What Got You Interested in Science?

By Sean Carroll | February 10, 2010 8:44 am

Yesterday’s book club raised the question of what first inspires young people to get interested in science. Many Cosmic Variance readers aren’t scientists at all, but a lot of you are. So — what first set you down this road? For purposes of this highly non-scientific investigation, let’s define “scientist” fairly broadly, as someone who has either received a bachelor’s degree in some scientific field, or is currently on the road to doing so (e.g. someone currently in high school or college). Even if you’re not currently a full-time scientist, we’ll count you if you got the degree.

Here’s a poll based on my quick guesses as to what might be the leading causes of nudging people into science.

What first inspired you to study science?
Parent, relative, or friend.
Role model outside friends and family.
Teacher or a particular class.
Science fair, mathletics, or other scholastic activity.
Personal hobby or tinkering.
Science books (non-fiction).
Science fiction or fantasy literature.
Movies, TV, radio.
The internet (for you youngsters).
Free polls from Pollhost.com

I’d be very interested to hear if I’m leaving out some hugely influential category. And you can vote for more than one thing, if you think you were influenced by multiple sources. Among the many flaws of this kind of poll is that you might not actually remember what first inspired you — maybe it was hearing something on the radio, which made you go check out a book, but you remember the book and not the radio show. So be it; just try your best to be honest.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • http://www.flamencoandarabicpop.com Adam Solomon

    Oh God, I don’t remember. I was interested in dinosaurs since I was really really little…. I remember buying books on them so I voted for that. What I do remember more clearly (even though I was 5) is how I left dinosaurs and got into astronomy: my parents read me a book on the planets. And I was hooked. So I voted for parents, too :)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Hmm, probably should have included an option for museums/science centers. I was all about the dinosaurs myself.

  • dpc

    I can’t remember any exact thing. But overall, I just loved being outside. I was not a science-obsessed kid. In fact, I often longed for a ‘mystical’ or religious experience in nature. I never met with any spirits in the forest but the mysteries still captivated me….Now I have a PhD in ecology and can’t imagine another career.

  • Toni

    Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when I was 8.

  • GW

    I’m not a scientist so I didn’t vote, but I’ve always loved the subject! When I was five my father gave me an old adding machine, a screwdriver and told me to have fun (I did!)
    Growing up there were always fun little “experiments” to go along with explanations for how the world worked – like turning off all the lights are night and holding a flashlight (turned on) up against the TV screen (turned off) and watching the phosphorus light up as you moved the flashlight around (same effect on the marble counter top with a camera flash!)

    I never chose to pursue a science degree as I couldn’t pick just one field; instead I went with computer animation as art and computers were slightly higher on the list of interests (but not by much!!!)

  • Chrysoprase

    “Sheer wonder” would have been an appropriate option.

  • J.J.E.

    It is actually very odd for me. I clicked “other”. My desire to be a scientist was already established by the time I had reliable memories about that desire. By the time I was 5 I already recall having been interested in scientists (rather than science itself). I think I wanted to be a scientist for the same reason that kids want to be presidents or firemen or policemen. Because it seemed cool to me at the time.

    All the influences I actually remember were after I was already telling people I wanted to be a scientist. Before I was 10 I wanted to be in robotics @ MIT, but I actually ended up in biology @ U of C. Still a scientist though…

  • Metre

    I checked “other” b/c for me it was growing up during the heyday of the NASA Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. The opening of space to humans was quite facinating to me as a youngster, and got me interested in astronomy, physics, and aerospace engineeering. I ended up in engineering, but got my BS in Physical Science. I still like to remind my teenaged son that a man has walked on the moon in my lifetime, but not in his.

  • Brian Mingus

    Internet/The Selfish Gene

  • Randy LaMonda

    I think that we should all consider ourselves scientists regardless of our work or profession. So I am first and foremost a scientist and permit it to direct my thinking in all other areas. We all use the scientific method whether we are aware of it or not; it doesn’t make any sense to say that you rely on unreason or irrationality.

  • UchicagoMan

    I too remember looking at great books as a child, filled with wonderful pictures of planets, and celestial bodies and other phenomenon, like black-holes and quasars.

    Also, this really neat kid’s book series which had awesomely detailed drawings of different visions of the future, with like just everyday normal living activity in the city, in addition to crazy space-type exploration. I wish I could remember the name of it!

    The kid’s library section was in many ways like the internet is now for me, wander around and find something intriguing you have never seen/heard of before!

    Also, taking apart things, like VCRs.

    Mush later on, my fascination became more serious after I discovered and really started to read about Quantum Mechanics and the world of particles!

    As I read these books, it was like a mystery suspense slowing being unraveled building up to deeper truths and discovery. As I learned more and more, I loved putting the pieces together (in my naive middle/high-school mind at least) But, eventually the books didn’t have an the next answer anymore!

    And now, the suspense is still there! And I await the next discovery!
    I think I know now how so many brilliant scientists must have at least partially felt on their death-bed (especially those in such a technology heavy world as today), knowing all the amazing things left to learn and wonder about that they will never experience.

    Science can be like a drug! Always yearning for more!
    A “beautiful struggle!”

    (Disclosure: I am now PhD student)

  • John Peacock

    You don’t list the experience of being in a class at school that everyone is finding difficult, but that you find easy. I felt I never had a choice about studying science, for this reason. But which science? I was very nearly a chemist rather than a physicist, because one teacher was much more enthusiastic that the other. I was lucky that it was possible to change in 1st-year university, when I belatedly realised that you do more good physics at school in chemistry and maths classes than you do in physics itself (which at school level was mainly 1001 ways to measure a specific heat).

