Earth scientists might well take to heart the idea of Boston Strong.
Today, Monday, April 21 marks the running of the 2014 Boston Marathon, one of the world’s truly elite sporting events. Conducted annually, every year since 1897, it now draws thousands of participants from the world over, despite (or because of) stringent qualifying standards. In 2013, as virtually everyone from these parts knows, the event was the target of a malicious bombing that killed several spectators and injured some 260 people, including many runners. The tragedy has only stiffened the resolve of the organizers, the racers, the city, and indeed the nation to carry on. Along the way, it’s driven home and expanded the connotation of an (earlier, pre-existing) ideal:
Google similar images and you’ll find the phrase superimposed on and affixed to signage, artwork and merchandise of every persuasion. Tee-shirts lead the procession, of course, but caps, bracelets and ribbons are just behind; just last Friday we learned that themed automobile license plates will be soon be available. Boston strong is this week’s featured story in Sports Illustrated, and the topic of conversation and media coverage everywhere. Barring some fresh catastrophic world event today, broadcast and online media will likely lead with this story tonight.
Realistically, it’s probably inaccurate to refer to Boston strong as a single concept. Ask Bostonians what the slogan means, and you’ll get a slightly different answer each time. But the magic of it – as with all successful slogans – is that it really needs no explanation; it summons up in each of us a gut response. We remind ourselves that life is itself a long-distance run, not a sprint. Even without bombings, life features challenges and brokenness, tragedy and heartache, much that needs doing and fixing, demanding sustained strength and courage from us all. As in physical strength. Emotional and social strength. Spiritual strength.
Got it? Now, as a thought exercise… try out the phrase Scientist Strong.
To 2014-vintage ears, scientist-strong doesn’t have the same bite, does it? Why doesn’t that phrase resonate? What’s the missing secret sauce? Your comments would be welcome, but here are a few thoughts to get the discussion going. For starters, let’s go back in the 1960’s, when Kennedy was president and Bostonians were everywhere to be seen in DC. Then you’d hear a different expression: Boston Brahmin. A reference to Boston’s elite, it even has a Wikipedia entry (what doesn’t?). Here’s a snippet:
A Boston Brahmin is a member of Boston’s traditional upper class. Members of this class are characterized by their highly discreet and inconspicuous lifestyle. Members of Boston’s Brahmin class form an integral part of the historic core of the East Coast establishment, and are often associated with the distinctive Boston Brahmin accent, Harvard University, and traditional Anglo-American customs and clothing. Descendants of the earliest English colonists, such as those who came to America on the Mayflower or the Arbella, are often considered to be the most representative of the Boston Brahmins.
The term was coined by the physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in an 1860 article in the Atlantic Monthly.
Now… everybody ready? Let’s market-test the phrase Boston-Brahmin Strong.
Hardly compelling. Perhaps, then, part of Boston strong, and the way it’s used, is that it’s intended to connote a hint of blue-collar… of working-stiff. And it does so, brilliantly. You and I don’t think of a privileged elite as needing to be strong in quite the same way as the rest of us.
Scientists face a similar image problem. Science may be viewed by non-scientists as a retreat somehow from the difficulties of real life, rather than an strenuous, forceful engagement with those same difficulties. Many scientists of my older generation (scientists version 3.0) might even concede as much. They’d admit it’s both simpler and easier to deal with the Navier-Stokes equations (that reflect weather developments) than it is to deal with another human being. The laboratory or computer terminal is generally quiet, calm. (Ivory-tower strong? That doesn’t work either.) Somehow, the stereotype is that science rewards flashes of genius, however intermittent. People don’t see it as demanding disciplined effort, grit, determination; they don’t think of science as driving hard-working men and women to the point of exhaustion, despair. They don’t understand that in science, just as in all other aspects of life, strength of character – persistence, honesty, integrity, fairness – matters more than cleverness or ingenuity.
But the image lags the reality. And for scientists of every stripe and for Earth scientists in particular, the reality has been changing, since World War II and continuing to this day. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when natural science was often an avocation for those of independent means rather than a paid profession, it may perhaps have been true that a scientist’s only responsibility was to one’s fellow scientists. Time was when the conclusions and predictions of Earth science and related technologies – concerning where to look for oil and other natural resources; the weather outlook for tomorrow or the coming summer; or the effects of air and water pollution – were vague at best and misleading at worst. Back then, nations, businesses, and the public paid our craft little heed. Today, however, the insights of Earth science, and the skill of the predictions and other services are advancing even as society’s needs for answers is growing more urgent. At the same time, the investments needed to support Earth science, observations, and services are rising even as the stakes for getting the answers right are mounting. All this is occurring as society writ large is feeling zero-sum, tetchy, contentious, polarized.
This confluence of trends has put scientists and their work in a fiery crucible: a molten mix of closer scrutiny, sharper criticism, misunderstanding, and mistrust. Garnering needed funding is more of a slog. Peer review is under challenge. Conflicts of interest litter the landscape. Ethical issues also abound: plagiarism, falsification of data, claiming credit for the work of others, cronyism, and more; in short, the entire spectrum of human failings. Some scientists are vilified in the social media, targeted by hate mail – and worse. Earth scientists find themselves needing to toughen up.
It would be wrong to flinch in the face of this future and this challenge. We’re more sensible to embrace it, for at least two reasons.
First and foremost, it signals that what we do matters. It’s consequential. It’s never been more so. Our relevance is growing every day. (In the frame of today’s marathon, we should want to be racers, not bystanders.) Second, our attitude will affect our performance, and in turn, societal outcomes. Remain positive, and upbeat – become and remain strong – and we can profoundly improve the human prospect. Should we allow our progress to slow, our spirits to flag, should fear or hesitancy replace courage and fortitude, then that too has an impact, in the negative direction.
But embracing the challenge doesn’t mean more effort, more mindless flailing around. It means evolving a disciplined understanding of the new ways we’ll need to do conduct business, and then developing both institutional and individual frameworks for getting us there. Only then will the phrase scientist strong that sounds false in 2014 ring true in 2024, or 2044.
We’ll take a closer look at some of the needed actions in future posts. In the meantime, here’s some advice/encouragement for today’s marathon runners (and for scientists):
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” – Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)
 The term stems from Hinduism where Brahmins are members of the highest, or priestly, caste.
 Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. – Thomas Edison.