How to be a scientist
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: February 13, 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!
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:
- NASA Education: Lots of material for students from the folks at NASA.
- The Naked Scientists: A friendly site that strips away the dullness and makes science fun again.
- Steve Spangler's Science: Here's an adult who really knows how to make science fun for kids.
- How Products are Made: This huge collection of articles covers just about everything from air bags to temporary tattoos.
- Encyclopedia Smithsonian: Trust the Smithsonian to provide such a superb collection of science and technology articles!
- How Things Work: Louis A. Bloomfield tells us all about the physics of everyday life (it's a Web companion to his popular science books).
- Fear of Physics: One of the harder sciences, physics, is explained here with lots of computer graphics and animations.
- Students' Classroom: This great site from the National Center for Educational Statistics helps you with the maths behind science. It includes a brilliant create a graph site to help you graph results from experiments and coursework.
- Cocktail Party Physics: Physics with a Twist: This great physics blog is by Jennifer Ouellette.
- Youth Science Centre: Promoting science to young people for over four decades.
Another great way to follow progress is through online science magazines and shows. Here are some of the ones I follow regularly:
- The Material World
- National Geographic
- New Scientist
- Popular Science
- Science News Online
- Scientific American
- ChemMatters: A magazine that shows high school students how chemistry figures in everyday life.
These make you think about things more critically:
- Bad Science: Ben Goldacre pulls the plug brilliantly on all kinds of dodgy science and medicine.
- Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories: Hands-on science, often turned upside down or inside out, with wit and a suitably evil edge. Lots of great projects here.
If it's inventions that really grab you, take a look at these sites:
- First LEGO® League: Use LEGO® to tackle real-world challenges in a fun international contest!
- National Science and Engineering Competition: An annual competition for UK students (only) aged 11-18.
- Invention at Play: Inventing is amazingly creative and fun!
- The Secret Life of Machines: A funky cartoon website from Tim Hunkin.
- Patent Pending Blog: Patent attorney Bob Shaver explores the history of technology and invention.
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:
- American Museum of Photography: The story of how photography developed.
- Chemical Heritage Foundation: Think chemistry's boring? Find out about some of the people who built our modern world—literally, from the elements!
- Computer History Museum: The world's biggest museum of computers.
- MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry): There's lots to see at the fabulous science museum in Tampa, Florida, which has its own planetarium, an IMAX® movie theater, and lots more.
- Museum of Science and Industry Chicago: Described as "the oldest museum of its kind in the western hemisphere," the Chicago museum also has some good online exhibits.
- Natural History Museum, London, England: Dinosaurs, bugs, and all kinds of other living stuff.
- New York Hall of Science
- Nobel E-Museum: Find out more about the world's greatest scientists: the Nobel Prize winners.
- Singapore Science Centre: Gotta love science!
- The Spot: A great new children's museum in Prescott, Arizona with exhibits on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
- London Science Museum: England's prestigious science museum is in Kensington, London.
- Think Tank: The ultra-modern science museum in Birmingham, England has over 200 hands-on displays and exhibits. It also has a brilliant collection of old engines and machines.
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 and website 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!
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:
- Ask a scientist: This huge list of questions, on all scientific topics, dates back to 1991.
- Ask the Experts: Lots to questions and answers to browse in the pages of Scientific American.
- How Things Work: Louis A. Bloomfield explains the physics of everyday life in this website companion to his popular science books.
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.
- Science Buddies: A really comprehensive free science fair project ideas, answers, and tools to teachers, parents, and students from all walks of life.
- Practical Physics: Offers classroom tested activities for 11–19 year olds. A joint project by the Nuffield Curriculum Centre and The UK's Institute of Physics.
- Bizarre Stuff: You Can Make in Your Kitchen: Some truly inspired practical projects you can make at home.
- Surfing scientist: impress your friends and scare your family with these wacky science tricks from Australia's ABC channel.
- Simply Science: A searchable database of activities from the Science Museum of Minnesota.
- Science Explorer: An exploratorium at-home book: Loads of activities from the Exploratorium science museum.
- Do Science: Experiments you can do at home, in a restaurant, or at school.
- Activities and Experiments: Loads of things you can try from National Geographic magazine. Includes optical illusions, experiments with floating, and how to make your own hurricane in a bowl of water!
- Science Made Simple: Easy science experiments and science project ideas.
- Cockeyed Science Club: Some more unusual activities!
- The Naked Scientists: Kitchen science experiments: 80 very cool experiments you can do at home.
- Science Hobbyist: Some really good how-to's and easy-to-build projects from Bill Beaty, who lists "crackpot physics" as one of his favorite sports!
- The Creative Science Centre: Some really fun things from Dr Jonathan Hare.
Why be a scientist?
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.
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!
- Technology Student Association: "150,000 middle and high school students nationwide aspire to be future engineers, scientists and technologists through the Technology Student Association." Why not join them?
- STEMNET: Encouraging students to think about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers (UK-government funded initiative).
- Cool Careers in Science: A brief introduction from PBS.
- Engineer Girl: Jobs for the boys? No way! There are careers in engineering and technology for girls too.
- The Future Times: An interesting online science magazine for teenagers.
- Careers in Science and Engineering: A Student Planning Guide to Grad School and Beyond: A more detailed guide for higher-level career planning (US emphasis).