Top banner


75 Reasons to Become a Scientist

American Scientist celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary

The Editors

In this classic article first published in 1986, American Scientist's 75th year, 75 scientists offer their reasons for entering their fields. The piece is brought up to date in a 2012 feature, “100 Reasons to Become a Scientist or an Engineer.”


“The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness.” —Ecclesiastes 2:14

Rudolf Arnheim
Professor Emeritus, Psychology of Art
Harvard University


It all began with utter, indeed addictive, fascination with other forms of life. That led me through concern about what humanity is doing to the biology of the planet, to consideration of ecosystems and global cycles. That in turn has led to very practical concerns about how people should relate to nature. Yet the original fascination with jewel-like bits of natural science is always there.

Thomas E. Lovejoy
Assistant Secretary, External Affairs
Smithsonian Institution


1998-09Reasons75FA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageHeroes—Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Parsons, Ernest Ruther ford, in particular—excited me because they were giants who straddled the present and the future, and changed the world. They were also, to some extent, showmen. Parsons, a scientist-engineer, couldn’t persuade the Royal Navy to try out his turbines in its ships. Knowing that, if she lived, Queen Victoria would review the fleet at her diamond jubilee in 1897, Parsons researched high-speed hulls and propellers, and built the Turbinia. He streaked around the startled fleet at 34 1/2 knots, a then unimagined speed. From then on, not only the Royal Navy but every other fleet switched to turbines. By 1907 his marine turbines of 70,000 hp (52 MW) powered the 38-kt liner Mauretania. Who could not lust after a life like that?

David Gordon Wilson
Professor of Mechanical Engineering


Memories of childhood are unreliable. I am lucky to have documentary evidence dating from the age of nine. The evidence is an unfinished novel, found among my mother’s papers forty-three years later, with the title Sir Phillip Roberts’ Ero-Lunar Collision. Sir Phillip is a professional astronomer, evidently a role model for a young scientist. The style of the novel is copied from Jules Verne; the story was suggested by the near approach of the asteroid Eros in the year 1931. Here is a sample of the dialogue: “Will Eros really go right through our Sattelite?” said Major Forbes. “Yes,” said Sir Phillip, “its speed, and its small weight and resistance, will bring it through our Sattelite, it will be a picture, suddenly rising white-hot from the Moon’s internal fires, followed by a stream of liquid lava.” So it was Jules Verne and Eros that turned my infant thoughts to science.

Freeman Dyson
The Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton University


1988-09Reasons75FB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageCuriosity.

Jane Goodall
The Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation


To be perfectly honest, I don’t see myself as a scientist (not in the present-day sense of the word, that is). I was shown while still quite young that the world was so much more than just what we see and hear and sense. Science was shown to be a means through which we could know of another greater world that lies just beneath the surface of our everyday lives. Once I knew this, I knew I would have to learn to see as a scientist. In days gone by, they used to call us natural philosophers. Now they just call us scientists!

Ian Shelton
Graduate student in Astronomy
University of Toronto


I always loved to build things, and at an early age became engrossed in researching and planning projects. As a result, it was always clear to me that I should and would become an engineer. Although most of my time now is spent as a manager, I know that at heart I always will be an engineer.

Kenneth H. Olsen
Digital Equipment Corporation


1988-09Reasons75FC.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageWhy would a teenaged girl in the 1940s choose engineering? An intersection of several significant factors: unexpected enjoyment of high school chemistry (taken only to fulfill a requirement); later, college physics and answers to lifelong questions about how the world works (plus many I had not yet thought to ask). But physics required a Ph.D. and the jobs were academic. The teenager rejected such outcomes, selecting a favorite aspect of 1940s physics and a 4-year electrical engineering curriculum which promised interesting jobs. It would have been difficult without a role model—my mother, a college math major then country school teacher. My parents were surprised by my choice, but accepting, as I was. Ten years after graduation I entered Stanford for graduate study, emerging with academic career goals. Engineering has been exciting, hard, fun, and satisfying. It has taken me to such places as the Antarctic interior, north Alaskan slope, and outer Aleutians. The teenager who didn’t know very much made the right choice.

Irene C. Peden
Professor of Electrical Engineering
University of Washington


When I was young I was curious about the world, asked questions, and thought for myself. For example, in my first algebra course I realized that I had a better mathematical style than the teacher, but that I should still listen since she knew more mathematics than I did. It seems to me that I became a scientist because: (1) I had some talent and wanted to develop myself, (2) I was aggressively curious about the world and how it worked, (3) I asked pointed questions (including doing some experiments), (4) I thought for myself and did not believe all that I was told, and (5) I listened carefully to others and to reality. These seem to be the same traits that many scientists show. One crucial step in my progress was the clear realization that in the long run it is the quality and not the quantity of research that matters.

Richard W. Hamming
Professor of Computer Science
Naval Postgraduate School


1988-09Reasons75FD.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageLuck would have it that after leaving Hitler’s Germany and fleeing the Spanish Civil War, my parents settled in what was to be come for me an entomological paradise—Uruguay. I discovered insects there at age seven, and have been in love with “bugs” ever since. My mother, an artist, taught me to search by eye and to see beauty in nature—hence my photographic bent. My father, a professional chemist and amateur perfumer, taught me to follow my nose. I learned about scents and fragrances from him in our mysteriously redolent basement, where he concocted the most wonderful of cosmetic formulations. That experience, no doubt, more than any other, set me off to become a chemical ecologist, and to look into the myriads of ways by which insects themselves make use of chemicals and operate as perfumers. Life has been a joy, and I don’t really see how I could ever have done anything else.

