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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Is the study of astrophysics self-indulgent?

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

23-07-2013 21:55 CDT

Topics: personal stories, about science writing

Is the study of astrophysics self-indulgent? I was caught aback by that assertion, made by a recent graduate in the latest issue of the Brown University alumni magazine, because I want it to be wrong and yet I recognize that the idea has shaped my own professional life. The article profiles six graduates, among them Urmila Chadayammuri, an astrophysics major who was born in southern India and raised in Moscow, and who states that she loved astrophysics from the age of ten. At Brown, she studied dark energy and the state of physics in post-Soviet Russia. The profile concludes:

This summer, Chadayammuri begins a job at McKinsey & Company [a management consulting company] in New York City. It's a drastic change in plans, she admits, but she believes the job will enable her to have a greater impact on society than a career in physics would "I realized there were a lot of things I could be doing with my brain that would help people. Astrophysics seemed self-indulgent," she said.

I had the same sort of crisis of purpose while in graduate school, and actually wound up in an environmental consulting firm in my next job (where I did not, sadly, change the world). My study of the tectonics of Venus seemed almost frivolous -- what did it really matter why the mountains on Venus had the shape they did? Was it worth the contentious fights I saw at conferences? Did anyone care about the results of the work that consumed my life, often 12 hours a day? I saw close parallels between the study of distant worlds and being a visual artist. As either one, I thought, you had to have a kind of egotistical confidence that what you were doing was important no matter what anybody else thought. I studied painting and drawing throughout high school and college but never planned to make a career of art, because I didn't have that kind of self-importance. Now I was having the same doubts about science.

Ultimately, of course, I found a way to both fulfill my love for science and do something good, inasmuch as my writing and image processing pleases people and fills them with awe and respect for the wonders of things beyond Earth, and pride in the things we can accomplish. Now I'm trying to figure out how to use science to help people, especially kids in communities that don't have ready access to experiences that fill them with awe and wonder and make them want to learn more and become the scientists and engineers we need to solve our problems. That part I haven't figured out how to do yet, but I'm trying.

What does this have to do with Chadayammuri's story? It reminded me of an article I read a couple of months ago, and which, maddeningly, I can't find now, so I'm paraphrasing. The article's thesis, as I recall, is that one cause of the underrepresentation of women in physical science and engineering fields is because many women who can excel in those fields can also excel in many other fields, giving them a wide choice. They tend to have a desire, like Chadayammuri, to use their gifts to help people. (It also happens that they can earn a much better living in other fields than, say, astrophysics, so it's totally rational for them to leave science to choose consulting.) It's not enough, for them, to study something wonderful just for the sake of curiosity -- they want to make a difference. They can choose to do anything, and they choose not to do physics or astronomy, because they believe that they can make a difference as a doctor or an environmental consultant or biochemist, and be better-paid and better-appreciated at the same time.

Writing all this, though, it makes me wonder why engineering isn't more often seen as a path to making a difference. Making things work better, creating or adapting technology to solve people's problems, seems like an obvious way to make a difference. Yet in my own educational experience I never saw engineering framed in those terms -- it was something one could study with a degree in physics or math, maybe. Are there high schools and colleges where engineering is framed as a way people can make a difference? Do more young women participate in those programs?

And if we reframed science in schools not as a means to pick apart the universe and satisfy our curiosity, but instead as a means to understand it in order to solve problems, would scientists be better respected?

I wrote the above while on the airplane to Maryland, where I'll be attending the Pluto science conference tomorrow. This evening, I had dinner with an old friend, who told me that his middle-school-age daughter had just started a summer engineering camp for girls that seeks to do just what I described -- use engineering to solve real-world problems. Sounds like this is not a new idea -- I'll have to look for such opportunities for my own daughters!

See other posts from July 2013


Or read more blog entries about: personal stories, about science writing


Richard Hendricks: 07/24/2013 12:32 CDT

Wow. Just....Wow. Someone is concerned about Astrophysics being too self-indulgent and goes into a management consulting business? Talk about a parasite on the rear end of society! Scientists and engineers of all stripes and breeds do conclusively make the future a better place. An astro discovery is going to be a truth for all time...Management consulting IME is just what CEOs pay for to justify their own broken decisions.

