For a few years in boyhood at least, I loved science and technology. One of my fondest childhood television memories was of watching the original Cosmos miniseries with my dad, seeing Carl Sagan in his turtleneck and corduroy blazer as he traveled the universe on his “Ship of the Imagination” over Vangelis’ spacey soundtrack. I can remember my dad scoffing pretty frequently at Sagan’s goofily over-acted facial expressions–Sagan perpetually appeared to be having some kind of ineffable and mystical experience on his dandelion-seed ship–but the show appealed to the ten year-old me, so much so that I believed in 5th grade that I was destined to become a physicist.
I left science behind in junior high school for the same reasons that a lot of kids do: math and science classes were difficult (often not all that well-taught, too); I struggled with the emotions of puberty and my parents’ divorce and didn’t find factoring polynomials to provide much of an escape from my problems. For a couple of years I became a lackluster student in most subjects, but especially so in science and math, culminating in my freshman year of high school with the lowest grade I received in my many years of formal schooling (a D+ in biology).
Somewhere around age 14 I realized that the kids I thought were cool–the orchestra and debate kids who watched Stanley Kubrick movies and listened to classical music for fun–seemed to get As and Bs pretty effortlessly. And I wanted enough to be like them that I wised up in school a little. However, my perception of those cool kids was that coolness was all about literature and music, Camus and Sartre and Kafka and Stravinsky and Bauhaus (the band, not the architectural movement). Coolness had little to do with science and math beyond getting good grades. And so my trajectory through high school, college, and some time beyond kept me almost entirely in the humanities, with results which I probably could have predicted and which might have depressed me if I had predicted them: by age 24 I had a master’s degree in English and was an adjunct faculty member of a tiny community college.
Given where I ended up, how did I come back to science at all? I came back the same way that many, many young people get into the sciences in the first place: through science fiction. In 1998 I purchased one of the seminal computer games of all time: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Players of Alpha Centauri guide a faction of colonists through the development of humanity’s first settlement beyond the solar system. I was fascinated by the idea of a planet-wide university, of colonists building supercolliders and space elevators and massive ecological engineering projects.I loved the idea of a human society devoted to the acquisition of knowledge and careful stewardship of natural resources–an ideal that sometimes seems far removed from the society I actually live in.
I also realized (pretty slowly, after a couple hundred hours of game play) that all of the projects which the game modeled on this fictional alien world were projects that real human beings were actively pursuing on this planet, for good and ill. Among them, there are massive environmental protection projects, ecological restoration projects, and sustainability efforts whose success or failure will determine the future of human civilization. I realized that I wanted to live in a world of science, not merely as an observer, but as an active participant.
In years since, the burgeoning of the internet, with its powerful democratizing effects, its incubation of the citizen science movement, of “outsider science,” of the makers’ movement, has convinced me that the ideal of a human society made entirely of scientists, naturalists, and ecologists could be our society. All people can become scientists. Becoming a scientist requires time and dedication, but it requires no secret gnosis that is kept from non-scientists. Do I want to learn how volcanism works? I have only to read and observe for several hundred hours before I will know a good deal about it (ironically, that’s about how much time I spent playing Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri). Do I want to learn calculus? Khan Academy is right here on the internet, assuring me that I can learn anything, for free, forever.
As there is in most science fiction, there’s a lot of hand-waving and pseudo-scientific ersatz explanation in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Some of the hand-waving, now that I know a little more about science, seems pretty laughable in retrospect. But that hand-waving got me in the door, years after I’d thought I’d closed the door. People like Gene Roddenberry and Sid Meier have done as much to recruit scientists as anyone on earth.