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How many scientists do you know in real life?

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7:53am, April 5, 2018
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The death of physicist Stephen Hawking on March 14 at age 76 sparked a global outpouring of admiration. In our appreciation, Science News physics writer Emily Conover calls him “a black hole whisperer who divined the secrets of the universe’s most inscrutable objects." He was also among the very few cosmologists (hello, Carl Sagan) to have written an international best seller; Hawking was also the subject of an Academy Award–winning biopic (SN: 11/1/14, p. 28).

Hawking’s status as superstar scientist led us to ponder what other contemporary scientists people would immediately recall. Primatologist Jane Goodall came to mind, as did astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Also Bill Nye (who worked as a mechanical engineer for Boeing before heading off to TV-land) and string theorist Brian Greene.

After that, our water cooler discussion of scientists who excel both at science and at explaining it branched off in many directions. We named Lisa Randall (yet another articulate physicist); Dava Newman, a former deputy administrator of NASA; Anthony Fauci, an AIDS researcher and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; neuroscientist Christof Koch; economist Raj Chetty; geneticist George Church; physician and New Yorker contributor Atul Gawande; “inner fish” paleontologist Neil Shubin; and climate science defender James Hansen. We could have gone on for hours; we talk with more than a thousand scientists each year in the course of researching stories, each one fascinating in her or his own way.

But most people don’t have the chance to talk with scientists as we do, and their vision of “who’s a scientist” remains tragically underpopulated. A survey last year by Research!America found that 81 percent of Americans couldn’t name a single living scientist. The most well-known then living? Hawking.

But the news isn’t all bad. A new analysis of schoolchildren’s drawings of scientists that reaches back decades shows that children today are less likely to draw the stereotypically nerdy guy with glasses. The number of women pictured has grown from close to zero in the 1960s to about one-third in 2016. One particularly charming drawing shows a casually attired scientist happily collecting data amidst a field of flowers, her red braids peeping out from a safari hat. That looks like science, and it looks delightful.

But clearly scientists and we science journalists have more work to do in making it easier for people to connect with scientists and their work. We rise to that challenge in this issue, in the next — a double issue that you’ll receive on or around May 12 — and in every issue we offer up. In the months to come, look for more profiles and Q&As with scientists, so you can look behind the scenes and see them at work. We love science and the people who do it, and we know you do, too.

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