“The most useful piece of learning for the uses of life is to unlearn what is untrue.” -Antisthenes
As many of you know, in addition to news about cosmology, space, astronomy, and physics, I’m also heavily involved in education. This includes, in various stages, teaching, curriculum design, and mentoring students. But I got the following message from Rita from the UK last week — who’s about to start her A-levels — and I felt slightly ashamed. (Message edited slightly for clarity.)
I am interested in space, though currently my interest in it is not very specific. I am interested in the engineering bit of things that can go into space, and also the different geography and environments of exo-planets. I have not yet even started my studies but thought it’s better to start with some knowledge.
I also found that fewer females take interest in these subjects so I was quite surprised. I am also worried that my learning progress might differ from that of the boys. I know it is a very hard field of study. I also want to know, from your view, what is professional life like in this field?
Why ashamed? Because with all the educational stuff I do, and as hard as I try to make this site accessible and interesting for all levels and ages, I haven’t ever given advice to aspiring scientists who are at the pre-college level. (Also, because once-upon-a-time I used to teach High School myself!) So what advice do I have for a young aspiring scientist?
First off, you can do it! If you walk into any major college or University with a strong motivation or drive to specialize in any science or mathematics, your current plans — to take the standard A-level (or University-bound) curriculum — will prepare you extraordinarily well. As general advice for any student, regardless of what country you’re in, I can definitively say that learning math up through and including Calculus should provide you with all of the tools you’ll need to head down any scientific path. (And even stopping short of calculus — say, with trigonometry or pre-calculus — shouldn’t pose a difficulty if you’re willing to take calculus your freshman year.)
As far as science goes, knowing a good deal (i.e., a solid year-long course) about the three major sciences — Physics, Chemistry, and Biology — will give you a solid background to progress forward in practically any scientific discipline. (Including engineering.) I highly recommend taking all three; you will learn valuable ways of thinking and problem solving from each course that are distinct from the other two. If you can take an advanced version of each of these courses (either Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate), that should position you even more strongly. Although I highly recommend doing this, there’s nothing that’s going to hinder you from being an excellent scientist if you have to take the introductory versions of these courses in college.
If this were 20 years ago, I wouldn’t recommend these next two things; as it stands, these are becoming more and more vital to success. But one thing you’re definitely going to want to do is learn computer programming.
Not just computer science or computer usage (or even computer engineering), mind you. Computer programming. If you’re going to become a scientist, you’re going to need to know how to make a machine do repetitive tasks that no one has made it do before. If you can learn one object-oriented language (my choice is C++, but any language will really do), you will be in far superior shape than if you need to figure it out in college (or later). Learning how to program is something that, perhaps surprisingly, gets very difficult to do for the first time the older you get. So start learning it before you get to college.
And speaking of language, no matter what scientific field you’re planning on going into, you’ll definitely want to become as proficient as possible in English.
As far as I know, all of the hard sciences (although math is the exception) currently conduct business primarily in English. If you want to learn modern cosmology? English. Learn about superconductors? English. Molecular biology? Explosives? Chemical engineering? English, every single one. You will never be sorry for it in any of these fields if you spend the time now becoming as close to fluent in English as possible.
So those are the basics, and realistically, you’ll be completely prepared to head off to any College or University and become a great scientist with this background.
But what if you want to get ahead?
Many people will advise you to start looking farther down the line, and to start learning more and more specialized things as early as possible. Examples? For math, learning multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations. For physics, you could start on advanced mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and quantum mechanics. For chemistry, you could start learning organic and/or physical chemistry. And for a biologist, I’d probably go with molecular biology as the first advanced course.
But none of that is my advice. You won’t fall behind or create any difficulty at all for yourself by waiting until college to learn about those specific things. But what you can’t replace is the time you spend, while you’re still young, thinking about the big ideas that are out there.
There are many great books that you can find either at a library, bookstore, or via google on any topic you’re interested in. (Including exoplanets and rocketry, by the way.) In my experience, reading and learning about those ideas that fascinate you will be far more valuable to you than delving deep into the advanced undergraduate material while you’re still in high school. How so? Let me explain…
As Einstein so eloquently put it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And that creativity, that imagination, that ability to find that new approach to the problem everyone else is working on is what’s going to make you a great scientist. We don’t have courses on it, but that’s the most important thing to foster, especially at your age.
So read. Talk to knowledgeable people, including your peers. Search the internet. Find books, both modern and a little older. (Sometimes, the best new ideas were actually old ideas from 50+ years ago.) And don’t worry about learning things as deeply as possible; teach yourself how to find the answers to your questions (and to brush up against the limits of our knowledge) instead. You’ll be much better prepared.
And as for the last part, Rita, of your question?
Yes, it’s true that there are more men than women that wind up with careers as professors or scientists in the physical sciences, particularly in physics, which is what I’m most familiar with. But there is no concrete evidence that this is because boys in any way progress faster than girls. In my experience as well as in all of the studies I’ve seen, girls are not only extremely capable of being great scientists of all varieties, they often do better than boys at a wide variety of levels given the same education and the same tools.
Unfortunately, it is also my experience that many people — even in academia — will treat girls and women differently than they treat boys and men. Some of them will likely belittle you and make light of your abilities for no good reason. Some of them will dismiss your very good ideas for no good reason. And some of them, while talking to you, will stare at your chest and your rear end, paying almost no attention to the legitimate words coming out of your mouth. For no good reason. I am by no means telling you how to deal with this or condoning this behavior, but I am letting you know to expect it. (Men get this too, but this unacceptable behavior is much more prevalent towards women.) There are very well-respected people at the highest levels in the physical sciences who will think less of you simply because you’re a woman.
Don’t let these people either intimidate or discourage you. As I said at the outset, you can do it! So do what you can to learn, as broadly as possible, about how the natural world works. Work on your math, computer, and English language skills, and try to learn the big ideas that are out there, particularly the ones that excite you. And to anyone who tells you that you can’t do it, there’s a secret weapon that will prove them wrong every time. Hard work. I’ve never met a student, male or female, who put all the work in that they were supposed to and didn’t succeed.
For that matter, I haven’t met anyone, no matter how bright, who succeeded despite not working hard. So, Rita and anyone else, that’s my advice to you. Comments? Follow-ups? Any further advice?