Thomas Eisner
Professor of Biology
Cornell University


1988-09Reasons75FE.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageChoosing a profession was not for me a matter of choosing science and then deciding on a field within it. It was more a matter of drifting into geology as an activity that involves more of the things that interest me than anything else—biology, chemistry, oceanography, ancient history, exploration, and aspects of astronomy. It simultaneously challenges one intellectually and physically, draws one to the field in interesting places, and probes the depths of earth history. It has the broadest reach and is more fun to do than any other professional means of livelihood I know of. It permits one, without changing jobs, to probe all aspects of how the earth works and how it has evolved from the beginning to its present state. I warmly recommend it as an activity rich in interesting problems for transferees from other fields of science.

Preston Cloud
Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences
University of California, Santa Barbara


As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life—so I be came a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls.

Matt Cartmill
Professor of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy
Duke University


I am tempted to tell a fine tale, noble and lyrical, but I guess I’d better repeat what I wrote last year in my book, The Civilized Engineer: Engineers, from the little I knew, studied science and used their brains. They also got jobs and earned salaries. And, after a fashion, they were cultural heroes. The newsreels that I saw every weekend between two movies at Loews 83rd Street often featured the dedication of a new TVA dam or some other impressive public work. There was much cutting of ribbons and drinking of toasts, each event celebrating a counterattack against rural dust bowls or urban slums. And when the movies themselves depicted engineers—usually in the B film, to be sure—they were stalwart men in high-laced boots engaged in heroic endeavors such as building railroads or prospecting for oil. Intellectually challenging, financially sensible, and having withal a touch of romance and adventure—engineering seemed like an ideal calling.

Samuel C. Florman
Vice President
Kreisler Borg Florman Construction


As I look back on it, it is quite possible that I got into mathematics and physics because I misunderstood a joke. When I was a freshman at Harvard in the spring of 1948 I took a nonmajors general science course to escape from the science requirement. Its professor, I. Bernard Cohen, discussed relativity. I thought he said that only twelve people in the world understood it. He may have, in fact, been retelling the true anecdote about Sir Arthur Eddington, who when asked if only three people in the world understood general relativity replied, “Who is the third?” In any event, I determined to become the thirteenth and began a futile attempt to teach myself relativity, starting with no background in either physics or mathematics. These things take on a life of their own, and each course I took, which for many years I did with the idea of stopping at the point where I could under stand relativity, led to the next, and in the end I became a theoretical physicist and one who, incidentally, has never done any research on the theory of relativity.

Jeremy Bernstein
Professor of Physics
Stevens Institute of Technology


I am still aspiring to it—being a scientist is less a decision than a state of grace to be worked toward.

George A. Miller
Professor of Psychology
Princeton University


1988-09Reasons75FF.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageI had no clear idea of what I wanted to do after high school, although I vaguely hoped it might involve fast cars and leave plenty of time for reading. Inspired by my chemistry teacher rather than these foggy thoughts, I went to Sydney University to become a chemical engineer. I ended up, however, with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and the surprising realization that I could make a career out of solving puzzles, trying to understand how the world works.

Robert M. May
Professor of Biology
Princeton University


1988-09Reasons75FG.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageMy first remembered observation of an invertebrate was watching an omiscid walking around a glass-topped pillbox wondering at its jointed legs. My father, a demonstrator in mineralogy, had given me the box with instructions where the animal was to be let out in a flower bed when I was through with my observations. Soon my mother gave me a preserving jar, a small but adequate aquarium for which I captured a few scarlet water mites. Soon three-spined sticklebacks occupied a large aquarium, and the polygyny of this small fish disturbed my mother; to me this was just another occasion for asking why. They bred poorly in captivity in spite of their mammalian names, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter, the first three I think female. To me every aspect of nature was exemplified by my fascinating and strangely asymmetrical Corixidae, on which I am still writing.

G. Evelyn Hutchinson
Professor Emeritus of Zoology
Yale University


I had always been fascinated by questions about how the mind worked. But becoming a scientist seemed to happen while I wasn’t looking. All of a sudden, after exposure to some psychology, I found myself asking questions about the mind that seemed possible to answer—given some ingenuity. And I’ve been trying to muster the ingenuity ever since. Now, a half-century later, I’m still trying.

Jerome Bruner
Research Fellow
Russell Sage Foundation


When I was a little girl, my mother showed me how to break open the shale chips at Florissant to find the delicate brown leaves that drifted into an Oligocene lake. My father slowly walked with me up mountain trails and showed me wilderness. Later on, the summer I was eighteen, I took my horse up a side canyon, and under the aspens, looking up at the maroon cliffs above Willow Creek, I decided I never wanted to be too far away from that beauty that my mother and father had first shown to me.

