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Methane molecules in a carbon nanotube

How to be a scientist

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: July 8, 2014.

If you could be any famous figure from history, who would you be? A great politician like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson? A stunning writer—William Shakespeare, perhaps, or Mark Twain? A leader of men like Eisenhower or Sir Winston Churchill? A champion of civil rights such as Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks? A jazz musician like Louis Armstrong or Billie Holliday? All these people achieved greatness in their lifetimes; it'll be a very long time before any of them are forgotten.

Scientists (and inventors who put science to work) sometimes achieve similar greatness—who could forget Benjamin Franklin or, in our own time, the very inspiring Stephen Hawking. But even scientists whose names are unknown can change the world in very profound ways. You may not have heard of a chemist called Wallace Carothers, but chances are your house is a very different place thanks to his endeavors: he invented nylon—and his spirit is in everything from your electric toothbrush and your waterproof coat to your boardshorts and your washing-up bowl! If you really want to make your mark on the world, becoming a scientist is one way to do it. But how exactly do you go about it?

Photo: Could you make molecules fly down a tiny carbon tube? Courtesy of US Department of Energy.

How to think like a scientist

You might think science is a subject you study in school—and it is. But it's not like any other subject. It's not simply a set of facts you learn and memorize, for example. Science is a way of seeing and thinking about the world around you. It starts with a basic curiosity: What makes the Sun seem yellow? Why are carrots cone-shaped? How can flies always tell when you're just about to swat them? If you want to know more about the world and why it works the way it does, you're already halfway to being a scientist. If you approach these questions in a really systematic way—putting forward theories and testing them out with experiments—you're a little bit further on again. How about spending your entire life trying to fathom out the secrets of the world. If that sounds like fun, science could well be for you!

Airplane wing vortex shown by colored smoke

Photo: Why does air spin around in a vortex behind an airplane? If questions like that intrigue you, you might have the kind of brain that thinks like a scientist! (You can find out the answer in our article on how planes work.) Photo courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center.

How to read like a scientist

There's an extraordinary idea doing the rounds and it goes like this: since the World Wide Web came along, children don't read anymore. Oddly enough, people said the same thing about radio and television. Well, I think it's hogwash. My guess is that kids read more now than at possibly any other time in history. They may not read quite so many books, but they read an awful lot of Web pages instead. They read Wikipedia, they read forum posts, they read what other people say in chat rooms, and they read what their friends write in emails and instant messages.

When I grew up, back in the last century (ho ho), there was no Internet or Web. If I wanted to find out about science, I had to trek several miles to the local library and read books on the shelves that were sometimes 50 or 60 years out of date! Today, you can type anything at all into a search engine and be reading the most bang-up-to-date information in seconds. You can read the latest scientific research pretty much as soon as it's published! It's never been easier to find out what's happening in the world of science or to take part yourself.

Want to know what's going on in the scientific world and what the next technological breakthroughs are likely to be? Try these sites for size:

Another great way to follow progress is through online science magazines and shows. Here are some of the ones I follow regularly:

These make you think about things more critically:

If it's inventions that really grab you, take a look at these sites:

If you prefer books to reading off the screen, there are plenty of excellent science books. Here's a short review of 10 of my favorite science books that I encourage you to check out!

How to go back to the future

The online world is still a very new thing and it's far from the only place to discover what science is all about. Before we had websites, science museums were the best places to find out about science and technology—and in many ways they still are. Unlike other museums, which are firmly rooted in the past, science museums have one foot in the future as well! A trip to a science museum is a brilliant way to inspire yourself through the past, present, and future of science. Here are a few of my favorites:

Cover of the Geek Atlas book

But don't think for a moment that science and technology is something locked away in museums—it's all around us, all the time. There are lots of ordinary-looking places that have fascinating connections to the inventions and discoveries that shaped our world. Want to know more? Check out John Graham-Cumming's brilliant book called The Geek Atlas.

Photo: The Geek Atlas: At last, a travel book for people who love science and technology!

Science as a hobby: how to be an armchair scientist

It's never been easier to take part in science, no matter what age you are. You can hook your computer up to all kinds of online experiments such as SETI@home, FightAIDSatHome, and ClimatePrediction.Net—and, in a matter of minutes, you can be part of some of the world's most exciting, cutting-edge science. You really can!

example model from climate prediction.net

Photo: The model I'm running for Climateprediction.net to help scientists understand global warming. Over 47,000 computers in the world are helping to "number crunch" climate data for the project.

One thing scientists do is talk to other scientists. Scientists aren't like polar explorers: they're not making solitary journeys for fame and fortune. Okay, perhaps some of them are doing exactly that—but every scientist is also part of a much wider effort to bust the secrets of the world wide open. Want to know why something you've discovered is so weird and intriguing? Ask a scientist! And you can do just that on all kinds of superb online forums. Here are just a few you can check out:

How to put science to the test!

You can find hundreds of great science activities on the web. Please note that these are external sites over which we have no control. While we try very hard to screen and recommend only the most reputable websites, we can't take any responsibility for content provided by other people. In particular, we cannot guarantee that the activities on other sites are safe or appropriate for young people.

Why be a scientist?

George Washington Carver

Photo: Not all famous scientists are "dead white guys". African-American scientist George Washington Carver (1864?–1943) was a pioneer of 20th-century biotechnology. Born to parents who were slaves in Missouri, he discovered that he loved learning and worked hard to educate himself. Photo courtesy of US Library of Congress.

What are the biggest problems society will have to tackle in the 21st century? There's world poverty. There are illnesses like AIDS and cancer. There's climate change, of course. And what about producing enough cheap food and energy for the world's ever-growing population? Who's going to solve all these horribly daunting problems? Yes, politicians and world leaders will have a big part to play. Yes, businesses will need to generate the economic wealth to pay for some of these things. But who's going to make a really big difference to something like AIDS or climate change? I think it's going to be a scientist or an inventor who takes some new bit of science and turns it into an important new technology. And maybe it could be you!

If you like thinking about the world around you, why not become a scientist? It doesn't mean you have to wear a white coat and thick plastic glasses and spend all your time in a lab! Scientists do all kinds of amazing things that you might not realize are actually scientific! Forensic scientists, for example, work with the police to find microscopic clues that bust criminals and their crimes. There are scientists working with the military to develop not just new weapons but new military technologies that could help make wars obsolete. Scientists work in schools and colleges—as the teachers and professors who will train tomorrow's scientists. Scientists even wear suits and work on Wall Street, signing business deals that back the fledgling companies turning science and technology into big, fat profit! Think of any job you like and you'll find a scientist not far away. Maybe you like cooking? You could be a food technologist helping to keep fruit and vegetables fresher for longer. Perhaps sport's your thing? Do you know that most top athletes work with sports scientists in a constant quest to improve their performance. You could even be—and, hey, who am I to recommend this?—the science writer who gets to spend his or her life reading up on the latest advances and sharing them with the world.

Laboratory experiment to develop hydroponic food

Looking for something to do for the rest of your life? My advice? Take a long, hard look at science. It's fun, it's interesting, and it's ever-changing. I love it! I hope you will too.

Photo: Could you make a breakthrough that helps to feed a hungry world? Photo by courtesy of NASA Kennedy Space Center (NASA-KSC).

Careers in science

Here are some sites that will tell you more about working in science. If you know any more sites along these lines, please do let us know!

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Please do NOT copy our articles onto blogs and other websites

Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2008. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

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Woodford, Chris. (2008) How to be a scientist. Retrieved from http://www.explainthatstuff.com/howtobeascientist.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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