Personality, politics, profile

Photo: Not doing science (© Jamie Heard)

Warning: navel gazing (again).

How much is science something apart, and how much is it connected to politics and human personality?  This question has been in the air a lot lately, for example in discussion around the US (and global) Marches for Science.  My point today isn’t to recapitulate those discussions.  They resonated with me, though, because of my evolving thinking about my presence online.

When I first took up social media, I was determined that I would keep my Twitter and blog profile purely professional.  I would tweet and blog only about science, and put personality, politics, and pretty much everything else aside.  I was even a little derisive about this, making fun of people who live-tweet their breakfasts.  But I think this was wrong, and I’ve started to loosen up a little.  I’m open to sharing a pretty picture, mentioning something I’m doing, or saying something about a non-science social or political issue.  In short, I’m letting a bit more of myself outside science show through in what I do online.

This is not because I think I’m a particularly interesting person outside science.  Anything but.  I don’t conquer mountains, design new schemes to prevent homelessness, or invent new extreme sports.  I read*, I blog, I curl, I cook, I hang out with my family. I sit on a couple of volunteer boards.  None of those things is unusual or even very interesting – and that’s actually exactly my point.  To a disturbing degree, when members of the general public picture a scientist, they either picture someone cold and clinical with no existence outside the lab, or someone whose existence outside the lab is flashy and eccentric – Richard Feynman, say.  But it’s an important message (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) that scientists are just other people, with all the same virtues and vices as our neighbours, and present in all the same places – the same coffee houses and bookshops and bowling alleys and churches.  I’ve been a big fan of social-media initiatives like #ActualLivingScientist because they make exactly this point.  In joining others who present themselves as scientists, but also as ordinary people, I’m taking a small step to correcting what I now see as an imbalance in my online profile.

Now, I’m not going to go crazy.  I realize that people who follow me on Twitter or who read Scientist Sees Squirrel do it mostly for the science.  (That’s true whether those folks are scientists themselves or not, and all are welcome.)  So don’t expect me to post Instagram-style shots of my restaurant meals or to subject you to a detailed travelogue of my vacation (although I may muse about why I sometimes work during it).  Perhaps you won’t even notice a shift.  But I bring this  up here for two reasons: first, as a mea culpa for anyone who remembers my early purist position; and second, as a contribution to the argument that scientists are just people and that we should present ourselves to the world that way.  I don’t know what the optimum blend of science, personality, and politics might be, and others will surely continue to present different blends than I do. That might even be a useful message in itself.  Science has room for a diversity of styles, just as it does (or should) for diversity of all kinds.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) June 13, 2017

*^In the photo: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky, which I definitely recommend. It’s a historical/fantasy novel set in a world closely resembling Renaissance Europe.  Pirates, spies, assassins, court intrigue, trade politics, and finely drawn characters, all written lyrically (as you’d expect from Kay).  Why am I telling you this?  Mostly because I’m insatiably curious about what other people are reading, and I’m projecting this on you.

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12 thoughts on “Personality, politics, profile

  1. Daniel Gruner (@GrunerDaniel)

    Excellent post that resonates with this ordinary scientist. PS I will check out the book & author you recommend; meanwhile you might like some fantasy novels by Robin Hobb that are a guilty pleasure – the Assassin series (now three trilogies). The characters are exquisitely woven, and her world is sufficiently different from our own to provide an escape. First book: http://amzn.to/2soxfUk

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      1. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

        Robin Hobb first trilogy in the Assassin serie was great, but I’ve never read the sequel. Her character suffer so much, I couldn’t take any more. For other scientist fan of fantasy here, I would definitely recommend to go through the 14 books of the Wheel of Time. While on this fantasy disgression, I’ve read Grass of Sheri Tepper as recommend by you Steve and it was good!

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  2. Ruth Hufbauer

    I also liked Tepper’s Green. Since you mentioned recently that you have an F1, you might want to consider Tamora Pierce’s books. Most of the main characters are girls, but several are boys. Coming of age fantasy – excellent stories, and thought provoking. We often get them from the library or audible as audiobooks, and while away car rides listening to them. Every one in the family enjoys, plus they provoke good discussions about race/gender/love/justice/puberty/etc.

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  3. Jeremy Fox

    I just finished the Southern Reach trilogy. Think Lost (or a David Lynch movie) meets Lovecraftian ecohorror. In the not-too-distant future, a chunk of coastline in a country not unlike a dystopian US has been taken over by an extremely weird ecosystem. The main character is the field biologist who is a member of the latest in a series of expeditions sent into what’s known as the “Southern Reach” to try to answer the most basic questions about it. Questions which are hard to answer because previous expedition members came back crazy, or with bizarre and conflicting reports, or not at all. Lurking in the background are the mysterious motives and conflicting agendas of the higher-ups in the government.

    It was only ok. As with Lost (which for the record I didn’t watch), the intriguing, what-the-hell-is-going-on-and-how-does-it-all-fit-together setup in the first book is rather let down by the very patial explanation/resolution in the subsequent two books. Perhaps intentionally; the whole point of the series is to deny the possibility of ever really understanding anything. Or maybe it’s just impossible to start with a bunch of random weirdness, and then explain or resolve it in a satisfying way. And the main character is something of a cipher (again, intentionally so, I think). So if you’re looking for sci-fi/horror featuring scientists and scientific themes, I’d probably look elsewhere.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I made it about half-way through the first book of that trilogy, Jeremy, and I had the same reaction as you – I just didn’t keep going. I was disappointed because it sounded so good. If others enjoyed it perhaps they can tell us what we missed!

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  4. Karen Tremblay

    Just read ‘A Song For Arbonne’ by Guy Gavriel Kay. Liked it. May check out more of his titles. Next up is a re-read of Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Mistborn’ trilogy. Stay cool!

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