Priscilla C. Grew
Minnesota Geological Survey


Because there were two inspiring teachers—one undergraduate and one graduate—who made it impossible to resist. Because from a young age I had found great personal pleasure—and still do—in the Aha! experience that goes along with success in creating things and solving problems, although I have never had any illusions about the great importance of my own particular insights. And because I was—and still am—curious about and fascinated by my own psychological processes. More over, as I get older, this curiosity grows more intense and less constrained by the psychological dogma of my early career.

William Bevan
Vice President
MacArthur Foundation


Life—by my wise mother’s prophecies—
Needs true passions and cerebral odysseys.
Science—for me—is part of that niche.
Today, as you see, tho’ alas I’m not rich,
I am passionately juggling hypotheses!

Elisabeth S. Vrba
Professor of Geology
Yale University


1988-09Reasons75FH.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageWhy? Why not? Indeed, how to avoid it? Science, I observed, licenses “thinkering”—thinking and tinkering. As such it is a haven for the neotenic, the quizzical, the (absent-) minded. Science endorses a compulsive union of play and work, of modeling, word-smithing, and number-crunching. Science integrates experience and experiment with the realms of art and craft, neither excluding nor precluding, but exploring as an end in itself. Sciencing is surely a natural propensity of our species. When I, with deliberation, be came a scientist, the reasons centered on the spatiotemporal flexibility of academic science, coupled with the opportunity to confront complexity, and the excitement of meeting curious companions everywhere.

Myrdene Anderson
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Purdue University


1988-09Reasons75FI.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageI went into science because I hated it. Like most kids, I had a fascination with dinosaurs, but science teaching deadened that fascination by pushing at us at a premature age the mindless details of plant cell structures and the genetic code. It was, after all, the Age of Sputnik. My first semester in college I got a “D” in a required science course. I was all set for another “D” second semester when the professor paused in the middle of a particularly boring lecture and said, “You know, some of you may not be into this.” (It was now the Age of Aquarius.) “If you’d like to do something else, see me after class.” I did. He put me in touch with a professor who specialized in all the things I’d always wanted to learn about, who took the time to help me to study them independently and discuss them. That professor, Bob Linsley, became my undergraduate advisor and was responsible for my eventual application to graduate school. That led to my eventual career, which I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Kevin Padian
Associate Professor of Paleontology
University of California, Berkeley


When I was eight years old, I looked up at the sky and wondered what the stars were made of. Later, I picked up rocks, admired them and the landscapes which they made, and wondered how it all came to be. I mixed chemicals in our third floor bathroom and wondered just how it was that I could produce such spectacular explosions with such ordinary stuff. I took electrical appliances apart and wanted to know how they really worked. Once I began to understand some partial answers to these questions, I found that I enjoyed explaining it, teaching other people. I’m a scientist by choice, an astronomer by chance; all aspects of the natural world fascinate me. I was lucky to have found a way to get paid for doing what I like so much. Now, if there was only some better way to deal with the chore of writing and reading research proposals. . . .

Harry Shipman
Professor of Astronomy
University of Delaware


Since I was twelve years old I was interested in what makes Nature tick. I got a telescope from my father and I read popular magazines on science, some not unlike American Scientist.

Victor F. Weisskopf
Professor Emeritus of Physics


I became a scientist to be a role model and teacher of science for Black and other minority youth to encourage them to believe in themselves and in their creative potential, and to develop new knowledge through research that contributes to providing food and health and a better environment for all.

Walter A. Hill
Dean, School of Agriculture
Tuskegee University


1988-09Reasons75FJ.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageFor as long as I can remember being outside with animals was what I liked best. This led to watching individual animals, trying to learn how they lived, and has expanded to trying to understand how their behavior evolved. Fundamental to these endeavors has been a respect for natural systems, their beauty and complexity, and my need to live in the wild and to help sustain its integrity.

Patricia D. Moehlman
Wildlife Conservation International
New York Zoological Society


Some people might deny that I am a scientist, for my doctoral degree was in history. But when I began teaching, I discovered that my historical training had slighted the development of science and technology. World War II unwittingly provided me with a science/technology background. Stating that my Harvard Ph.D. proved that I was “educable,” the Signal Corps sent me through an accelerated electrical engineering course. My venture into science and engineering enlarged my historical perspective. That resulted in my founding a new scholarly field (the history of technology) and involved me in service to NSF, NRC, AAAS, NASA, and, of course, Sigma Xi. Those who distinguish between the “hard” and “soft” sciences claim that social science is not truly scientific. My research, however, indicates that the real distinction is between the “hard” sciences (physics, chemistry, et al.) and the “difficult” sciences, represented by the social sciences, including my own history of technology!

Melvin Kranzberg
Professor of History of Technology
Georgia Institute of Technology


1988-09Reasons75FK.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageBecoming a scientist was my dream since I was six years old. It all started when I was three and my parents allowed me to stay up late for the first time. I saw the stars in Egypt’s sky and asked my father about all the light bulbs in the sky and who collects them in the morning. My father, who is a scientist, used balls and blocks to teach me about the planets, and boiling water in pots to explain about rain. At the dinner table he would do simple demonstrations like adding lime to milk and we would watch it separate. Now I have my own laboratory, and when everybody leaves in the evening, this is my world. I enjoy designing experiments, and often I run into problems and things don’t work quite right, but it is those moments when experiments work well or ideas materialize that make all the long, long hours worth every second.

