Scientists Are Heroes. Let’s Portray Them That Way

If American science education is to move forward, American culture needs to stop caricaturing scientists as socially awkward villains.
  • Transcript


Question: What made you choose science as a career?

Michael Wigler: Well, the first thing I remember wanting to be was a middleweight boxer.  And that was because I used to punch my older brother and he said, some day you’ll be middleweight champion.  That was my first ambition.  After that, I drifted to science.  I think because my father was a chemist and my mother had a great deal of respect for the social utility of the mind.  In that period, which was the late ‘40s, following World War II, early ‘50s, people were very optimistic about the impact of technology on quality of life. 

The life of an artist was generally considered to be one of suffering, and so my parents certainly didn’t wish that on me.  And those were my two choices.  It was either science or the arts.  We didn’t have any—my grandfather was a tailor, so anything involving the hands was out of the question.  One had to live the life of the mind, and there were really these two paths.  I choose science, but toyed with writing when I was in high school and college, ultimately settling on mathematics, which I really enormously enjoyed.  And actually began to develop a disdain for science because science depended on the empirical world as a source for the imagination, whereas in mathematics, you didn’t have to depend on the empirical world.  So, to me, I thought that mathematics was the highest enterprise of the mind. 

But I wasn’t good enough at it and it was taking me out of contact with humans, so I decided I had to do something socially useful, so I went into medicine.  And that was a disaster.  I really couldn’t deal with the uncertainty of medicine, so I started doing research instead.  And that’s how I ended up being a biologist and molecular biologist.  So, I didn’t finish medical school, I went into microbial research instead and came back much later in my life to utilize mathematics. 

But in my case, it was entirely the influence of my parents.  They had admiration for the life of the mind and they didn’t have admiration really for anything else.  I mean, I guess there might have been some athletes that they admired.  They admired people who had broken down cultural barriers.  So, they had some admiration for people that struck down political archetypes, social archetypes.  But mainly they felt that their kids should be active with their minds and do things that they enjoyed based on their own imaginations, their own training.  So, I never questioned that. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize what they had done.  So, when I had children—in case Ben and Josh find this—it didn’t occur to me that you actually had to imbue this.  I thought it would just be natural for a child to want to be either a scientist or an artist.  And neither of my children had an interest in science.  And I realized that when it was too late.  So, I missed out with my kids. 

I think to get, if one has as a goal to have a society with more scientists and engineers in it, then the culture has to respect people who do that.  And the way these people are depicted in the cultural media is not generally positive.  There were in the ‘30s a number of books that were written.  I don’t remember their names, in which scientists of one type, Marie Curie, Louie Pasteur, were depicted in dramas as heroes.  But you don’t see that at all anymore.  Instead, scientists are villains, they’re socially awkward, they’re not the kind of people you can cuddle up to. And I think that if popular culture does not reflect the value of science, people are not going to go into it.  And America will be dependent on people coming in from the outside to fulfill the positions of engineers and scientists.

Recorded April 12, 2010