My Scientific Hero

It was in fifth grade that I decided to become a scientist. The inspiration came not because I actually new what a scientist did, but through a book. Before I had read this revelatory text, my impression of what scientists did came from the movies. They had four standard attributes that would allow anyone to recognize one at a glance: (1) a muffed and wild hair style, (2) a white lab coat; (3) a basement laboratory—usually kept quite dark and which contained a tangle of glass wear and bubbling concoctions; and (4) a hunch backed assistant usually answering to a slavic name

I was quite content with this view until on a dull winter day, I checked out from the school library one of those Time-Life books. This one called heroically The Scientist. The title itself radiated power and cachet. Called, not lamely, Architects or What does an Engineer do? like some of the other selections offering thrilling advice on things to do when you grow up, but THE Scientist. I could feel the eminence of the word with every freckle on my face. This was what I wanted to do! The book was filled with brilliant looking men and women dressed in starched lab coats (it appeared that some of my stereotypes of the field were correct) staring into the depths colorful liquids swirling in exotic glassware. Portraits and photographs of Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Carver, Madame Curie, and Plank, all bespoke wisdom, curiosity, and intelligence. Every picture in the book radiated kismet (I did not bother to read any of the words at this stage in my academic career, as words were largely a superfluous annoyance to any good book unless they appeared in a bubble over someone’s head). Science would be my destiny. I too would join the ranks of the learned, the wearer of lab coats, and be the concoctor of strange liquids that would cure disease or be turned into something useful like peanut butter. I had found a destiny.

It was not until ninth grade, however, that I finally gained a personal scientific hero. Before this when people asked me what kind of scientist I wanted to be, I would shrug and say maybe a paleontologist (what kid doesn’t love dinosaurs?). But in ninth grade I finally understood the prestige that an individual scientist could achieve. I was imbued with a vision of the heights and magnificence possible in my chosen future profession. This one man represented all I could ever hope to be. He was a luminary of unequaled achievement and I wanted to be just like him.

I saw this man frequently during those years; he appeared often on television. I would listen to him every chance I could. He was brilliant, confident, unflinching in his observations. He was respected and honored by those around him and for me he epitomized everything I deemed worthy in an individual. The strange thing was I never learned his name. He was known only as “THE professor.” And he appeared everyday on Gilligan’s Island.

The professor could do it all. He could tell you the scientific name of every plant on the island, describe its medicinal or culinary use, explain where to find it, and what plants should be associated with it. But his knowledge did not stop with plants. Oh, no! He could do the same with insects, with fish, with bats, he had a botanical and zoological knowledge that spanned the entire evolutionary history of the earth. Geology? No problem, he could predict an earthquake, tell which soils could be used for what purpose. Anthropology? Easy. He spoke the language of every indigenous culture that ever visited their island. Several times he was called to translate petroglyphs carved by ancient people. He handled chemistry as adroitly as his sailor companions handled a knot. Several times he produced powerful antitoxins, medicines and even once a phosphorescent dye. He was amazing! Astronomy? Climatology? He could do that too. He could even fix their radios, build electric generators, there was no subject at which he was not adept. In all the years I watched the show he never once said, “I don’t know.” He was my inspiration. I wanted to be just like him.

I’m a professor now. A biologist. But I’m a little disappointed in how I turned out. I picture myself with seven stranded castaways on an uncharted island.
“What kind of plant is this? Is it poisonous?” Someone would ask. Perplexed I would answer, “I’m not sure.”
“Aren’t you a biology professor?” Someone would throw in my face.
“Well, I study insects.”
“Fine. What kind of insect is this?”
“Well, I’m not sure, a beetle of some sort. Actually I study flies. Ants sometimes.”
“Sheesh. Then what kind of fly is this?”
“Well, I’m not really sure. See I study tsetse flies.”
“Ok, Ok, just invent something to get us off this island.”
“Truth be told I’m really not very mechanically inclined. I do more mathy things.”

Even Mary Ann would walk away in disgust.

I could tell them nothing much about anything on the island quite likely. I could not talk to the indigenous people, repair a radio, make phosphorescent dye, tell them the good from the bad mushrooms, predict an earthquake, or even make a sleeping potion. I fear that as a scientist castaway, there would be more Gilligan about me than The Professor. In my mind’s eye, I can even feel myself ducking as the Skipper swingers his hat at my head.

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5 Responses to My Scientific Hero

  1. S.Faux says:

    The world is simply unfair. I want to be like Nibley and know multiple ancient languages. I want to be like Jim Jensen and dig up giant dinosaur bones. I want to be like E. O. Wilson and write big thick books that revolutionize our understanding of life. I idolize B. H. Roberts and his unstoppable pen. Alas, I just have to be me. After searching for my car keys in my office, I could not remember where I was parked. I won’t be volunteering for any brain MRI studies for fear of what they would find — or not find.

  2. JDD says:

    Nice post! I’m a Mormon scientist (PhD student) studying African Sleeping Sickness, so we have the tsetse fly in common. 🙂

    S.Faux: When I was a young boy, my dad took me to see Jim Jensen’s personal dinosaur bone collection at his house. Coolest. Scientist. Ever. 🙂

  3. SteveP says:

    Dinosaur Jim Jensen is one of our LDS treasures and should be much more widely known!

    S.Faux, I’ve always been afraid of getting an MRI and hearing those words, “Do you realize you are missing an entire lobe?”

  4. Tatiana says:

    Ah, my desire to become a scientist didn’t blossom until high school when I read George Gamow’s book One, Two, Three, Infinity, and all Isaac Asimov’s science for laymen books. I also started reading Scientific American magazine every month from cover to cover, and gradually understood more and more what was going on. Later on I found Richard P. Feynman and he’s been top of my scientific pantheon ever since. Stephen J. Gould is up there as well, as I love his writings, and he had such a great mind.

    I really liked math a lot always, which may well have been because my dad got a Math degree when I was around 8 to 10 years old, and I would call out his formulae to him, to quiz him before tests, and then I’d ask him what they meant, and we’d discuss it. It was always so fascinating.

    The Professor I always knew was silly, though. We would make fun of how he could build radios from coconuts, or whatever, and how he couldn’t manage to get them off that island despite having this advanced coconut technology. I must have been older than you when I was doing my childhood watching of Gilligan reruns.

    But, like, I’m still attracted to all the different mad scientist characters in fiction. I always think they have great ideas that just need a little tweaking and more testing to become enormous boons to society. However, people are so shortsighted and terrified of change that they shout “hubris! hubris!” and get out the torches and pitchforks. I mean, humanity is all about hubris. What are they talking about? We make a living out of hubris every day of our lives. You can’t separate that from humanity. It’s not punished by the gods. You just have to test your systems, you know? Mad scientists are much-maligned philanthropists. =)

  5. SteveP says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Tatiana! I love it when you weigh in.

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