Malak Kotb
Assistant Professor of Medicine
University of Tennessee, Memphis


1988-09Reasons75FL.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageBecause I’m good at it!

Raymond Kurzweil
Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Inc.


The reason I initially decided to become a scientist is that I couldn’t believe someone would actually pay me to spend the rest of my life being curious and expanding my mind. Once I arrived at graduate school, I soon recognized that there was an acute shortage of scientists worrying about why volcanoes tend to congregate in the South Pacific to create a tropical paradise. It’s a tough job, but some one has to do it.

Marcia McNutt
Associate Professor, Earth Sciences


In my heart I am rebellious. I don’t want to do what other people do. I don’t want to be told what to do. I don’t like dealing with people. I don’t like boredom, although I am patient. These conditions exclude most occupations except arts and sciences. My early education biased me for sciences over arts.

Masakazu Konishi
Professor of Biology
California Institute of Technology


I am convinced naturalists are born and not made. My first great love was a quail—I was three years old—and I collected ladybirds and kept them as pets when I was four. I found a letter from my father, written to me when I was nine, asking, “How did you know Chrysisignita is a parasite?” I doubt if I ever became a scientist. I think I remained a naturalist with a passion for flowers and animals, an insatiable curiosity about their lives, and a rather tedious predilection for telling everyone about my latest “discovery.”

Miriam Rothschild
Ashton Wold
United Kingdom


I never wanted to be a scientist; I wanted to be a mathematician for the sake of its consistency, which I found absent in every other endeavor. In the end it was quantum mechanics and the “uncertainty principle” which converted me to science. Still later, the need for defense drew me from work on pure science into the turbulent activities of unexpected novel applications. What I wanted I did not attain. What I got I do not regret.

Edward Teller
Senior Research Fellow
Hoover Institution


1988-09Reasons75FM.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIn second grade, during a bout of tonsillitis, I first stretched my imagination to encompass a dinosaur. My mother brought home a book from the American Museum of Natural History where Brontosaurus loomed against a red sky. I already knew lots about dragons: a healthy firebreathing fairy-tale dragon could be two-and-a-half times as long as our living room. But Diplodocus was four times as long as the living room—and it was real. I concluded the wildest romance lay in science. Even Jules Verne didn’t invent six foot scarlet tube-worms that live on boiling sulfur-water in the ocean’s abyss. A. A. Milne did not think up ring-tailed lemurs that toast themselves in the morning sun. In spite of the current study of science as an all too-human branch of knowledge, I remain convinced that fact out-boggles fiction.

Alison Jolly
Visiting Lecturer in Biology
Princeton University


It seems that I was always going to be a biologist. My earliest memories are watching animals, a web-spinning spider, a great blue heron stalking a crayfish, a cardinal feeding her young. I watched our bird feeder for hours and kept wild animals as pets, but I was never much of a collector. My parents were both professionals (my father a research chemist), and they encouraged and focused my interest in biology. We moved to an urban setting for high school, Chicago, and bird watching became an avid hobby. I read what I could find on birds, including N. Tinbergen’s Herring Gull’s World, and in this book I discovered the field of animal behavior. Since then, I never changed course; my childhood fascinations have be come my profession.

H. Jane Brockmann
Associate Professor of Zoology
University of Florida


Books: my father’s study, the public library, detective stories, almost never science. My grandfather’s brass microscope: flies’ wings, snowflakes, amoebae from the pond. Fishing: the loneliness of outdoors. Explaining things. At university, I vaguely expected to become a schoolmaster. Then Richard Murray set me a tutorial essay on the transmission of the nerve impulse. Instead of writing out a simple explanation, I became obsessed with solving the problem of the biochemistry of the “sodium pump.” Weeks later, in desperation I asked Murray to my room, where by now most of the science library had accumulated. He gently steered me back to reality. But a few days later Murray asked me to stroll in the gardens after dinner and then suggested that I consider research as a career. The pattern continues: books, solving problems, explaining things.

Keith Stewart Thomson
The Academy of Natural Sciences


By age ten, I had a strong interest in astronomy, botany, and electronics. I pursued electronics avidly as a reader of Popular Electronics and as a tinkerer and by fifteen had won the grand award at the Southern Connecticut Science Fair with a computer that found roots for linear equations. By seventeen I built a computer that solved third-degree equations. By twenty two, I was enrolled in the computer science option in MIT’s electrical engineering department. On receiving my Ph.D. at twenty-six in 1968, I became one of the first computer scientists in the country. As a professional scientist, I found success as a researcher and teacher, and later as a research leader. It seems today that computing technology is inextricably intertwined with human destiny, and I work for computing technology’s promoting a stable world. That’s the long of it. The short of it is, I became a scientist by falling into it. I stay a scientist out of a deep commitment to making a difference in the world.

Peter Denning
Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science


1988-09Reasons75FN.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageFor generations, and perhaps for centuries, a worthy man’s calling in my family was to become a scholar. Then, my grandparents’ sixteenth child fell in love with mathematics and ran off to Paris. When I turned twenty, he decided that our family’s old and new traditions and my gifts had “written for me” a mathematician’s life. But some inner pressure I could never analyze properly made me flee all established topics. Tyranny had not broken but strengthened my spirit, and I reserved my passion to a mess of ill-fitting miscellanea, following a star that was without form and without name, but eventually gave me the privilege of revealing and naming it. Fractal geometry celebrates the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in natural science” (Wigner), and introduces the twin new theme of the “unreasonable plastic beauty of the shapes of mathematics.” Conceptual beauty, practical usefulness, and pleasure of the eye brought together unexpectedly. The first may have satisfied my ancestors.

