Scientists are a strange lot. If you’re lucky enough to have a scientist as a loved one, you’ve also stared at them and wondered exactly what goes on in their heads. I know this because that’s what my wife tells me. I’ve spent my entire career as a scientist, from nuclear chemist to rocket scientist with multiple US Patents.
Being a scientist, I can tell you that there are times when even we aren’t sure what’s going on in our heads. Being the analytical people we are, we tend to be very introspective, very detail oriented, and, for better or worse, very straight forward.
I’ve been a scientist for over 20 years now, so here is some insight into the scientist’s world.
1. We see the world through scientific lenses.
Just as artists see the world through an artist’s lens, scientists see the world through scientific lenses. We tend to think analytically, always wondering how things work, and sometimes looking for ways to improve whatever it is we’re looking at. Having this worldview also impacts the language we use to describe things to others and how they understand the way things work. If your loved one is a scientist, learning some of their language will be beneficial in translating their words from science-speak to plain English.
2. We’re slightly nuts.
Scientists often perform very mentally-taxing work. Having to think hard, seemingly all the time, can drive some people mad. Scientists, and good scientists in particular, channel that madness into their sense of humor. In the 20+ years I’ve worked as a scientist, I’ve found that some of the most talented people are also just a little bit crazy.
3. We’re always thinking.
For most scientists, the job doesn’t end when the work day is over. We know that inspiration can come at any time of the day and in any situation. Therefore, we all have a whiteboard in our heads where we mentally take notes, work out problems, design experiments, etc. If you catch us looking up and to the left, just know we’re writing on that mental whiteboard.
Another side effect of always thinking is that we sometimes verbalize our thoughts to help us process. In the 10 years my wife and I have been together, she’s learned to ask whether I’m talking to her or just talking out loud. In the cases where it’s the latter, my wife knows she really doesn’t have to listen to a word I say, I’m just processing data.
4. We’re resilient.
Scientists know that >90% of their experiments will end up in failure and good scientists don’t let this stop them. Rebounding from endless failures in the laboratory transfers to real life where failures are often greeted with a shrug and a few moments of reflection on lessons learned before moving on to the next plan. Talk to any scientist and they’ll tell you far more “hmm…that wasn’t supposed to happen” stories than “eureka!” stories—and they typically involve unexpected fires, broken glassware, and sometimes even explosions.
5. We can come off as aloof.
Being analytically oriented, we take in data constantly. It doesn’t matter if we’re watching television, at the grocery store, or in social situations. If your scientist, like me, is an introvert by nature, being in their own heads is their safe space. In there we review everything that’s going on around us, analyzing the situation we’re in, and formulating the best solution. The downside to this is that we often come off as aloof, disinterested in what’s going on around us. It’s something almost all scientists struggle with how to engage in the seemingly banal after spending our days pondering how to unlock the secrets of the universe.
6. We often give complicated answers to simple questions.
Scientists deal in complexity. Because of this, simplicity tends to be elusive. It’s like the old saying goes, “ask him what time it is and he’ll tell you how to build a watch.” For those of you who remember the TV series Cheers, asking a scientist a simple question will often get you a Cliff Claven answer. If you find yourself getting frustrated because your scientist won’t give you a simple answer, remember that, to him/her, the question you asked cannot be answered simply. Be patient with your scientist; they’ll get to the answer you’re looking for—eventually.
7. We can be painfully honest.
Scientists often don’t have time to entertain extraneous nonsense. We’re taught and trained to seek out and identify a problem’s root cause. We view data objectively, without emotion, and simply “calls ’em like we sees ’em.” Keep this in mind before you ask your scientist “what should I do?” They’ll ask you a few direct questions, mull over the information you give them, and usually give you an honest, no B.S. answer. Problem solving has no emotional component to it—most of the time. Because of this, we scientists do tend to deliver our opinions without the tact the situation sometimes needs. Think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory and you’ll have an idea of how this plays out.
8. We can struggle to be empathetic at times.
After asking a scientist what you should do, be prepared to implement the suggested solution. If you come back to your scientist and ask them what you should do about the same problem, they’ll ask you if you did what they suggested last time you asked. If the answer is no, they’ll be disinterested in helping you out further until you’ve attempted the first solution they gave you. They see no sense in offering another solution when the first one hasn’t even been tried. Plus, we can’t offer a different solution if we don’t know how the first solution fared. It’s not that we don’t care about what you’re going through; it’s just that we see little sense in dwelling on a problem when there are solutions available.
9. We’re creative problem solvers.
Scientists are innovators. Whether in the research lab, on the manufacturing floor, or around the house, we’re always looking for ways to best solve problems—even those that may not yet exist. Now, sometimes our solutions may be 2-parts Rube Goldberg and 4-parts Steam-punk and seem completely illogical to you, but you can never doubt our creativity! This, however, does not extend across multiple disciplines. There are plenty of times my wife has questioned the complexity of my solution to a problem outside of my expertise—and plenty of times she’s rightfully chuckled at my attempts at building a better mousetrap.
10. We sometimes have difficulty making decisions.
There is a downside to thinking analytically, and its common name is “paralysis by analysis.” Scientists hunger for data and, well, if we feel we don’t have enough data to make a good decision we won’t decide. For example, a few years ago I was searching for a new car. Most people will check a couple websites, test drive a couple models, and they’ll have enough to make their choice. Not me. I had a stack of brochures two feet high and a spreadsheet that cross compared every possible specification of the cars I was interested in. I wanted to be sure I was making the absolute best choice for my money. If your scientist has seemingly endless stacks of printed pages, brochures, or bookmarked product review websites, just know they’re doing all they can to make the best choice they can.
Scientists are a proud folk. We pride ourselves on problem solving, pushing technology forward, and unlocking the secrets of the universe. It’s sometimes difficult to transition from data driven scientist to personable human, particularly when working on a complex issue at our jobs. If you are close to a scientist, you’ll have a loyal, smart, and honest companion to travel the roads of life with,