What’s a scientist – a poker or a puffin?

Scientists are driven by an urge to explain mysteries, describe phenomena and solve problems. nigel_appleton

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: What unites a geologist, a biologist, an astrophysicist and a chemist? Dr Susan Lawler explains.

What’s a scientist? Let me tell you a story.

A couple of decades ago, I was catching large, ugly salamanders, known as hellbenders, with a group of like-minded scientists in a remote stretch of river in the American Ozarks.

We were marking each animal and collecting DNA samples so we could analyse the population structure and migration patterns of the species. A barefoot boy stepped out from behind a tree, shy with strangers but curious to know what we were doing.

We tried to explain that, because we were scientists, this was more than just a fishing trip – this was our job. The boy’s face lit up: his future prospects had suddenly improved because here was a job he could see himself doing.

But the more we tried to explain ourselves, the more suspicious he seemed. His eyes narrowed and he asked the fatal question: “is there any book learning in that?”

So much book learning was involved in that apparently innocent fishing trip that it was hard to explain what we were doing to someone who did not have a scientific education.