Benoit B. Mandelbrot
IBM Fellow, Watson Research Center
Adjunct Professor of Mathematical Sciences, Yale University


Because it seemed the most fun.

Abraham Pais
Professor of Physics
The Rockefeller University


1988-09Reasons75FO.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThere were innumerable influences in your past, but you remember only a few of the major ones, and you instinctively weave these into a plausible history explaining how you became what you presume you are. This interpretation of history is both logical and nonfalsifiable and so tends to establish its own validity. Chances are it's wrong. My nonconfident guess as to why science and engineering have proved fascinating to me is that circumstances meshed hobby with profession. The hobby was sailplanes, an outgrowth of a teenage addiction to creating model airplanes. The challenges of improving sailplane efficiency and sharpening skills for harvesting nature’s energy to keep the vehicles aloft connected me to topics such as aerodynamics, structures, meteorology, probability concepts, and bird flight, as well as to pioneering and competitions. Simultaneously, there was the stimulus of several mentors—scientists with excitement for all subjects, and the gifts of inspiring those around them to share the delight.

Paul MacCready
AeroVironment, Inc.


At age six I was told by my grandpop that when I grew up I must pick a profession that I thoroughly enjoy; otherwise my life would be a failure. I believed him. At eight I was taken by my mother to a lecture about the solar system, and promptly fell in love with astronomy. At twelve I read George Gamow’s book One, Two, Three, . . ., Infinity and there found a second love, theoretical physics. It was inevitable. I have become a theoretical astrophysicist.

Kip S. Thome
Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics
California Institute of Technology


The word is fascination. Science is a limitless challenge—it’s always there, demanding, frustrating, sometimes satisfying. It's a way of living, a way of thinking. Research is the pursuit of the unknown but not unknowable. The challenge of research lies in devising questions that are answerable but unpredictable. I became a scientist because of the challenge. Over the years I have seen some of our results built into the structure of biological knowledge. This is pleasant and rewarding but the real challenge still lies ahead.

Ruth Sager
Professor of Cellular Genetics
Harvard Medical School


I loved the beauty of crystals, I loved the cleverness of gadgets, and I loved the power of understanding. If I became a scientist it meant that I would always want to go to work and would be proud of what I did.

Gerald J. Wasserburg
Professor of Geological Sciences
California Institute of Technology


My father encouraged in various ways my curiosity and interest in nature and science. When about four, I saw a Geissler tube with high-frequency electricity producing painless sparks to my fingers. Later, he left science books lying around as if reading them. After I had read them, they disappeared. I remember Creative Chemistry by Slosson. He helped me get materials for “experiments.” Knowing that high school introductory General Science would be boring, he arranged for an examination so I could skip it. I was taken to see his colleagues’ laboratories and demonstrations and listened eagerly to their conversations at college picnics. I knew that teaching and research did not pay as well as business, law, or medicine, but saw my father’s satisfaction in his students’ progress and when they came back to say how much they appreciated what he had taught them.

Neal E. Miller
Professor Emeritus, Psychology, The Rockefeller University
Research Affiliate, Yale University


1988-09Reasons75FP.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe love for nerve cells, a thirst for unveiling the rules which control their growth and differentiation, and the pleasure of performing this task in defiance of the racial laws issued in 1939 by the Fascist regime were the driving forces which opened the doors for me of the “Forbidden City.” This is how the vertebrate nervous system appeared to scientists in my youth. I gained access to that “city” in my bedroom in Turin, Italy. In this room, transformed into a tiny laboratory, in an atmosphere saturated with anti-Semitic slogans and threats, the nervous system revealed itself to me in all its wondrous beauty. These studies were later pursued at Washington University with Viktor Hamburger, an outstanding scientist and dear friend. The in-vitro bioassay which I devised in Rio de Janeiro in 1953 made possible the identification by Stanley Cohen of the protein molecule released from some mouse sarcomas and later detected in much larger amounts in mouse salivary glands. This molecule was christened in 1954 as the Nerve Growth Factor.

Rita Levi-Montalcini
Institute of Cell Biology


I saw the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History when I was five. I vowed that day to become a paleontologist (though I didn’t know the word then). Many (maybe most) kids pass through a dinosaur phase—nothing rare about that. Few stick with it. If I had been blessed with the voice, I would have sung Wotan at the Met. If I had been endowed with the body, I would have followed DiMaggio in center field. I had no gift of song or brawn, but at least my head functioned passably, and I never lost that child’s fascination for life’s history and mystery.

Stephen Jay Gould
Museum of Comparative Zoology
Harvard University



Edwin H. Land
President and Director of Research
The Rowland Institute for Science


1988-09Reasons75FQ.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageBecause I was educated in classics and going through a five-year engineering program at Louvain University, my chances of becoming a scientist were very slim indeed. What happened? Before embarking on a career in the chemical industry, I was advised to spend one year at Princeton to learn modern chemistry with Hugh Taylor, who had friends at Louvain. After one year, Sir Hugh tried to persuade me to stay on for a Ph.D. I said yes, but first got married with the blessing of Sir Hugh and Lady Taylor. My conversion to science soon followed. In my third year at Princeton, Linus Pauling came through and presented his new theory of metals with values of percentage d-bond character. To my intense pleasure, I found that these values correlated with Otto Beeck’s reaction rates for the hydrogenation of ethene on evaporated films. Sir Hugh told me to publish this finding alone. I did. That is how I became a scientist.

