Review: What Scientists Actually Do
by Jeff Foust
Monday, September 22, 2008
What Scientists Actually Do
by Joan Horvath
Stargazer Publishing Company, 2008
softcover, 208 pp., illus.
One of the biggest concerns in the space industry these days in the workforce: the worry that there are simply not enough young people entering the industry to replace those who are or will soon be retiring. It’s rare to have any general discussion about the industry without the topic coming up in one manner or another. An example is an op-ed that appeared earlier this month in the Southern California newspaper The Daily Breeze by Congresswoman Jane Harman, whose district includes many major aerospace companies. In it she warns of a “gray wave” and “demographic cliff” that the industry faces as the current generation retires with few filling the ranks behind them. At times workforce seems to be a bigger concern than popular gripes like limited budgets and export control restrictions.
So why does the space industry have such a problem recruiting and retaining new workers? In her op-ed Harman discusses a number of causes, from a lack of inspirational projects like Apollo, which attracted that cohort of scientists and engineers who are now retiring, to problems with so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. Another possible cause may be salaries: there are many other fields, from business to law to information technology, that offer much better pay than an engineer or (especially) a scientist.
A bigger issue, though, is the perceptions (and misperceptions) of scientists and engineers held by the general public. Scientists suffer from their share of negative stereotypes, from lab-coat-wearing, socially-inept nerds to ethically-challenged people with nefarious aims. Most people have very little idea, in fact, of what scientists do on a daily basis, and the popular media does little to dispel those stereotypes. Who’d want to associate themselves with something as uncool as that?
|Most people have very little idea, in fact, of what scientists do on a daily basis, and the popular media does little to dispel those stereotypes. Who’d want to associate themselves with something as uncool as that?|
Stepping into that gap between myth and reality is Joan Horvath’s What Scientists Actually Do, which lives up to its title in explaining how scientists work and interact with the rest of society. Horvath, a former JPL engineer, lays out in simple language the scientific method and its application in various scientific fields (including some engineering research). This includes a discussion of the day-to-day work of researchers in various fields and how their work is sometimes misinterpreted or otherwise misunderstood by the public. Much of this is conveyed in anecdotes from scientists in a variety of disciplines, form biology to geology to aerospace; that last category includes people like Sir Martin Sweeting of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and Gil Moore of the Starshine satellite program.
If you’re a regular reader of this publication, then What Scientists Actually Do is probably not for you: you’re already familiar with how scientists work and how reality does not match up with popular stereotypes. However, this is an excellent book for those people who are not as familiar with science and engineering, and whose perceptions are still shaped by those stereotypes. Perhaps, if more people understood and appreciated how scientists and engineers worked, the workforce would become one less worry for the space industry.