Why I (Sometimes) Wish I Was a Scientist

Note: This is my June offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Science” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations.

When I was young, all I wanted to be was a veterinarian so I could help animals. As I got older, I found out that being a vet wasn’t just about making animals better, but also tough things like euthanasia, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. In high school I got a partial scholarship to a school a few hours away from my hometown and thought I’d major in business management, since I enjoyed selling tchotchkes at a local antique store and had always been one of the most productive sellers of school popcorn and Girl Scout cookies. But then a trip to a wolf sanctuary convinced me that I wanted to get back to working with animals, and so I switched to biology and enrolled at the university in my home town. My hopes were utterly dashed when I barely scraped through remedial algebra, and realized there was no way I was going to make it through the more advanced math and math-heavy science classes the program required. So I switched to English, and figured I’d just write about wolves (which I did, among other things).

I never stopped regretting, just a little bit, not being able to enter into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Oh, sure, my Master’s is in counseling psychology and I passed my research methods and statistics classes alright, but my background even there is less about research and more about the person to person interactions of counseling itself. I’m not a scientist. At best, I’m an amateur naturalist. I read a ton about my bioregion, from the geology to the fauna and flora to the weather patterns and more. I apply that knowledge to my experiences outdoors, and thereby have a deeper understanding of what it is that I’m seeing, hearing, touching, and otherwise sensing around me, and my relationship to it. But I’m barred from doing any research myself unless I struggle past algebra and into calculus, fight my way through organic chemistry and how to balance equations, and other things that are apparently necessary to advance past where I am now professionally.

Mind you, I don’t wish that I was only a scientist of some sort–maybe a marine biologist, or a paleontologist (the five year old me would have loved that idea–and I still do today!)–and nothing more. I’m quite happy having a variety of professions and trainings. I love that I can draw on ecopsychology, a beautiful blend of psychology, natural history and art in my counseling practice. But I admit that I envy people who get to go to field work, who get to find out about neat new discoveries before everyone else does, who get to do research into animal behavior and botany and weather patterns. The most I can do is consume their findings from this end.

So why does it matter? The longer I’ve walked this path that I’ve detailed in this blog for so many years, the more I want to know about this world we share. I am full of awe and wonder at its intricate workings, the sheer joy of evolution and physics and the other processes by which it works. I’ve felt levels of spiritual connection more profound than just about anything I experienced when my focus was more on symbols and abstractions, where I still felt somehow separate from what it was that I honored. And so where some people may wish to dive more deeply into ancient texts or devote themselves more completely to their gods, I want to immerse myself in this unbelievable world I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of, even if only for a tiny blip in its long lifespan. I’m already doing everything I can to be a more active participant in it–and in its preservation. Perhaps, in a way, I see those immersed in the sciences as a sort of clergy, and fieldwork as ritual, and research as the study and interpretation of sacred doctrines. Not as infallible holy writ, mind you, or “scientism”, but as one more way to know this world in all its parts.

But then I realize that perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be a generalist, an amateur naturalist who can more easily draw from the layperson’s end of all the sciences. I don’t have to adhere only to astrophysics, or molecular biology, as my bailiwick. While I don’t have the competency of a trained specialist, I also don’t have to defend my stances in my specialty in the same way. In fact, I’m free to browse at various theoretical fields–a little zoology here, a dash of meteorology here–not as a way to try and “be right”, but simply to augment my understanding of the world and my place in it. I still rely on specialists to help me ward off bad information and interpret what’s good, but I’m not married (figuratively) to any of them.

So while I still feel some envy toward the people who get to work at the Oregon and Monterey Bay aquariums, or painstakingly scrape and scuff rock away from ancient fossilized bones, I know I’m in the best place I can be. If someday I figure out that math stuff I may take a stab at even more intense training, but until then, I’ll happily curl up with my books and my documentaries and my layperson’s understanding, soaking it up like a sponge.

13 thoughts on “Why I (Sometimes) Wish I Was a Scientist

  1. Your response to majoring in biology/vet sciences was exactly the same as mine: “You want me to do WHAT with numbers?!? Forget it, I’m going to write instead, English majoring here I come!”

  2. Last year I started college full-time to get a degree in geology. I had made 2 aborted stabs at higher education previously, which had failed due to emotional problems and lack of focus. Now, with a goal I’m passionate about, I find I have boundless energy and focus. Khan Academy has been invaluable in getting myself back in the game; I hated math in high school, and had forgotten all my chemistry. Using KA (which is free without ads), I’ve passed 2 math classes with As and have placed into college chemistry (without having to take the intro course). If you ever want to start learning more about the sciences, try KA. They have lessons and practice for all kinds of math, for chemistry (regular and organic), biology, astronomy, and more.

  3. Math is haaard. (Twirls blonde hair with one finger.) The very basics didn’t scare me too bad (though I had an amazingly tough time comprehending time and telling time when I was a child). What killed me was when they started adding letters into math equations (stupid algebra!). My beautiful letters were being fouled by numbers?! Nooooo.

    I’m currently reading Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemna” and rediscovering a once-held desire to study biology, chiefly soil science. There’s something fascinating in the fact that all life flourishes on a thin bed of living dirt only a few feet thick. But I will have to enjoy the fruits of the scientists’ labors from the comfort of my liberal arts armchair. Test tubes and equations are not for me.

  4. I love maths – it speaks to me. I did study physics, maths and astronomy at ‘varsity, but it was the computer science which eventually stood me in good stead. I probably would’ve died if I’d continued to be a physicist. Instead I opened a career for myself in software hacking – which I love enough to look forward to Mondays at the age of 53. Ah, but that’s just the way that I roll, and being an under-the-radar aspie it’s probably not too surprising.
    What I regret most is neglecting the metaphysical in favour of the physical for so very many years.

    Terri in Joburg,

  5. The way we are often taught math in school leaves a lot to be desired – it is more about learning recipes than anything else. There is a professor named Keith Devlin who gave some really neat insights. First math is pretty much the science of patterns – each branch is a different set of patterns but in each case it is getting into how things fit and interact. When I read his definitions my math-heart was rekindled. The second thing he pointed out that in good math classes it is much more of an exploration and discovery of how things work and not the dusty recipe book for how to calculate such and such. I used to love playing with math outside of my classes and even now certain areas like group theory/symmetry are important to how I work on the metaphysical side of life.

    Anyhow I think just like with languages some folks click and learn more quickly but for the most part we all can learn math to our needs when it is taught well. Even a little exploration and we get whole new ways of perceiving stuff.

    • “Even a little exploration and we get whole new ways of perceiving stuff.”
      I agree with that sentiment, as akin to what Darwin (maybe) said: “Mathematics seems to endow one with something like a new sense.” I have respect for mathematicians, for they have given us tools to understand the world in a completely new light, but like Darwin, I’m not exactly that strong in maths, despite my current research path into physics. I also have respect for biologists and geologists (they don’t get high notice, unfortunately) as well, but just like the mathematicians, at a distance. O, the frustrations of being human!

      • Oh, I am terrible with math of all sorts, other than basic arithmetic. But I appreciate those who can A) do the higher maths, and B) are willing to translate it into plain languages so that the rest of us can get at least some idea of what’s going on in that world of abstracts and symbols that map out a shared reality.

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