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Emily LakdawallaJuly 23, 2013

Is the study of astrophysics self-indulgent?

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!

Read more: personal stories, about science writing

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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