    As for science fact / science fiction books, the undisputed king of both for my generation was Isaac Asimov. His fiction survives, but are they still printing his factual books? He had an eye for neat thought-provoking curiosities: most mammals live for a billion heartbeats, but people do about 4 times as well; the gravitational force on the moon due to the sun exceeds that due to the earth.

  • Lord

    The stars. I had a good view.

  • http://www.meddlingkids.org Big Ugly Jim

    For me it was losing my faith. When I began to see that my faith was fading, I became confused and needed to make sense of the world. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.

  • enzo

    i have to second Cosmos, I remember watching a lot of Discovery Channel when I was young (when it was mainly BBC programs) but it was Cosmos that introduced me to science as a wonderful whole new way of looking at the world. After that I started demanding science stuff for xmas and bdays, so by twelve I had a chem set, a cheap refracting telescope, a microscope, some binoculars, and a whole lot of random notes on what I had scene. This is also when I started getting Discover magazine which I’ve been getting almost continuously since ’92.

    Oh and the first visit to The Museum of Natural History in NYC did a number on my growing mind as well.

  • efp

    I also followed the path dinosaurs -> astronomy -> physics. I have no idea how I was first exposed to dinosaurs, but I was memorizing their names by the time I was five. Good thing my parents weren’t creationists!

  • http://theeternaluniverse.blogspot.com/ Joseph Smidt

    Two things for me:

    1. In high school I had the “bad” physics teacher of the two who spent half the year just having you watch physics clips from Discovery Channel type shows. (The “good” teacher made you work through problems.) Guess what, even though I didn’t work as many problems, those clips were often on theoretical physics and cosmology and instantly got me excited.

    2. Because of #1 I checked out many books from the local library on physics, such as Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe and others. Those books, plus the movies in #1 really sealed my commitment to go into physics.

    Now what excites me is the realization of how much theoretical physics can be tested with cosmology. (Hence my obsession with inflation and specifically non-Gaussianity and CMB polarization at the moment)

  • Wondering

    Earliest influences in rough order: Jetsons, Jonny Quest, Spock, Tom Swift (book series), #1 – #20 (A-Z) encyclopedia Series my mom bought from impulse rack at grocery store, Isaac Asimov, Robert Jastrow (Red Giants & white Dwarfs) … then the dark age (High School) ensued where poor physics teaching failed to dissuade my interest.

  • Navneeth

    It’s probably down to someone (immediate relative, most likely) casually mentioning something about the stars that got me interested, but none of those relatives are working scientists or overly enthusiastic (read: geeky) about science — at least on the outside. I know I was interested in things like stars, outer space, the creation of the Universe and palaeontology* all before I turned 10.

    FWIW, I have a bachelors degree in physics, but I’m not in a scientific field right now.

    *That was due to Jurassic Park.

  • http://openpaleo.blogspot.com Andy

    When I was four, my parents took me to a place in Rapid City, SD called “Dinosaur Park” – giant concrete dinosaurs built as a WPA project in the 1930s. Mom and Dad bought me a pack of plastic dinosaurs in the park gift shop, and from then on I was hooked. Like most kids that age, I went through a dinosaur phase. . .but just never outgrew it! 25 years later, I’m now a curator of paleontology with a Ph.D., and collaborating with many of my childhood “heroes”. (I’m pretty lucky in that regard! For me, it’s the equivalent of a grade school basketball player getting the chance to play ball with Michael Jordan, or going into orbit with John Glenn) A second big influence was the few kind paleontologists who spent a moment or two to respond to my letters. Growing up on a farm that was 300 miles from the nearest natural history museum (and before the days of the internet), that meant a lot.

  • http://elf.org rec

    When I went to write a college admissions essay, I wrote that I planned to study science because I wanted to create new ways for people to live. Science, obviously, was the way to make things that work.

  • glen

    Different influences reinforced each other at different ages. First it was the Golden Book of Science series my parents gave me. After 1960, when my parents bought our first TV, it was the space program and its televised launches. During the years when Star Trek was in first run, Mr. Spock was an enormous influence, and taught me that science is a good way to solve problems, even planetary-scale problems.

  • http://outsidetheinterzone.blogspot.com/ Lockwood

    This was actually a topic in the geoblogosphere’s carnival The Accretionary Wedge last July. It was called “Inspiration” and hosted by Volcanista. Here’s my submission. I’m can’t really pick an appropriate choice in the poll. My choice would have to be “fictionalized science book.” The book was Pagoo, a somewhat anthropomorphized biography of a hermit crab… but the point was to deliver good science in the context of a story that would engage a youngster. My comment in the blog post is, “This book, more than any other experience I can think of, convinced me beyond any doubt, and even before I could count to ten or recite my ABC’s, that science was tres kewl.”

  • http://www.pipelin.com/~lenornst/index.html Leonard Ornstein

    I’m surprised you didn’t have one other category:

    Trying to understand the amazing natural world around me!

    This is the motivation for many biologists – and is what leads some of those early ‘naturalists’ later to physics and chemistry as well.

  • John S.

