Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What inspired you?

I've had the opportunity to interview a lot of scientists lately--seven for the Antarctic Scientists book, and six out of a proposed seven for the Volcano Scientists book--and each time I asked, "How did you become interested in being a geologist/astrophysicist/volcanologist/(fill in the blank)?"

I've been struck by the number of people--perhaps one-third of my subjects--who said, "Well, when I was a kid, I really wanted to be an astronaut." And then, of course, the space program was scaled back, or they realized that they were too near-sighted or (sadly) the wrong gender, and their interests shifted. What all of these successful scientists had in common is that they had this intense interest in exploring the unknown, and to my generation, space was the great unknown.

What I'd like to convey to today's generation of kids is that while they may never be astronauts, there is still a wealth of scientific frontiers that we're just now beginning to explore. The second largest influence on the scientists, I think, was Jacques Cousteau--no surprise, because the ocean is a largely unexplored frontier. Scientists are continually discovering new forms of life in unexpected places, from boiling hot springs at the bottom of the ocean to icy lakes high in the mountains. Physicists probe the nature of matter to understand what happened just moments after the Big Bang, and molecular biologists are beginning to understand the ways in which genes influence behavior and health.

Who--or what--inspired you? (This question is not just for scientists!) Mine was the movie The Fantastic Voyage, so of course I became an immunologist.

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