So You Want To Be A Scientist Can anyone become a scientist?

Adam Rutherford

So you want to be a scientist? Well, good for you.

There are few more noble pursuits than the eternal quest of embiggening our understanding of how things are.

They may appear a bit dorky or obsessive about seemingly minuscule areas of research, but at their core is a burning desire to understand how the world works. No matter how small, it all fits somewhere into the continuum of knowledge that science keeps stocked up.

“There is a natural childlike curiosity in the souls of all scientists.”

Of course, unless you are part of a major lab, or a berzillionaire, you're unlikely to be able to look for fundamental particles or perform genome-wide scans for disease genes. But that doesn't mean you can't contribute. Remember that there have only been "professional" scientists for just over a century.

The scientific method

The first steps are to harvest data, either by observation or experiment. Observation is particularly important for those who do not have a synchrotron to hand, and can be quite fun.

As an eager evolutionary biology undergraduate, I designed a research project to study the effect of floral symmetry on the behaviour of pollinating insects. Practically, this involved watching flowers and counting how many bees landed on them, and then doing the same with a flower that had one or more petals removed. The disappointing results were mitigated by the fact that the experimental plant was growing on a beautiful sandy beach. In southern Spain.

Observational research can involve previously unknown aspects of human behaviour. In 2003 German researcher Onur Güntürkün pondered the eternal question of "which way do you tilt you head when you kiss", and decided to find out. His methods? "I observed kissing couples in public places (international airports, large railway stations, beaches and parks)." His results, published in the top-drawer journal Nature, showed a 2:1 ratio of right tilters to left. Think about that next time you are locked in osculation.

Look around you

Spying on snogging couples is probably not a great idea, but there is an important lesson in there. A good way to start your scientific quest is to look around you. Charles Darwin, father of evolution and four times winner of "Beard of the Year" had the luxury of spending almost five years travelling the world looking at the wonders of nature. But much of his most significant work in developing the theory of evolution was done is his back garden in Kent.

He counted the number of earthworms in his vegetable patch. He, with the assistance of his many children, counted the number of species of plants in the fields surround Down House. These were crucial in his developing ideas of biodiversity. Bizarrely, he also spent some time playing the bassoon to worms to see if they could hear.

But you don't even have to look in your immediate vicinity. Amateur astronomy still plays a major contribution to the study of the universe. Why? Because a lot of it simply involves watching the skies. Earlier this year, for only the second time in history, a star was identified that subsequently went supernova, and is probably now a black hole. That star was originally spotted by an enthusiastic amateur sky watcher.

Science is not a bank of knowledge. It's a way of knowing. Qualifications and working in professional labs certainly does help, but if you've ever looked at something and thought "hmmm, how does that work?" or "what happens if I...?" then you're thinking like a scientist already.

The rest should be easy.

Dr. Adam Rutherford is a writer and broadcaster who works at the science journal Nature.

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