    Just like John Peacock (12), after I had sampled all the subjects at my school (in England) I found by the age of, say, 14 or 15 that I could do physics and mathematics more easily than the other stuff, and better than most of the other kids. I also had a couple of good friends with similar inclinations, and that helped (but I don’t know which is cause and which is effect there). So the choice was easy.

  • http://www.theory.caltech.edu/~preskill John Preskill

    I voted for “Science books (non-fiction)”, but I wanted to emphasize that, for people about my age (b. 1953), the Apollo program was a huge influence. I’m too young to remember Sputnik, but I remember vividly the flights of the Mercury astronauts (Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, etc.). The whole country was focused on the “space race” and our national honor seemed to be at stake.

    Which I guess is why I started reading science books. The key one for me was called “The World of Science” by Jane Werner Watson, which I bought at a school book fair in 1962 when I was in 4th grade. I didn’t know it at the time, but she based the book on interviews with various Caltech scientists, and the chapter on “theoretical physics” in particular was based on her discussions with Feynman. He tells the story (repeated later in his interview with Christopher Sykes for the show “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”) about asking his dad why the ball in his wagon rolls forward when the wagon stops. And … the book explains how parity is violated in nuclear beta decay, which really blew my mind! (Kind of amazing, since it was a book for kids, and the discovery was only a few years old.) It was a great book, which went out of print long ago.

  • Mark Weitzman

    Certaintly the space program and the planetarium in NY were influences for me. What I find interesting is that I was really only interested in physics and mathematics – biology , chemistry, geology had no appeal whatsoever for me. When I read accounts of famous theoretical physicists like Witten and Gell-Mann of how they finally landed in physics, I wonder how they could have ever considered anything else?

  • Claire

    I think the “Science fair, mathletics, or other scholastic activity” category is too broad. I checked this, since one of the things that inspired me to study science was a series of summer camps in middle school (the kind that sort of show you ahead of time what college is about) where I took intense mini-courses that really challenged and inspired me. On the other hand, math competitions had somewhat the opposite effect: I think I did pretty well on some of the AMS math tests, but somehow would dwell on the times I didn’t, so that it made me feel inadequate at math somehow. Also, the science fair culture discouraged me (perhaps I just had bad luck) since it was too competitive; this led some of the other kids to cheat by either having adults do the work or by fabricating data (terrible!). Once I came to college things got more professional, and that’s when I fully started to get interested.

    By the way I am a senior undergraduate, planning to go to graduate school next semester.

  • marciepooh

    Enzo, if the Discovery Channel existed when you were “young”, you are still young by most people’s count. I’m only 33 and I certainly didn’t grow up watching it. PBS on the other hand…

    I voted for science books and other. The other would be a trip ‘out West’ the summer I turned 6. Supportive parents, inspiring teachers, mentors, nature/science TV shows, etc. all played a role but the Tetons, Bryce Canyon, the Bad Lands, and the Grand Canyon kick started it all. I fell in love with rocks that trip and through the books my parents got me after that I decided I wanted to be a geophysicist. (Want to freak people out? Be 6 and answer “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with that.) I didn’t become a squiggle reader but structural geology close enough. People still look at me funny when I tell them what I do, but at least they know what the words in “structural geology”, “unconventional oil and gas”, and “carbon storage” mean just not necessarily what they mean together. (Joe public doesn’t knows what “sequestration” means.)

  • http://frautech.blogspot.com FrauTech

    Interesting discussion. I checked family/friends because my parents always watched science shows while I was growing up and it ended up being my now husband who was the catalyst that encouraged me to go back to school for this. But then I remembered when I was a kid, and of course people ask you what you want to do. And my earliest answer was “scientist-explorer”. I just adored Indiana Jones and thought whatever he did was what I wanted to do. My parents must have explained that while he did go off and have adventures, he was a scientist the rest of the time. It’s interesting how for the intervening years my mind turned more to people-oriented careers; lawyer, diplomat. Only later on did I regain the confidence I had felt as a child that a scientific career was the right one for me.

  • Stargleam

    I’m just under 15 years old, so I guess I’m a bit closer to the “moment of truth” when I decided to go into science than most of the readers. Interestingly enough, I don’t remember any more than anyone else. I remember visiting science and natural history museums as a little kid, and I’ve always found some sort of magic in the stars. I’ve read science books–both nonfiction and scifi–since a young age. My hobbies used to include picking fossilized shells from the gravel on the school playground. My family has a telescope, several microscopes, and a chemistry set. Science and math are my favorite school subjects, and I tend to do extremely well in them. I’ve been reading Discover magazine for years. However, I remember these as effects of being interested in science, not causes!

    It’s interesting that I should come across this blog; I’m currently reading a book called “Curious Minds” about how children become scientists. It’s quite good.

  • goldy

    My father worked on the Apollo project so I grew up around the scientists and engineers who worked on Apollo. In Huntsville, we played on the rockets lying around at the Redstone arsenal (somewhere, there is a picture of me in a Saturn V rocket engine). From an early fascination with rockets, I started thinking about space and got into astronomy. I never questioned majoring in physics (thesis in astrophysics) nor did I think twice before going to grad school in physics (switched to particle theory). Now I just have to get smarter so I can keep figuring stuff out about this weird universe we happen to live in.