Elias Lostrom: 07/24/2013 03:47 CDT

I think it is because the field has limited openings, many physicists end up being accountants. Add to this that only the creme de la creme have any real shot at getting into the "exciting" fields like working at CERN. I studied computers but ended up being a ships agent... Go figure.

Patrick Noonan: 07/24/2013 06:09 CDT

While I disagree with Richard's blanket generalization about consultants, I too was struck by the complete lack of self-awareness in her statement, and I would have called the irony police on her if Richard hadn't already beaten me to it. I myself know two people who are McKinsey alums and heads of major environmental organizations, so perhaps her post-consulting career will apply her new skills directly to society's needs.

Randolph Jones: 07/24/2013 08:38 CDT

I majored in physics, then couldn't go to grad school because of Vietnam and the draft. So when I got out of the service I got a job in data processing. Never did get back to pure science except as a "hobby", but I think I made a difference because I made enough money to share with a plethora of charities that made a difference in my name.

Christopher Adams: 07/24/2013 08:38 CDT

I believe that the pursuit of knowledge is a worthy thing in and of itself as we enrich all of humanity by learning as much about the universe as we can. It is important. There are also the tangible benefits that comes from basic research. Most of the wonderful things we enjoy in the modern world have come directly from work in physics and space science. I would certainly count that as contributing to society.

Phil: 07/24/2013 10:23 CDT

I am an artist and once felt that drawing and painting were self-indulgent and largely irrelevant when it came to helping people. I was wrong. The arts provide meaning, comfort, and inspiration to data. Space is already exotic and strange to average folks. The arts are essential to bridge the gap between the ordinary and extraordinary, and are much more effective than any report, briefing, technical paper, or policy could ever be.

Greg: 07/24/2013 11:41 CDT

Folks have to follow their hearts and brains, I reckon, though sometimes we're wrong. I majored in computer science for a bit, but changed to journalism in part because I didn't want to stare at a computer screen all day. Now, of course, I carry one around in my pocket at all times! I'm just glad Einstein was so self-indulgent!

Pyrard: 07/24/2013 11:46 CDT

I think Elias hits the nail on the head—there’s a limited number of openings in scientific research (especially with budgets being the way they are), and I’d also add that it often takes decades of successful work to build a reputation, and even then it’s often a less materially-rewarding job than one in finance or consulting (when I told some members of my family that I intended to pursue a career as a scientist, their response was that I get a “real” career). This is also an issue engineers have been dealing with, too. An engineering major can typically make far more in finance than in many engineering fields (and, like science, there are fields of engineering—civil and aerospace come to mind—which partly rely on public funds). For the record, I’ve been in consulting, mostly public-sector consulting, for much of my time since college and am currently going back to graduate school to study geomorphology and paleogeography. Even though much of the work I did was “make a difference” sort of stuff (consulting on issues relating to transportation, economic development, environmental impact, etc.), I felt disconnected. Even brushing up on literature in anticipation of going to graduate school, I don’t feel selfish at all. Rather, I’m aiming to understand something much larger than myself, and to add to public understanding of the processes that shape or planet. Many people would say that geoscience hits much closer to home than astrophysics, but really dark matter and energy are all around us, we’re constantly passed through by solar neutrinos, and we’re kept in place by gravity. Astrophysics isn’t distant, it’s all around us. I don’t think understanding our environment—be it our atmosphere and soil or the physical forces that act on us—is a self-indulgent activity at all. At the risk of sounding self-important, science is a basic necessary.

Cane Kostovski: 07/24/2013 02:37 CDT

This article goes back to Dr. Carl Sagan. I was influenced by Dr. Sagan during my teen years and early 20's. I never felt the awe and wonder of science before I learned of Dr. Sagan. Maybe we all can learn something from him in regards to the public's opinion of science... Cane

Alson Wong: 07/25/2013 12:26 CDT

I think it's short-sighted to say that the study of astrophysics is self-indulgent. People often criticize space exploration by saying that the money should be spent on things that more directly benefit people, but the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has inherent value, and the value of that knowledge may not always be apparent at the time that it is being pursued or gained. Leeuwenhoek, Faraday, Rutherford, and Bohr could not have foreseen what value their work would have, but it boggles the mind to imagine how different our lives would be today without the advances in microbiology, electromagnetism, and nuclear physics that were made possible by their work.