Michel Boudart
Professor of Chemical Engineering
Stanford University


1988-09Reasons75FR.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAlthough neither of my parents were scientists, they both influenced me in that direction. As a child I was amazed to learn from my father the distance to the stars and the expected death of the sun. When my mother read Madame Curie’s biography, she discussed it with me at length, and this too left a deep impression. In our family we children were always encouraged to discuss and to question the conventional wisdom. Another influence was the general admiration for science and scientists in the late 1940s. Scientists were heroes—they had split the atom and discovered penicillin. Science would be a romantic and idealistic adventure.

Anne Kernan
Professor of Physics
University of California, Riverside


I went into science because as a child I had an intense curiosity, and it seemed as if science was filled with profound and deep mysteries. At an early stage, I was fascinated by numbers and their properties, and also by atoms and the particles that compose them, as well as by photons and other even-more ethereal denizens of the microworld. Later on, I became fascinated by the mysteries of language and music, and at the same time, intrigued by computers and logic; and those varied interests led to my current fascination with perception, concepts, and creativity. My early loves for math and physics have left deep tracks in my modes of thought, but I don’t think directly about them too often anymore.

Douglas R. Hofstadter
Professor of Human Understanding and Cognitive Science
University of Michigan


My dream as an experimental scientist was to go to the laboratory and hope to learn something each day that no one knew before. Very few were the days that it really happened—but the dream continued throughout my research career.

Rosalyn S. Yalozv
Senior Medical Investigator
Veterans Administration, Bronx, NY


Why study very dead plants? ln hindsight, the answer is easy. The little boy in me has always been fascinated by the mechanics of “how things work,” and paleobotany offers a mechanism encompassing all of life and earthly time to play with! The motivation at the actual time of decision was different, and dates from my sophomore year of college. I was delighted by fine arts, and had considered a major therein. However, I reached the (surprisingly) rational conclusion that, as a student of the humanities, I could appreciate the sciences only with great difficulty, but as a scientist I could participate in both fields of human endeavor. The choice of paleobotany was equally logical—the study of fossil plants allowed me simultaneously to address the two fields that most fascinated me—botany and geology!

Bruce H. Tiffney
Associate Professor, Geological and Biological Sciences
University of California, Santa Barbara CA


The beauty of nature. . . . I started out to be an artist, but the weird and wonderful shapes of organisms sparked my curiosity: How do they work?

Mimi Koehl
Professor of Zoology
University of California, Berkeley


1988-09Reasons75FS.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageI was born and grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and definitely did not want to do any of the things that I saw most people doing in Hattiesburg—being a teacher, undertaker, or lawyer. I was a good saxophonist, so I even thought about becoming a musician. But my big break was to win a scholarship in the tenth grade to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta. I found that I was good at math and that I liked it. I took a chemistry course and saw the way math was used to understand chemistry. This made me aware of how mathematics could be used to understand the real world. When I took physics, I discovered it was hard work, but fun and stimulating. I was the only physics major in my class. I fell in love with physics because it was such an intellectual challenge. One could use mathematics and physical principles to calculate and predict the behavior of the physical universe.

Walter E. Massey
Vice President for Research
University of Chicago


1988-09Reasons75FT.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageI became a civil engineer by winning a Fulbright Fellowship to study bridge rebuilding in Belgium after World War II. Early pleasure with erector sets combined with a much later passion for the bridges of Robert Maillart have led to a career in teaching, lecturing, and writing about the scientific, social, and aesthetic ideas that go together to make impressive structures.

David P. Billington
Professor of Civil Engineering
Princeton University


Like most epiphanies, my conversion to biology from English literature in 1960 was no such thing: I had long been running on two tracks, but the leap from humanities to science nonetheless had several proximate causes—the excitement of an emerging molecular biology; truly inspirational teachers; personal disappointments; and most notably C. P. Snow, whose autobiographical account of his transformation from physicist to novelist offered a pleasing symmetry, and whose call for unification of the Two Cultures presented an ideal never to be abandoned. Indeed, life has often seemed an acting-out of Strangers and Brothers, that glacial account of a lifetime’s frustration and limited accomplishment: in contrast to the impossible creative demands of the arts, science offered if not the comfort of certitude, then the certainty of modest success, a framework within which even a mediocre individual could transcend his limitations and make useful contributions. I hope I have.

John A. W. Kirsch
Professor of Zoology
University of Wisconsin


I became a scientist by a winding path. Among early influences were the following: curiosities of nature, such as animals in the zoo and dinosaur skeletons in museums; puzzling technological devices, like the siphon (in Prohibition times!) and the electric motor; books portraying scientists as heroes, like Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters; an exposure to mathematics, my most striking memory being Euler’s formula e = –1; popular books like Bernard Jaffe’s Crucibles of Chemistry, which offered wonderful overviews of natural phenomena. The desire for a great overview led me to graduate work in philosophy. While working on a dissertation concerning inductive probability, however, I was led back to physics, which uses probability in profound explanations of phenomena. The consequence has been a profession combining philosophy and physics in a way that can be characterized by the old-fashioned term “natural philosophy.”