  • Loki

    Why, it was so simple with me – curiosity

    I’m not kidding. I remember very well that i was simply curious how electricity works. Funny enough, i’m still not sure about that one :-) /i stumbled across mathematics soon and was owerwhelmed by its beauty/

  • http://mareserinitatis.livejournal.com Cherish

    Resume padding. No one in my family had gone to college, let alone gone into science. I applied for a summer program for high school students in science, even though I didn’t like science, because I hoped it would look good on my college applications. When I got into it, they stuck us in labs for six weeks, and I got to do some actual research, which was way cooler than sitting in science classes. After that, I was hooked. I also discovered, however, that I didn’t like biology or chemistry (primarily because I’m not the best experimentalist), so I eventually made my way toward physics.

  • Andrew

    I think dinosaurs should have its own category.

  • Kevin Schnitzius

    I disagree with the premise. Infants are natural scientists. They must learn everything by observation and take particular delight in testing their hypotheses. Have you ever seen a baby test his object permanence theory? Peekaboo!

    If you don’t consider yourself a scientist now, then you were nudged *away* from science by some life experience.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I really don’t know what it was that got me hooked on science. As early as I can remember, I was interested in science and nature, and just gravitated towards things that were related. Dinosaurs may have done it, like lots of kids, but I can’t remember how I got exposed to them.

    I do not come from a highly-educated background, but rather a long line of millworkers and other laborers, and my father was the only person in the family with a college degree (in business administration…no liberal arts or any of that nonsense). My grandfather read Omni magazine and pulp sci-fi voraciously, and knew a lot about plants, trees, Maine wildlife…maybe he got me interested, I just can’t recall.

    Anyway, I know I was obsessed at one time with dinosaurs, memorizing all their names and begging my Dad to buy me books about them. I think because he figured I was an “egghead”, he got me a chemistry set. This I absolutely loved. Then a friend got a telescope, and I begged Dad even harder for one of those. I also had a huge collection of rocks and minerals. I remember my Dad building me a couple glass-topped cases with the dividers so I could organize my rock collection, and we made many trips to Perham’s a mineral store in West Paris, ME, where I bought all the cool crystals and ores I wanted but couldn’t dig up on my own. I watched birds, caught snakes and salamanders, raised frogs from the gelatinous masses of eggs I scooped out of little ponds. This is what made me happy as a kid.

    My parents were definitely as supportive as they could be of my interests, given our modest means, but I can’t say they really gave me much direction. I just loved this stuff quite on my own, as far as I can recall, and needed no prodding.

    I do have one memory that stands out, though: For one junior high school science fair, I was really struggling to come up with something to present. I had no ideas until I found myself being annoyed at a laundry detergent commercial claiming such-and-such was so very much better than Brand X. Probably because the bottle of Brand X in the commercial looked suspiciously like the one we were using to do our laundry, I thought my clothes looked fine. So I said, that’s it! I’ll test which laundry detergent is the best.

    My father thought this was the stupidest idea for a science fair project he had ever heard, and offered to build me something involving a leftover motor from a washing machine instead. I can’t remember what, exactly, but I said, No, I’m going to find out which detergent is the best, and that’s all I want to do. I asked for five different brands of detergent. I cut square swatches of four different fabrics. I stained each kind of fabric as equally as I could with mud, spaghetti sauce, oil, I ground them with grass clippings to make grass stains, etc. Each kind of cloth, with each kind of stain, was tested with each kind of detergent. I kept four swatches clean, and left four swatches dirty. After washing, I laid all the swatches out in an array, with clean and unwashed for comparison. I tried to come up with a ranking system, just a number from 1-5, with 1 being barely clean, to 5 being spotless. I ranked each detergent by stain type, and then gave each a cumulative score. I believe Cheer won out over Tide by a hair.

    My science fair display was pretty boring compared to some kids’. All I had were an orderly bunch of dirty pieces of cloth stuck to some poster-board (with labels), bottles of detergent, and the numerical rankings stuck on one side on a piece of graph paper. Most other kids had projects like “The Properties of Light” with colorful spectra and prisms and mirrors, or maybe recreations of Galileo’s acceleration experiments (ramps with different sized ball-bearings rolling down), stuff like that. Much more visually appealing, way more razzle-dazzle, artistic flair, etc. That I got third place surprised me.

    On my way out, one of the judges pulled me aside. He was a very well-to-do doctor (can’t remember his specialty), a parent of one of my classmates, and he intimidated me with his wealth and incredible smarts. He asked me what I thought of third place, and I said I was really happy to get a ribbon. I can’t remember his exact words, but they were something to this effect: “I thought you should have won, and I gave your project the highest score. Do you know why? (Uh, no.) Because you did a real science project. Not only did you do a real experiment, you used controls, you made up your own system of measurement, you did exactly what you should have done if you wanted to answer such a question scientifically. You’re the only kid here who did that. I’m very impressed, and just wanted to tell you how much I liked what you did.”

    I don’t think anything any adult had ever told me made me as happy as that. I’m not sure anything I’ve accomplished since, even, made me feel as proud.

  • Rohan

    how about something relating to the fact that it’s easier to study arts/humanities outside the educational establishment than it is science.

    For example, I love everything! But I realised before choosing my A-levels that any scientist can just BE an artist if they so choose, but any artist can’t just BE a (useful) scientist.

  • Ginger Yellow

    ““Sheer wonder” would have been an appropriate option.”

    Yeah, this. You definitely need an option for “Science made me interested in science”.

  • Stephanie

    I think the major omission to your list is “a space/science mission.” I’m too young to have been inspired by the early space program, though I work at NASA, and the majority of folks who were 5 or older for the space program regularly cite that as their source of inspiration — even if they’re not involved with human spaceflight but some other science or engineering field.

