If American science education is to move forward, American culture needs to stop caricaturing scientists as socially awkward villains.
Question: What made you choose science asrn a career?rnrn
Michael Wigler: Well, the first thing I rnremember wanting tornbe was a middleweight boxer. Andrnthat was because I used to punch my older brother and he said, some day rnyou’llrnbe middleweight champion. That wasrnmy first ambition. After that, Irndrifted to science. I thinkrnbecause my father was a chemist and my mother had a great deal of rnrespect forrnthe social utility of the mind. Inrnthat period, which was the late ‘40s, following World War II, early rn‘50s,rnpeople were very optimistic about the impact of technology on quality ofrnlife.rnrn
The life of an artist was generally considered to rnbe one ofrnsuffering, and so my parents certainly didn’t wish that on me. And those were my two choices. Itrn was either science or the arts. We didn’t have rnany—my grandfather was arntailor, so anything involving the hands was out of the question. One had to live the life of the mind,rnand there were really these two paths. rnI choose science, but toyed with writing when I was in high rnschool andrncollege, ultimately settling on mathematics, which I really enormouslyrnenjoyed. And actually began torndevelop a disdain for science because science depended on the empirical rnworldrnas a source for the imagination, whereas in mathematics, you didn’t havern torndepend on the empirical world. So,rnto me, I thought that mathematics was the highest enterprise of the rnmind.rnrn
But I wasn’t good enough at it and it was taking mern out ofrncontact with humans, so I decided I had to do something socially useful,rn so Irnwent into medicine. And that was arndisaster. I really couldn’t dealrnwith the uncertainty of medicine, so I started doing research instead. And that’s how I ended up being arnbiologist and molecular biologist. rnSo, I didn’t finish medical school, I went into microbial rnresearchrninstead and came back much later in my life to utilize mathematics.rnrn
But in my case, it was entirely the influence of myrnparents. They had admiration forrnthe life of the mind and they didn’t have admiration really for anythingrnelse. I mean, I guess there mightrnhave been some athletes that they admired. They rnadmired people who had broken down culturalrnbarriers. So, they had somernadmiration for people that struck down political archetypes, socialrnarchetypes. But mainly they feltrnthat their kids should be active with their minds and do things that rntheyrnenjoyed based on their own imaginations, their own training. So, I never questioned that.rnrn
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize what they had done. So, when I had children—in case Ben and Josh find rnthis—itrndidn’t occur to me that you actually had to imbue this. Irn thought it would just be natural forrna child to want to be either a scientist or an artist. Andrn neither of my children had anrninterest in science. And Irnrealized that when it was too late. rnSo, I missed out with my kids.rnrn
I think to get, if one has as a goal to have a rnsociety withrnmore scientists and engineers in it, then the culture has to respect rnpeople whorndo that. And the way these peoplernare depicted in the cultural media is not generally positive. There were in the ‘30s a number ofrnbooks that were written. I don’trnremember their names, in which scientists of one type, Marie Curie, rnLouiernPasteur, were depicted in dramas as heroes. But rnyou don’t see that at all anymore. Instead, rnscientists are villains,rnthey’re socially awkward, they’re not the kind of people you can cuddle rnup to. And I think that if popular culture does not reflect the value ofrn science,rnpeople are not going to go into it. rnAnd America will be dependent on people coming in from the rnoutside tornfulfill the positions of engineers and scientists.
Recorded April 12, 2010