Alson Wong: 07/25/2013 12:29 CDT

Here's a link to an article by Colin S. Diver, President Emeritus of Reed College, titled "Knowledge for Its Own Sake," along with a quote of the first two paragraphs: Why get an education? Most people answer that question instrumentally. They view education as a means to an end. The end might be to enter a particular profession, to earn a handsome salary, to accumulate power or influence, or to create things (including ideas) of utility or beauty. According to this instrumental view, education is a process of acquiring the knowledge, skills, credentials, or pedigree deemed as prerequisite for attaining a particular status. There is another view, a radically different view -- one that sees education as an end in itself. According to this view, education is a process of self-fulfillment, self-realization, through the cultivation, cherishing, and love of knowledge. People who take this view rarely ignore instrumental thinking entirely. They, too, care about their careers, their respect or recognition in the community, even their pocketbooks. But those things are, to them, secondary. The assumption is that a life truly worth living is a life of inquiry and discovery -- a life of pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

Stephen Uitti: 07/25/2013 12:08 CDT

If i wanted to change the world, "Management Consultant" wouldn't have been my first choice. As a software contractor for over 20 years i've gotten to work for a variety of companies in a variety of fields. I've helped companies in health care, finance, car manufacture, and so on. A number of these fields involve killing the customers (such as all three of the above). For example, a health care company was convicted of fraud, the auto industry is down to killing 20,000 per year in the US now, and the finance industry is making people homeless and worse. Sure, it was exciting to work with DNA sequences. But if I'd been convicted of fraud, it wouldn't have been pay a fine and get on with life - it would have been at least ten years in prison. No one went to jail.The company was not prevented from doing business for ten years. In retrospect, i'm not sure i would have been happier making video games for kids, even though these seldom kill anyone.

Jere Nash: 07/29/2013 05:18 CDT

Emily -- I recognize I'm late commenting on this post, but am just now reading your most recent posts. My own position is that the guy is not allowed to define the terms of how one spends one's time. Just because he's chosen a benchmark to evaluate his career doesn't mean it's valid for anyone else. Besides, there are plenty of ways to "serve others" than what one does between 8 and 5. Of course, other people have commented on the irony of thinking working for McKinsey corroborates with a career that is not self indulgent. What's clear is that the guy is so self indulgent that he doesn't recognize himself.

Manpinder Singh Saini: 08/07/2013 08:14 CDT

I agree with your views Emily that we should apply the science in our daily life rather than finding the mountains on venus. I agree that astrophysics is important too and scientists should find the new ways of life on other planets but humans are making their own real life more complex and always curious about new things. We should apply science on our real world and I'm sure we can solve the daily troubles. Sorry for later reply on your post.

Dawn Santoianni: 08/19/2013 07:33 CDT

Great post Emily, that touches on several issues, including STEM education. I have the opposite perspective. I became an engineer but always wondered if I should have gone into astrophysics. I was dissuaded from going into it by parents, teachers and school counselors because I would have a "limited career path" and it wasn't "productive" for society. I agree with Alson that we need to reframe our concepts of having an impact on society by taking a much longer-term view (even beyond lifetime). And a view that scientific exploration in itself is worthwhile would lead to greater personal fulfillment. As for having an impact on getting young kids excited about STEM, children are inspired by 1) hands-on learning/exploring and 2) hearing the stories and reading about real scientists and why they love what they do. My one son (age 9) has decided he wants to be an astrophysicist after doing a research project on black holes and reading about the concept of spaghettification (explained in a very simplistic fashion by an astrophysicist) which totally intrigued my son. He was hooked ever since. There is unfortunately a general lack of science exposure at the elementary school age - especially tactile exploration - which is exactly when most kids should be exposed. Scientists (and engineers!) can help with that by volunteering in schools, producing written and web material that is understandable to young children, sponsoring summer science programs, and mentoring middle and high school students interested in STEM. I think purpose can be found in inspiring the next generation to think big and not fall into the trap of self-limitation.

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