    For me, it was a science teacher who inspired my interest in science. It was strengthened through interaction with actual scientists. But I was sold when I saw my first space shuttle launch.

  • http://www.ahcuah.com/decade.htm Ahcuah

    Heinlein. Asimov.

  • Lonely flower

    I voted for science books(non-fiction), but I do also agree with No. 24 Leonard Ornstein. Trying to understand the universe and the existence is what motivates me to study science. I think scientists in past were mainely driven by this motive, they didn’t have a lot of choices in the poll.

  • John

    “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman”.

  • Michael Bacon

    For me it began with simply wanting to know what was “true” about the world. It started with the family around the dinner table but was impacted by, of all things, politics: civil rights, poverty, war. Somehow it made the jump from philosophy to quantum physics. Science fact and fiction played roles along the way. What a wonderful adventure.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    It was the math. I put it under “Personal hobby or tinkering”, because I made a hobby out of math and problem solving when I was younger. Sure, I was inspired by my first classes in physics, but I feel this was just because I was predisposed to enjoy it, not because the class itself was so outstanding.

  • Coruscatus

    Sir James Jeans’ _The Mysterious Universe_. That pegs me as an ancient scientist. I can still remember the awe I felt as a naive teenager. I haven’t lost my love for it. If I could plant the seed of wonder in young people today that Jeans’ book planted in me, we would have all the scientists we need!

  • mk

    Are you not interested in the non-scientists who are interested in science?

  • http://blog.konradvoelkel.de Konrad

    Star Trek had a strong influence on me, but the moment I realised that I’m interested in science was when I learned programming.

    The most influential person (beside Mr. Spock) would be my older brother, who always nurtured my impression that scientists can do what they want (which is research) almost the whole day.

    Other influences include: books by Asimov and Lem and my chemistry teacher in school who explained quantum physics after the lessons.

    My father tried once to interest me in electrical circuits and stuff like that, but it didn’t really work… well, he succeeded in interesting me in the software part of computers by giving me one to play with.

    Now I’m studying math.

  • Evan

    Michiu Kaku’s interview on Big Thinkers (Tech TV). It was about String Theory, and used a cello to make some point, and being a cellist, I had to watch, and now I’m in my third year getting a BS in physics and a BM in music comp. Space camp helped too…

  • Elidor

    In 1980, when I was 15, I found a book on atomic science at the local library. It must have been 600 pages, and chock full of all the nuts and bolts of radioactivity and reactors. I wish I could remember its title. I kept checking it out, but the library eventually demanded it be returned.

    Another early treat was a book titled Black Holes by a professor of mathematics named King, from the mid to late 70s.

  • Montag

    I echo what Loki and Kevin said. I’m interested in science because of an insatiable curiosity/natural wonder more than anything else. I just want to know about everything!

  • Lonely flower

    Which from the following has more contribution in motivating people to do science
    1-The scientific research is interesting
    2-Science is an honest and logical way to discover facts.

  • macho

    Math –> math –> first physics course in college. Somehow I missed the dinosaurs
    and astronomy (which was always presented as constellations — see SouthPark episode on the Planet Arium for a perfect description of my reaction to much of the astronomy I encountered before I hit cosmology in grad school). In fact, most of the science I found in school or the home chem kits or astron charts was boring and presented at far too simple a level to be at all interesting. But the first real physics course I took completely changed my view of science (it probably helped that I got into the honors lab and so avoided the usual mind-numbing freshman labs). And in an admission that will forever mark me as a hopeless geek, I got hooked on the problem sets (starting with that first phys. course and including/esp Jackson).

  • Henry Holland

    The Gemini and Apollo missions.

  • http://www.7duniverse.com Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    An appropriately timed poll…

    My high school physics teacher Dr. Frank Roberts passed away quietly at Bryn Mawr Hospital yesterday morning at the age of 80.

    Frank had a doctorate in Geology from Bryn Mawr College and could have secured a job paying well into six figures with some oil company.

    Instead, he invested his life in his students. He was intelligent, well informed, dedicated to science…just an incredible person. I looked forward to his classes every day…they were a high-point in my early education. We studied Astronomy in his back-yard, ground mirrors for Newtonian Reflectors, went to the big scientific equipment outlets- and kept abrest of the history of science in the making. I remember the day he announced that Albert Einstein had passed away…back in 1955. We were all deeply saddened-

    as we all were saddened yesterday that our mentor and friend had passed on.

    He wasn’t perfect. I remember years ago, he approached me and appologized for his poor teaching performance in mathematics. He was so bright he skipped steps all over the place and we had to fight to keep up with him. I told him I was awestruck by his understanding of math…it was his challenge to us to study harder.

    I also had a wonderful chance to thank this person- while he was still alive- for the profound influence he had on my life….

