The image of scientists by Quentin Cooper

Am I in the right place? Why is there a group of geriatrics drinking tea and eating custard creams hanging around in the foyer. This cant possible be science and media. Yes I have not mistaken the date it is 2nd November 7:30pm in the Biochemistry Lecture Theatre. Should not there be a mix of mad scientists in stained white lab coats with crazy wild hair and glasses and snoopy young journalists with tape recorders and cameras – the stereotypical images of scientists and journalist. Aagghh… apparently this is a talk being organized through the Cambridge Society for the Application of Research (CSAR) whose aim is to provide “a forum for scientists to meet and discuss topics of interest” still does not explain why there are no young people. A quick ten minutes were spent on matters of the Society – Chairman’s report, finances, approval of committee and in his final remarks the President stated young members are welcome and “ Do consider what a wonderful Christmas present membership to CSAR would be!”

I want to be Quentin Cooper when I grow up! Are adults still allowed to stay that? He is a very skilled science communicator, passionate about science, connected with the right organizations like British Council and British Science Association, gets to do fun and amazing public engagement projects like Cape Farewell and FameLab, and let us not forget he has his own radio show on BBC Radio 4 The Material World. Quentin – I have one question for you, how did you do it?

His presentation was titled Geeks, Freaks, and Eggheads – The Image of Scientists. He discussed how children perceive scientists through the draw a scientists test an experiment which was developed by Margaret Mead in 1957. Common features appear in all the drawings – wild hair, glasses, lab coat, mostly white males with beards, and surrounded by fuming chemical apparatus. Isn’t that what you would draw too? And even if you did a search in Google Images – a series of mad scientists pictures would appear. I wonder whether you would get similar results in Africa particularly in places that had little exposure to Western media. Most people in Western countries picture scientists  like Einstein in the laboratory but surprisingly Einstein who was 26 years old when he proposed his theories was quite a dapper, normal young man and its only when he got older that he became eccentric.


A younger dapper Einstein when he was proposing his theories.

Einstein older

An old crazier Einstein

The picture is no better amongst the British general public when shock of horrors a survey done by British Association and the BBC in 2004 found that Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker from the Muppet Show were Britain’s favourite TV scientists. This was in response to the question “Who is your favourite screen scientist?” A rewrite of the question – who is  favourite television science presenter yielded only slightly better answers with at least names like Robert Winston and David Attenborough in the top 3 but sadly 54% could not come up with a single name!

I agree with Quentin’s assessment that more screen characters in films and movies should have jobs as scientists. Currently with most programs once a character has a job as a scientist it seems that science is integral to the plot, tv programs and movies should have more characters that have science jobs like Ross in friends who is a palaeontologist but that is not essential to the storyline. This is sort of similar to Asia Alfasi’s work with Muslim characters in her comics but they being Muslim is not integral to the plot. There is scope for a study looking at major television programs and Hollywood films to see how many characters are scientists without this being part of the storyline.

Quentin proposed that these perceptions can be changed by having young children meet scientists. A before and after comparison of draw-a-scientist showed vast positive differences after students met scientists. Other initiatives like Cape Farewell that brings art and science together to discuss and present climate change, or British Council’s Cafe Scientifique,  or the National Portrait exhibition on Science in Focus recasts the image of scientists.

I would like to end with a comment from Quentin which summarizes science communication “If you give people science in the right way they will engage with it”.

2 thoughts on “The image of scientists by Quentin Cooper

  1. did i ever meet any scientists when i was a kid? nah only my chemistry teachers. now i don’t know anyone whos a ‘scientist’ (except maybe you?). i suppose science could do with an image revamp… but doesn’t it usually come in the guise of a component of other vocations…. doctors, geologists, pharmacists… not at all un-glamorous careers.

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