Science is beautiful, too

John Commito

December 18, 1991|By John Commito

IN 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, daughter of the famous women's rights advocate, spent the summer in Switzerland with the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was a cold and wet summer, so rather than hike the Swiss Alps and risk breaking an ankle on the slippery rocks, they spent a great deal of time inside with Lord Byron telling ghost stories.

Two years later, using her ghost story as a starting point, Mary Shelley published "Frankenstein." Dr. Frankenstein tried to create a human being from parts of dead bodies, but he unwittingly created a monster instead. The scientist tried to control the beast, and both died in the ensuing lash.

Shelley's story has antecedents in the European werewolf and vampire folk traditions, but it has become a metaphor for the scientist who unleashes powerful, evil forces beyond his control.

Today, negative images of scientists still abound. In popular culture, most scientists are portrayed as nerds or geeks: Rick Moranis in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" or Dan Ackroyd in "My Stepmother Is an Alien." I grew up with Walt Disney's Fred MacMurray in "The Absent-Minded Professor." Perhaps closer in spirit to Dr. Frankenstein are the mad, wacky types like Jerry Lewis in "The Nutty Professor," Bill Murray in "Ghostbusters" or Christopher Lloyd in "Back to the Future."

Could it be that these stereotypes are a leading cause of the decline in interest in science among American students? We face a shortage of qualified science students at all levels, especially graduate students seeking advanced degrees. That is bad enough. But the problem is even more insidious. We have created our own "Frankenstein": The one thing all these popular images of scientists have in common, whether they are evil or wacky or nerds, is that all are white and all are male.

The population of college-age white males that now dominates the science and engineering work force will shrink by more than one-third in the next five years. Who will make up the difference? Why not women and minorities?

Schools and colleges can play an important role in encouraging women and minorities to study science. But young people need role models, not "Frankensteins." And role models are in short supply. At Hood College -- a women's school -- 10 of 18 full-time math and science professors are female. We are proud of that, but it is far from the norm nationwide. Men scientists outnumber women almost 10 to 1. And minority scientists are even more scarce. Of 700 applicants for jobs as biology professors at Hood advertised during the past decade, I can recall only two who identified themselves as minorities.

I challenge Maryland's youth to reject our cultural notion that scientists are most properly white males. I challenge them to reject the notion that science is evil at worst and boring at best, that it has little to do with what they want to accomplish in their lives.

I see the discipline of science as one of beauty and balance, of observing the world around us and testing our ideas about that world. The process is similar for poets and painters and musicians.

The chemist and poet Roald Hoffmann urges us to "begin with a vision of unity and creative work in science and the humanities. The shared ground is clear: Both involve acts of creation, accomplished through craftsmanship with attention to detail."

There are many contemporary examples of people who have lived the duality of science and art. My favorite author is Vladimir Nabokov, the brilliant novelist and critic who also was a professor of Russian and European literature at Stanford, Wellesley, Harvard and Cornell. He wrote with equal facility in Russian, English and French. But what is even more amazing is that he also held a position at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he was known internationally as a research entomologist.

Other examples abound. The Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov was a medical doctor, as were Sherlock Holmes mystery author Arthur Conan Doyle and the American poet William Carlos Williams. Gertrude Stein was a medical student at Johns Hopkins before she dropped out and left for Paris. Lewis Carroll, who gave us "Alice in Wonderland," was a mathematician. Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut were scientists before they became popular novelists.

Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Prize-winning doctor in Africa, held degrees in philosophy and theology, had a career as a concert organist and wrote extensively about Johann Sebastian Bach before obtaining his medical degree at the age of 38. He continued to write books on theology and music and was a

recording artist while he ran the hospital in Africa.

The medical professor William Berk argues that "science cannot be regarded as a thing apart, to be studied, admired or ignored. It is a vital part of our culture, our culture is a vital part of science and its continued separateness from what is fondly called 'the humanities' is a preposterous practical joke."

What we call science is one way of trying to understand our world. It is a powerful methodology which is usable by everyone, not just one group defined by gender and race.

It's past time to put Frankenstein and the mad scientist back in the realm of fiction, where they belong.

John Commito is a professor of biology at Hood College in Frederick. He is the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education's Maryland Professor of the Year.

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