  • Mike

    This may just be a weird quirk for me, but the essence of it was not sleeping as a child. My parents would take me outside at night to see if it’d get me more likely to fall asleep, but I’d just start asking questions once outside. Starting down that route, by 4 they were taking me to amateur astronomy meetings in the area, and that all kept snowballing til now, where I’m finishing a master’s in physics and applying to schools for a PhD program that has an extrasolar planets group.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee


  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    A series of increasingly important influences. First, parents: father worked for Chrysler as a subcontractor to NASA, mother worked for NASA in an office next to that of von Braun. Second, “museum school” at the Ft. Worth Museum of Science and History, a science-oriented preschool. (I later took other classes there.) A few years ago, I noticed that Jim Diffly is still there. Third, science books (as mentioned on your poll). Fourth, a subcategory of the third, Isaac Asimov. I later also read stuff by Sagan, Clarke, Gamow etc, but it was Asimov who really got me hooked. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a science-fiction convention in Manhattan back in 1983. Although I’ve met several famous people, I’m not an autograph hound, but I do have his autograph on the back of my name tag. I also credit Asimov with keeping me from becoming a redneck.

  • slw

    I found this book: http://books.google.com/books?id=SJIk9BPdNWcC from my grandparents’ bookshelf as a kid.

  • Ian

    My faith, Star Trek, and a children’s book on science I got from the library, and crystal structures. Strange combination

  • Karen

    I decided in first grade that I wanted to be a scientist, although I don’t remember exactly why. The one “experiment” that I do remember was putting some bean plants in the window, and noting that over the course of a day they leaned towards the sun.

    In 5th, 7th, and 8th grade I had a science teacher who recognized and encouraged my interest in science. He encouraged my mother to get me Discover magazine, which I always read cover to cover.

    In college I started out as a biology major, but ended up in physics because I loved the way physical phenomena can be so well described by math.

  • Judith

    John Peacock: Spooky how exactly your first paragraph described me! But I never liked science fiction…

  • nobody

    For me Science Fiction (Star Trek mainly) and McGyver did the trick 😉

    By the way Sean, according to your broad definition that “someone currently in high school” can be considered a scientist, then even some of my cheerleader high school classmates, who back then (~15 years ago and probably still now) could hardly count to ten, are on the same footing with you and me, who worked really hard on our way through the PhD and postdocs????

    I guess you need at least a bachelor to be considered a scientist. Therefore, you might want to change your definition…


  • paul valletta

    In a conversation, someone asked me a question, to which I replied “who the hell is Albert Einstein?”
    That set me on the road to find out who AE was, and every subject he had connections to, thus the miriad of connecting “scientific” authors and subjects.

  • ChuckWhite

    In chronological order: dinosaurs, Tom Swift Jr. books (kids sci-fi), airplanes, a chemistry set (for Christmas), “The Microbe Hunters” (HS biology required reading).

    Thanks Mom!

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com/ Peter Coles

    It’s probably going to make me sound weird (no change there), but I definitely didn’t go into science because I found it particularly easy. Nor was I inspired by science fiction or the lunar landings. For most of the time at school my best subject – and the one I enjoyed most – was Latin.

    Relatively late in my school career, when I was about 16, one particular teacher got me interested in science, not in mathematics or physics but in chemistry. My chemistry teacher had a PhD in organic chemistry and he delighted in inventing ways of synthesizing complex molecules from simple ones. The homework problems he set on this type of thing were very challenging, amusing and very rewarding to get right in the same way as codebreaking and cryptic crosswords, two other longstanding interests of mine. That was the reason I switched from doing languages as a speciality to doing science, the eventual specialisation in astrophysics didn’t come until much later.

    I don’t regret it at all, except that I’ve now pretty much forgotten all the Latin I learned. It’s my plan to take that up again when I’ve retired (or when the UK government has shut down science entirely and I’ve been thrown out of work…).

  • moosebreath51

    Christmas presents: A microscope (to look at leaves, insects, blood, skin, etc.), a chemistry set (back in the late 1950’s before the “dangerous” things had been taken out), a telescope (to look at the moon, planets, nearby mountains and buildings). And regular trips to the library for what ever I wanted to read. I was encouraged to be curious.

    Also enjoyed helping my mother in the garden (and experimented on the effect of different amounts of fertilizers). Loved organic chemistry because of the professor. Combined organic chemistry with interest in plants to study substances like terpenes and alkaloids in grad school.

    Am now (small college) chemistry professor.

  • Josh

    Star Trek!

  • Joe

    I didn’t answer the poll (I’m a lawyer, not a scientist).

    I got interested in science, well – I’m naturally interested in just about everything, so I don’t really know how I got interested in science specifically. Astronomy and cosmology were the first sciences I was really interested in, I know that much. And that would have come from books my parents got me.

    To answer the opposite of the question – why I ended up not going into science . . . well, I had a truly awful chemistry teacher in high school who told us that her class was what college science would be like. So that put me off taking more than a few college science classes until it was too late. I tried to minor in physics, but I would have needed to stay an extra year in college to take all of the required math. (I hadn’t touched calculus because of its high school reputation – I didn’t plan on taking any subject where half of the students would fail if not for the curve unless I had to).

    Well, that and my LSAT score. That was a good reason to stay in law.

  • CortxVortx

    On the eve of a long road trip, when I was in 9th grade in 1969, I bought a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Adding a Dimension, a collection of his F&SF magazine articles. I was floored! Not only could I understand the concepts, I really enjoyed learning about them! I found more of Asimov’s essay books in stores and libraries, and found more popular science books, and deepened my awe of nature. Eventually, I got a degree in chemistry, but I also took courses in every science that I could, required or not, like astronomy, biology, and geology. I still keep an eye on general science with Science News and lots of websites and blogs.

