People Are Really Impressed… Responses

Last week I wrote my most popular blog post ever. It was about the awkwardness that happens when I tell people that I study physics. In that post, I asked people for their opinions and experiences on why people act impressed and then shut down when they ask what I do, and I got an overwhelming response from both physics students and some real-people physicists and professors. There’s a full-length follow-up about it over at physicsfocus.org. That follow-up is mostly me pontificating though, and I wanted to share some of the specific responses I got because they were thoughtful and great. I won’t use names, because I don’t know who wants their comments associated with them and who would rather be anonymous. Some of the quotes are a little long, but I did abridge them and also I’m really fascinated by and grateful for everyone’s thoughts. HERE’S QUOTES NOW:

“She said that she would even go on dates and the minute the guys found out she did physics, like after half an hour of talking, it was like they couldn’t converse anymore. She said that she felt like it was an intimidation thing – men found it scary to talk to a woman in a demanding field. She also said something interesting about people not really knowing what physics means so it is difficult to respond to… So maybe it also has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what “doing physics” means. Although I’m not sure if that’s gendered or not.” – A physics student paraphrasing a professor

“From a lot of people… all responded with comments of disbelief. One stated that I was most likely smarter than she would ever be. These comments threw me off guard. How do you respond to that? Should I just say, “yeah”? When ever I declare that physics isn’t so bad, the individuals I am talking to refute the statement with stories regarding their arduous time in a simple physics 101 class. I try to just brushed those comments aside saying that I am just getting by, trying to bring the conversation back away from empty compliments and back to a meaningful discussion… I say that I am only using physics to learn to convey ideas and arguments.” – A physics student

“I don’t think being a physics major is such shocking news when it comes from a dude.” – A physics student

“[Physics is] abstract, and strange, and gets made fun of in the media. Moreover, its courses are hardly required of other majors so if you’re not a physics major, there’s a good chance you haven’t taken much physics at all. And then there’s the fear of math that just ties the noose on the neck of poor physics’ popularity.” – A physics student

“Is it regular physics or lady-physics?” – A stranger; “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s all about the mass of tampons.” – A physics aficionado; “I only study the fluid dynamics of lip gloss and how to effectively bedazzle a Soyuz.” – My response, which I’m actually kinda proud of

“As a male physicist, I get the same reaction – even as an adult!” – A physics professor

“Usually something like ‘wow physics is really hard,’ at which point I usually reply that yes, it is.” – A physics student

“Maybe we could improve this with better physics outreach and science communication.” – A physics professor

“I still sometimes get the awkward silence too. But I think outreach is already helping… I say ‘I love finding how things work’ or fake interest in their (obviously less interesting) job.” – A physicist and professor

“If I met a person studying physics, I would be impressed, and I would start a discussion with you about it, because I have not come into contact with a student of physics before.” – A stranger

“Not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. It bothers me more when people assume I’m the ditsy female who doesn’t belong than when they assume I’m a genius.” – A student

“But I also think this reaction is a symptom of something much larger and goes beyond gender in science. Frankly, physics and science in general don’t have a very good public image (though mathematicians have it so much worse. It’s almost cool to dislike math & proclaim how much you don’t understand math.) In my opinion, the main reason why [some] people seem so impressed by physicists & majors is because most people simply don’t understand what physics is… They don’t understand why physicists do what they do and why they enjoy it. I mean, you and I know that physics is the shit, but people don’t see it that way… Additionally, people seem to have this is idea that only certain people can be physicists. Leah, there aren’t very many things I hate in this world, but good God, do I hate stereotypes… You can do physics because physics is for everyone. The only thing it takes to study physics is to love it and have a lot of perseverance.” – A physics student

SO. Thank you for your responses, everyone, and if you have more thoughts or experiences to share, continue to get in touch with me and I’ll keep updating this post and keep the conversation going!

 
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2 thoughts on “People Are Really Impressed… Responses

  1. Consider the conversation with someone studying music for instance… “Oh so you study classical music? Who’s your favourite Mozart or Bach?” etc. This is something people can relate to immediately. Same goes with other subjects which touch on aesthetics. People might find these subjects like architecture, design or food difficult to grasp in detail but these are subjects they can clearly relate to.

    This is precisely what I mean by having a scientifically literate society. There is a degree of aesthetics in science which most people aren’t aware of. By teaching science we shouldn’t focus merely on facts and theorems and chase after certificates. Teachers should be able to make transparent the beauty that lies within science. Science can also be a highly emotional – not just technical – subject. Only then will people relate to science and be comfortable engaging a physicist or any scientist in a conversation.

    • P.S. The distinction between the Arts and Sciences is superficial. If we go back in time, these two disciplines were often seen as interdependent. It’s sad that we no longer associate one with the other as much as we used to…

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