I had a guest article posted at physicsfocus.org, here. VERY EXCITING! The editor titled it “When you tell someone you’re a physicist, explain what you actually do.” I encourage you to browse physicsfocus, because there’s some great stuff on there. For the sake of my lovely readers, though, here is the complete text of that article for your reading pleasure:
Physics is a diverse, constantly growing field. So why do people treat me differently when I tell them that I’m studying it? The response is almost always that they never understood (or worse, never liked) physics, that it’s remarkable that I’m studying it. And after that… silence. Now, I like compliments as much as the next person, but the inevitable awkward silence is so unpleasant that I’ve come to dread the moment when someone asks me what I study.
I wrote about this phenomenon on my blog, and asked for other people’s opinions and experiences. My initial instinct was that this response may be largely due to surprise: there’s a public image of physicists, and especially physics students, as socially-inept, painfully dorky, acne-ridden man-children. I am female, well-groomed, and capable of maintaining a conversation. I have friends and interests outside of physics, I go out regularly and love talking to new people, and sometimes I even wear makeup. I’m not a Big Bang Theory stereotype and that surprises and even intimidates people.
But, as I discussed it with other physicists and students, things got a whole lot more complicated and interesting. Yes, every woman in physics (especially astrophysics, which is my focus) has a story about a potential romantic partner being intimidated and shutting down after hearing of their field of study. Aside from that specific situation, though, I was surprised to find that the response to “I’m interested in physics” stays about the same regardless of gender. Maybe people are more surprised when anyone who isn’t a straight, white, awkward, nerdy male is studying physics – the STEM education system is rife with stereotypes – but that may not be the main problem.
Overwhelmingly, people seem to just not really understand what physics means – everyone knows that English means literature, and biology means plants and animals, and engineering means building things, but what do people say when you ask them what physics is?
The vast majority of people who aren’t actively involved in physics have probably never taken a higher-level physics class. They just remember a terrible experience where they were forced to memorise a bunch of physical laws in high school, or else all they know about physics is that it’s something to do with studying the mathematics of how things work. So when people say “Oh wow, you’re studying physics, you must be so smart, I never understood that,” and then sit in awkward silence, what they probably mean is “I don’t really understand what you mean, but I’m worried I’ll come off as stupid if I ask you to explain it to me.”
When I’m around science people (like at NASA’s Johnson Space Center this week), and I tell them I’m studying physics, they ask questions: what sort of physics I am interested in, what do I want to do with physics, I’ve always wondered about dark matter or gravitational lensing or nebulae…
So, here’s what I propose: next time a conversation starts dying when physics comes up, instead of just pulling the plug, talk! Explain something you’re studying or what you want to do with physics. Then, there’s conversation instead of awkward silence, and you’re improving the image of the physics community by helping people understand what it is that we actually do. And you won’t have to think of a witty yet appropriately humble response to compliments — because let’s face it, as astronaut Doug Wheelock said to me earlier this week “We’re light-years ahead in technology, but socially we’re still very awkward.”
But it’s okay; people still assume we’re really smart.