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Book Review: So You Want to Be a Scientist?

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In 1932, the physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) wrote some words about science in honor of his senior colleague, the physicist Max Planck (1858-1947). The world was on the edge of an abyss of madness and war, and in 1933, when Einstein's words about Planck were published, Einstein fled Germany and Einstein and Planck never met again.

Einstein's words about science are well known to nearly every scientist everywhere, but maybe not so well known to people outside science. Here is what he said about science as a career:

Many kinds of men devote themselves to science, and not all for the sake of science herself. There are some who come into her temple because it offers them the opportunity to display their particular talents. To this class of men science is a kind of sport in the practice of which they exult, just as an athlete exults in the exercise of his muscular prowess. There is another class of men who come into the temple to make an offering of their brain pulp in the hope of securing a profitable return. These men are scientists only by the chance of some circumstance which offered itself when making a choice of career. If the attending circumstances had been different, they might have become politicians or captains of business. Should an angel of God descend and drive from the temple of science all those who belong to the categories I have mentioned, I fear the temple would be nearly emptied. But a few worshipers would still remain -- some from former times and some from ours. To these latter belongs our Planck. And that is why we love him.

[Albert Einstein: Adapted from the preface to Where is Science Going? by Max Planck. Original German text 1933. English text, Ox Bow Press 1981.]

My own view about careers in science is that there are two paths. One path begins at the age of nine or ten years, and the other path begins in high school or college. Of the first path, I think children in that path are driven to science at a young age by fascination, driven to explore the natural world. They will be pushed off the path only by calamity, or family circumstances, or pressures too great to resist. You will find them on summer afternoons watching ants and beetles in littered empty lots in the Bronx, in tall cornfields in Iowa, on patios and backyards in California with chemistry sets or a jumble of wires and small motors powered by small batteries. In our present era, computers are important for these kids, but not as important to them as getting their hands on the natural world. These kids are driven, and if they achieve their dreams and become scientists, they will be living a life and not a career.

The other path to science, the path probably taken by most young scientists these days, begins in high school or college as a career choice. These young people come to science out of choice rather than out of early inner necessity. They choose science as a career, and we can be thankful that many of them remain in science for the sake of science itself and for the sake of what the applications of science can do for the benefit of humanity. Some of these young scientists on this second path develop or find themselves with an inner drive, an intense commitment to know the natural world -- and maybe also a commitment to apply their knowledge in the applied sciences such as medicine and engineering. They too will be living a life and not a career.

There are too few good books about the positives and negatives of research careers in science, books aimed at young people who need to make choices in high school or college or even in graduate school. Philip A. Schwartzkroin, a neurosurgeon who specializes in epilepsy research, has written such a book. His book has something for everyone from high school through graduate school. His focus is a career in research, and nearly everything he says is equally applicable to careers in all the basic and applied sciences. It's a readable book, and I cannot imagine anyone interested in a career in science not finding it enormously useful.

Philip A. Schwartzkroin. So You Want to Be a Scientist? Oxford University Press. September, 2009.

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