  • http://openpaleo.blogspot.com Andy

    @nobody (#63) – I think there’s a distinction between “scientist” and “professional scientist”, and it would go by employment more than education. Perhaps I’m a nerd, but I published my first single-authored paper at the age of 16 (thankfully, there wasn’t anyone around to tell me I couldn’t!). So yes, someone in high school (indeed anyone) can be a scientist. For me (a professional scientist now), being a scientist is a way of looking at and investigating the world, not a degree or a paycheck.

  • Clifford

    I certainly cannot pin down any one thing for myself. I do recall that in Kindegarten, the words “scientist” and “science” were thrown around with great admiration as if this was the thing to be and the thing to do.

  • Brian V


  • http://amusedartichoke.wordpress.com Roese

    National Geographic. I remember reading about dinosaurs when I was very young, then branching out into the wildlife articles. I always said that I wanted to be a photographer for the magazine, but my Dad told me that was like wanting to be an actress. I fooled him, now I say I want to be a science writer (I’m just out of college). but it is still the same desire.

  • Andrew

    For me, it was Dinosaurs, then on to Star Trek, then to this bloody Ph.D. program that surely will end next year (please? people really do finish right?).

    For my daughter, who is almost 2, she fell in love with dinosaurs all on her own. We get her lots of books from the library, and she has loved all the ones with dinosaurs in them. At breakfast one day, she pointed to my wife and said “Mommy is a triceratops! 3 horns!” (It must have been a bad hair morning). I hope she keeps up the interest as she grows, but we’ll see. I am just shocked (and excited) that at such a young age, she shows interest in science!

  • ChicagoMolly

    Wow. Serious generation gap here. 75 replies and nobody mentioned Watch Mr. Wizard! I know Don Herbert had a great effect on those of us of a certain age (ahem); I saw a video lecture on the Dover trial by Ken Miller last year, and he made a point of the fact he had watched the show. It went out live from Chicago on NBC Saturday mornings in the early ’50s; Mr. Wizard was this guy in the neighborhood who just happened to have a science lab in his house, and kids would drop by each week just in time for a quick workshop on light waves, air pressure, why a great heavy steel ship doesn’t just sink of its own weight, all backed up with instructions for simple kitchen table experiments just the right level for a seven- to ten-year-old. You can get DVDs of the series from Mr. Wizard Studios and they still hold up well on the whole. The only thing that grates on one looking back over fifty years is that while Herbert was ahead of the curve on gender (half the kids who worked with him were girls) everybody was white. I guess it just never occurred to anybody that black kids would be interested.

  • http://outofthedepths.blogspot.com/ Steve

    I was born in 1950 and the ensuing decade was a great time for science and science fiction on TV and the movies. I drank it all in, yes even Mr. Wizard. Recall him pouring liquid mercury into a mold in the shape of a hammer and freezing it with dry ice, I think. Then hammering a nail with it. Sputnik was launched when I was a 2nd grader and I was fascinated. When at the optometrist following an eye exam in the first or 2nd grade, they gave me a choice between an eyeglass case with cowboys on it or one with a man in a space suit on the moon. Easy choice. I wanted the spaceman. A man at our church worked in some way at Michigan State. On a visit it was absolutely wonderful that he let me look through a microscope. Then Mom gave me one for Christmas. We moved down South after 2nd grade. When I could read reasonably well, then science and science fiction books became important to me. My high school was small, only had three in my physics class. My teacher encouraged me to stay with it and I did, all the way. . . . So hang in there Andrew, people really do finish. Best of luck to you.

  • metal

    I agree with Kevin. We are all natural-born scientists. Along the way things may take us away from science rather than towards it.

    As all childern do, I used to walk around as a kid consumed with curiosity. Most of it (but not all) would be satisfied.

    I think maybe we start drifting away from science in our tween/teenage years. I was lucky in that regard. Because of my love for reading I actually ended up learning relativity before I properly knew Newton’s laws. I don’t think that there is a twelve year old in this world, that you can show relativity to and not expect them to want to become a physicist.

  • Shelley

    What got me interested in science, what keeps me interested in science, is looking around at the natural world–the plants, animals, and geology that surround us. I think it’s strange that this doesn’t figure as category in this poll. Has science become that cut off from its origins?


  • Allyson

    Reading Carl Sagan when I was a little kid gave me a sense of wonder about the universe (and some vocabulary to describe, which was huge).

    But my job as a secretary at JPL opened a whole new world to me, and I’m grateful for that all the time. Plus! I got to meet you, and now I can ask you physics questions in exchange for cupcakes.

    Of course, not a scientist, but a scientist helper. I’m a science elf.

  • Ken Graham

    I was looking for truth and objectivity, but I also loved Star Wars and science fiction novels.

  • paul bk

    I checked other. For me, and I think for many here, ‘interest’ in science is not a willful conscious decision. Rather, it’s more akin to a newborn’s interest in breathing and feeding. I was born with a hardwired curiosity to understand why the world/universe works the way it does. My first fascination was with magnets. I would play for hours trying to push two like poles together, feel the repulsion, and wonder: How can this be? Action at a distance. It still fascinates me. After magnets it was dinosaur books, astronomy (the night sky), physics, chemistry, biology…..

    Today I’m a nuclear engineer. Spent six years in the Navy (1968-74), reactor operations on a nuclear submarine. A great adventure and heaven for the geek minded. Oddly, I was never much interested in science fiction. (fyi.. I am 61 years old, still kickin’, and still love science. Love it!)