Abner Shimony
Professor of Philosophy and Physics
Boston University


“Why did you become a scientist?” [Long pause.] “Well... ?” “I’m thinking, I’m thinking; thirty years aren’t enough time for a satisfactory answer.”

Donald Fernie
Professor of Astronomy
University of Toronto


Time, place, and extraordinary good fortune drew me to science. I was raised in sparsely populated South Australia. One could not help but be conscious of the complexity of the natural world. People used wit and ingenuity to tangle with the complexity in order to change the new landscape to productive pastures. Schooling of the day tended to be practical and science-oriented. The enthusiasm of grade-school teachers had nudged me toward chemistry when I entered university in 1946. But a great-grandfather had reached Australia as a Cornish mining engineer in the 1850s, and I thought to learn something of his craft through an elective course in geology. The teacher was Sir Douglas Mawson, Antarctic explorer and distinguished geologist. Through his eyes nature and scientific enquiry came together. As a result, I graduated in both chemistry and geology, but in the end it was geology that claimed my allegiance.

Brian J. Skinner
Professor of Geology
Yale University


1988-09Reasons75FU.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageMy earliest memories of the query, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” came from bored relatives, assigned essays, questionnaires, and registration forms. Except for details, I never had the slightest doubt about my answer: I wanted to be an explorer and a writer. The details were science, something of which my childhood was entirely devoid. During Natural Science 2, a course in the College at the University of Chicago, we read authentic words of the scientific researchers in pursuit of solutions. I learned that I too could participate in the search for the first amoebas and for the substance that physically connects generations of parents with their children. Now I think the activities of science keep our brainy bodies in touch with those of our planetmates; science, as a way of knowing, is exploration and writing about it.

Lynn Margulis
Professor of Biology
Boston University


I was told that I was an exceptionally curious but ill-mannered little boy. It was World War II that got me interested in physics. My brother Sam, a glider-trooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, patiently explained to me that a low-flying plane must take evasive action after releasing its bombs because if it continued on a straight course, the bombs would explode directly underneath the plane. This puzzled me at first. I had not realized that the bombs would continue to move forward as they fell, at the same speed and in the same direction as the plane itself. My brother the dentist got me hooked on classical mechanics.

Sheldon Lee Glashow
Professor of Physics
Harvard University


1988-09Reasons75FV.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAt age eight I knew biology was for me. To learn how animals work, to discover things that no one else knew about animals . . . what more could anyone ask from life? My choice of organisms was settled by the time I was twelve; growing up in upstate New York, having never seen the ocean (and I never did until I was twenty), and being allergic to anything with fur or feathers, what could be more natural than to focus on marine invertebrates? I suffered a lapse of resolve at fourteen when I toyed briefly with the idea of becoming a historian, but I quickly returned to my first love. Four years later, when I discovered paleontology and realized that it was really zoology in disguise, I saw I could have both biology and history in one package, and the rest of my career was foreordained. Building on this insight, I’ve spent the last twenty years straddling every conceivable academic division . . . and loving every minute of it.

Michael LaBarbera
Associate Professor of Anatomy
University of Chicago


1988-09Reasons75FW.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageA good teacher attracted me to physical sciences. Unfortunately, I found that in 1926 universities taught classical physics, astronomy before galaxies, and elementary chemistry as almost unrelated subjects. Laboratories before computers and modern instruments were tedious. In contrast, three summers as a school-boy assistant in the woods north of Lake Superior convinced me that Precambrian geology would be more varied and exciting than laboratory experiments. Geology was still primitive, but its problems difficult and the earth fascinating. I took a double major in physics and geology. As I watched, the revolution in quantum mechanics, the discovery of distant galaxies, and applications of nuclear physics and relativity made all physical sciences one. Elucidation of the genetic code linked biology to them. Because the theory of plate tectonics is incomplete, geology still retains its greatest challenge: to discover precise causes of the earth’s behavior.

J. Tuzo Wilson
Retired Professor of Geophysics
University of Toronto


Pleasant, stimulating people brought me into the scientific circle and keep me from leaving its perimeter. In 1946, a Labrador prospector suggested: “Try geology, you will find geologists the most likeable people.” At McGill, professors Fred Jolliffe, Tom Clark, and Jim Gill proved his point. Yale went further, showing that one could be worked like a galley slave but retain affection for the chief whip, Adolph Knopf, and his young whipper-snappers such as Horace Winchell (who sponsored me for Sigma Xi). That over, I bounced back and forth between rocky havens of happiness: the Geological Survey of Canada and Memorial University of Newfoundland. I cherish my continuing friendships with Survey scientists. Memorial’s recent emergence as a center of earth science excellence satisfies, but mainly because it floods the mind with recall of students who made it also a joyous center. Old prospector Abelard was right—people hooked me on science and kept me hooked.

