Yesterday I visited Auckland to interview a few people who work with physics in their industry-based jobs. This was part of my small research project on the role of maths within physics, which I’ve talked about earlier. One of the people I interviewed gave some really fascinating responses, perhaps in part because he had grown up in the former Soviet Union.
In the UK, and in NZ, doing science is equated by a great swath of people with being a geek. It pushes you to the margins of society; it’s a real conversation killer to reveal that you do physics for a living. In short (and this is my opinion – I don’t have a data source for this) science isn’t properly valued because it’s not understood what it achieves.
However, my interviewee described how being a scientist, and a physicist in particular, was one of the most admired positions that one could achieve. Scientists belonged to the ‘elite’ in the Soviet Union. They were respected, and science held great appeal. Those intellectually capable of doing it were motivated to do it.
Now, I’m not suggesting I’d rather have grown up in 70’s and 80’s Soviet Union as opposed to 70’s and 80’s United Kingdom (I’d rather be under the governance of Thatcher than Brezhnev any day), but perhaps we can learn something here. Why was it that scientists had such respect? Was it that people could see what scientists did and how they contributed to society? I’m speculating, but maybe it’s worth probing at this one a bit more. In the meantime, I’ll just have to work on the dumbed-down sanitized version of what I do at work for the next time someone asks me at a party.