  • Michael Hayes

    I grew in the most fertile of times for science, all the great sci-fi books and movies, Wells, Burroughs, Azimov. My start in this genre came woith the Tom Swift books, as I grew my father and I would read the same sci-fi books then discuss them and the possibilities that they may truly happen. Then Star Trek happened Istill watch reruns of TOS today.
    The most amazing and driving force for me though was that two years after I was born President Kennedy made his famous speech from Rice Stadium, so from my earliest memories I was able to read sci-fi and then turn on live tv and watch it happen, I saw The First Man on the Moon actually happen in real time, we didn’t use a huge gun or anti-gravity plates but we went to the moon just the same.
    This time where reality seemed to follow fiction drove me to understand the workings of our world and after years of work in the electronics field I am now working to become a science teacher where I hope to instill some of the wonder an excitement that I felt as a child into a new generation of scientists.

  • Gammaburst

    I started with dinosaurs. Then juvenile TV/fiction ( Fireball XL5, Lost in Space, comic books, and Edgar Rice Burroughs) and then Star Trek, Asimov, and movies. In 1976 I was an exchange student in Sri Lanka when I learned Arthur C. Clark lived there. His phone number was in the Colombo directory and I called him out of the blue. He invited all three of my group of Americans over to his home for an evening. What a gentleman! I remember he had an actual moonrock from NASA and a monkey named Sputnik. This was the first time seriously thought about a career in science. I started college in the fall and majored in Physics (with a lot of Astronomy). My senior year I began to seriously look at job prospects and careers. I was smart but not a genius and physics/astronomy did not have a lot jobs I liked. I bailed out of science and went to Medical School.

  • Robb

    I voted Science Books, but it was really a science magazine (a Scientific American article about black holes) that made me decide to become a physicist. I also remember getting Curious Naturalist and some other sciency magazines that helped feed my curiosity.

  • http://togroklife.com greg

    geeze. I don’t recall any one specific thing. my father is a biologist, so he definitely helped expose me to science at a young age. I had numerous sciencey books and magazines and television shows as a kid (mr wizard, bill nye, a peanuts book about the human body, etc). and my hometown was the home of the North Carolina Museum of Life & Science where I spent a ridiculous amount of time as a kid. the only thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a paleontologist.

    I was first really drawn to physics in middle school when I picked up a copy of Relativity. the math was a bit beyond me at the time, but the concepts presented absolutely blew me away. I probably re-read the book a half-dozen times before I reached high school. the only other book I did that with was the Lord of the Rings which I discovered at about the same time.

  • brkily

    the thing that hooked me was (seeing) men walking on the moon.

  • Bob

    I voted ‘teacher’, as it was my second grade teacher who got me started. But then my parents were heavily involved as well, since they actively encouraged me. In that same second grade they were buying me science books for fifth graders. I never looked back from then. At our local science fair last year, I had the great pleasure of giving back by honoring the teachers of the winners.

  • Cathy

    Interesting poll. I’d also be interested in what gets other “civilians” –total non-scientists like me–interested enough in scientific inquiry to follow a blog like this. It would, after all, be so much easier to get through day-to-day life with a handful of scientific buzzwords.

  • Arrow

    In my case it was innate curiosity – an insatiable hunger for understanding.

    I’m still hopelessly addicted.

  • Kele

    Like others, I believe, I was a fan of dinosaurs as a kid. My parents encouraged reading at a very young age and children’s dinosaur books were definitely a favorite. By extension, Jurassic Park really captured my imagination. Unsurprisingly then, I wanted to be like Alan Grant and be a paleontologist. So ever since I can remember, I have been interested in biology. My dad also tried to teach me chemistry as a kid and I attended an elementary school that emphasized science and had a close partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota. High school was the first time I was really formally introduced to evolution (that is, more than just “humans evolved from apes” and “birds evolved from dinosaurs”), and I’ve been in love with evolutionary biology ever since. So I list parents, teachers, science books and movies as influences on my interest in science.

    Edit: I should add that I am a junior undergrad in biology and history.

  • Christina

    It was Jane Goodall and National Geographic magazine for me.

  • joel hanes

    In about 1961, my wonderful Great Aunt Marion gave me two books for Christmas: All About The Planets and All About The Sun, The Moon, And The Stars

    The Hale telescope on Mount Palomar was the biggest the world had ever seen.

    Pluto was just a dot of light, and in the wrong place for Bode’s Law. No one had ever orbited the Earth. The surfaces of Mars and Venus and the backside of the Moon were complete mysteries; it was possible that Venus’s clouds were water, and the “wave of darkening” made it seem likely that Mars had plant life.

  • Ray Gedaly

    NASA (both the manned and unmanned space missions of the 60s & 70s) plus a cheap refractor telescope that I got for my 8th birthday. As a teen, I also had a “man-crush” on Carl Sagan.

    Sadly, my older brother was making out with his girlfriend instead of watching the first moonwalk. That’s probably why he wound up an engineer instead of a scientist.

  • Pingback: Many Roads to Science | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

  • http://ashutoshchemist.blogspot.com Wavefunction

    I think there should have been a separate category for “lives of other scientists”. I know lots of people including myself who decided to become scientists after finding out about Newton, Einstein, Darwin and Fermi.

  • zerorest

    My parents took me to Palomar Observatory in SoCal when i was very young. I think that you left out a category for Museums or scientific attractions like Zoos and the like.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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] cosmicvariance.com .


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