E. R. Ward Neale
Retired Vice President (Academic)
Memorial University


As a boy I was fascinated by the rapid development of technology and wanted to become an engineer. When I finally decided to study physics it was with a view to the applications. But as a student I became aware of the revolution in basic physics, and this became an irresistible attraction. In the sixty-odd years since then, the nature of research has changed greatly, but it has not lost its attraction for me. However, I have never lost my awareness of the applications, which are not only the main reason why the community supports science, but are at the base of our confidence in the validity of our findings.

Rudolf Peierls
Professor Emeritus of Physics
Oxford University


My mother tells me that I first became interested in science when she and I read some children’s books on electrons (!) while we were hiding from the Nazis in the attic of a schoolhouse. I was six then. My own first memories focus on two biographies. I was about ten at the time, we were in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, on our way from Galicia to the United States. I can’t remember if I read them in Polish or German translation. The biographies were of Marie Curie by her daughter, and of George Washington Carver. Think about this: a woman physicist and chemist and a black agricultural chemist serving as role models for a male white child!

Roald Hoffmann
Professor of Chemistry
Cornell University


1988-09Reasons75FX.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageI became a chemist because my freshman chemistry teacher was great and because I decided the work might pay better than what would have been possible with a degree in English literature (my first love).

Mary L. Good
President, Engineered Materials Research, Allied Signal


1988-09Reasons75FY.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAs far as I can recall, I became a scientist because I was fascinated by animals and wanted know what it would be like to be animals of various sorts. It seemed easier to imagine being a mammal or a bird, so I concentrated on them, and especially on their migration and orientation. It was most satisfying to learn how bats guide their flight through the dark by echolocation, and later to find that they rely on echolocation not only as a way to avoid collisions but also to locate and capture flying insects. Even so, Frederic Webster and I were astonished when multiflash photographs at eight per second showed a horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrum-equinum) catching a moth with a prehensile use of the wingtip. Eye-opening surprises like these keep an ethologist’s life excitingly rewarding.

Donald R. Griffin
Professor Emeritus, Animal Behavior
The Rockefeller University


Rather: why I became a scientist not fitting any -graphies or -logies. Or: how did I end up writing about acid rain, Chinese food, the history of OPEC, the global nitrogen cycle, and US corn. At the very start just a roaming fascination with the vastness of knowledge: Egyptology seemed as enticing as chemistry. During the early years of university a growing dislike for any permanently narrow focus: I just could not see myself spending a life with the anatomy of phloem. And so a groping for a means allowing the widest yet coherent range of studies ending (accidentally? inevitably?) in my “discovery” of energy: the universal link generating endless new focuses on countless complexities. Joules and watts provide the steadying frame: power plants, water buffaloes, crude oil, or bacteria supply the changing focus.

Vaclav Smil
Professor of Geography
University of Manitoba


1988-09Reasons75FZ.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageToday I can’t imagine a more satisfying career than that of being a scientist. However, I was not born with a burning desire to be a scientist, nor even a slight interest in science. As a boy I was most interested in playing baseball, and was motivated to learn math so that I could compute baseball averages. But I was fortunate enough to get the very best schooling that money could buy in the 1960s: I attended public schools. And there, talented and dedicated teachers aroused my interest in science and math, and nurtured my then undiscovered talents. After high school I attended Caltech on a scholarship provided by the state of California. Today we see the fruits of that earlier investment in public education: this country’s many outstanding scientists whose interest in science began and was cultivated in our public schools. Sadly, our public schools have declined drastically in the past 25 years. Will we be able to find 100 American scientists to respond to this question on the 100th anniversary of American Scientist?—not unless we start investing again in the education of our young people.

Michael S. Turner
Professor of Physics
University of Chicago/Fermilab


Science allows me to be continuously learning new methods, new ideas, new organisms, and new ways of asking about the facets of life—the how, what, and where of living organisms.

Sarah Ann Woodin
Professor of Marine Biology
University of South Carolina


In 1915 I attended the San Francisco Pan-American Exposition with my father, who later remembered that I was fascinated by the Machinery Hall exhibits, the beginning of my lifelong interest in hardware. My early exposure to science was substantial. I often accompanied my father on Saturdays to the Hooper Foundation where he conducted his physiological research. I didn’t find the physiological studies at all interesting, but I was fascinated by the electrical equipment used to measure the experiments. It was not until I was a junior at the University of Chicago, however, that I really discovered physics. It was love at first sight. Every scientist can recall the teacher who aroused his interest in a field. In my case it was George Monk. He made it obvious to me that I had to be a physicist. I had been shielded from financial worries and didn’t think to wonder how a physicist might earn a living.

Luis Alvarez
Senior Scientist
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory


During the summer of 1932 when I was 13 years old I decided to become a zoologist because I thought it would be fascinating to visit distant parts of the world and study exotic animals. I was right. It has been.

George A. Bartholomew
Professor Emeritus of Zoology
University of California, Los Angeles


1988-097Reasons75FZZ.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageI became a field biologist out of love for animals and a preference for a quiet life in the wilderness. The animals I have observed, such as tiger, mountain gorilla, and giant panda, not only satisfied a sense of wonder by their beauty and elegance, but also they enabled me to become an explorer both in the intellectual and physical realms. At first I studied animals out of curiosity and for pleasure. But noting with dismay the exponential destruction of our wildlife, I now strive for an ideal beyond science: I help fight for the future of all species.

George B. Schaller
Wildlife Conservation International / New York Zoological Society

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner