream TV/Print-Media coverage, so I’m turning to “Alternative Models” for more Media-Exposure/Public-Education. The frustration of Scientists having to go thru an “Intermediary” (science-challenged mainstream journalists) can be no more: with video-blogging, you can be your own science-journalist. Portable video-cameras, video-editors on laptops means anyone can do their own video-production. Apple has a nice economical solution, with iMovie on their Powerbooks (what I use).

    Cosmic Variance can be setup with a special RSS feed (, to create “enclosures” for audio/video that are iPod/iTunes compatible. I’ve been delivering a video-blog “multimedia experience” (audio & video) for a niche market. It gives a user a feeling of what “Our Little Wonder” is like. This would be the next step, to video-blog a “Think Tank” give the public a feeling of “what it’s like”. No more mis-perceptions of pajamas, late night sessions, females confused as males, etc.

    There is even a LIVE twist to video-blogging (which I’ve been playing with). Some of these camera cellphones (& even portable digital cameras) do good quality videos, & you can send it to a blog over Wireless. CVJ & Mark have posted images to CV from their cellphones (non-Live). Imagine doing a science experiment, delivering a lecture, hiking up Mt. Wilson, attending a conference..& video-blogging it LIVE to an audience.

    Sort of like a birds-eye “live” view of “A Day in the Life of a Scientist”, using blogging-technology. There is an obviously an opportunity for the FIRST scientist to do this. It would probably attract a LOT of media-attention (& spur others to do it).

  • Plato

    ah! that is the kind of thinking that we should encourage Chimp:)as we progress to the “glass room” of the internet’s intersecting minds.

    Like I told MOshe, in Vancouver park, a glass dome, the blackboard, can become the visionary example as we share perspective, and lead into, each other’s brain points for further dialogue. The glass room is the meeting point of somebodies larger brain?

    Throwing glass of cold water over face! Where am I? :)

  • Daniel

    Off topic, but…how do scientists deal with this kind of stuff?
    Not so good for their image, eh?

  • Plato

    Tabula rasa:The Glass Room

    Further interpretation on this can be considered in relation to a previous post by Clifford called, “Encounters.

    We are are all capable of having that space, with which the child’s mind is as close as to the blank slate. Would have seemed to be a common idealization, with the introduction of the glass room?


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