We are about a week away from that time of year when you go to relatives to be asked (if you are a scientist or studying to be one):
“So what is it you do anyways?”
Perhaps you explain you learn how a mountain was formed, or how rapidly erosion acts, or how the feeding habits of trilobites is in dispute or some such and then you might get from that cranky Uncle Ned who seems to have left his manners in a shoebox under his cot in the dungeon he apparently occupies when not at family affairs:
“Yeah? So what use is that, anyways? You seem to be a bright person, why not do something useful?”
Perhaps you stammer out some lame excuse right up there with “Landing on the Moon was important so we could get Tang and astronaut ice cream packs.” Ewww. Or maybe you pretend to faint or change the conversation. You can do better.
Now, admittedly, some of us get to say something acceptable like “why, I try to prevent earthquakes” (yes, there is one GG knows who can make the claim as she got an injection well altered such that we seem now to have fewer earthquakes), but most of us in academia are studying more obscure things. So let’s review some strategies before Uncle Ned has you wishing you had gone to law school just like he did:
- Passion. If you can talk about your topic and make it exciting, relevance can drop out. Presumably you are studying something nobody has ever done before; use that to your advantage: most people never get the chance to be the first to learn something new about the natural world. Make it a story, an adventure where the trek to the goal is more exciting than the goal itself. Feel free to gesticulate wildly as you demonstrate the feeding process of a trilobite there at the dinner table–if it puts off some others from eating, well, more leftovers for you!
- Hook. Ever deconstruct one of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion monologues? There are simply bizarre connections that show up that simply take terrifically bland and commonplace events and elevate them. So, for instance, GG has been working on understanding the geologic history of the Sierra (-yawn-). But, say, somebody is a skier: “Hey, do you know why there are so many nifty ski town in Colorado and not California? It’s because there were all these old high altitude mining camps in Colorado but nearly none in California. But why did people come to own the land in these camps? It’s because of the Gold Rush, where mining laws were rewritten in the absence of enforcement of the previously existing laws. Why was there a Gold Rush? Largely because there was erosion in the past three million years that exposed and concentrated the gold. Why was there erosion? Possibly because the Sierra went up recently…” [this is highly condensed from the more detailed route GG would actually follow]. Neat thing about hooks is that you can occasionally find they work within other, more normal conversations, thus preempting the “what do you do” questions…
- Application. You may be studying isotopic evolution of a volcanic center in South America, but you are probably learning a whole lot of other stuff. For instance, something important in understanding electrical resistivity measurements is covariance: in many situations, the resistivity and the thickness of a layer can vary a lot if you change them in lockstep even though it would seem that one by itself is tightly constrained. This concept applies in the broader world: for instance, bundled mortgage securities were viewed as safe because, while any individual mortgage might be risky, the failure of that one wouldn’t affect the others. But in fact the risks covaried and one going down could mean a lot of others going down; not understanding that such covariance was out there led to a gross underestimate of the risks. If you understood covariance from your esoteric earth science work, you could have anticipated one of the great economic shocks of the century.
- Travel. Not all of us go to exotic places, but a lot do, and usually geologic travel is a whole lot more interesting than the cruise that Aunt Marge and her daughter took to that Disney island in the Caribbean. Bring your smartphone with some photos you can pass around from that time the wheel fell off the carryall you were on and you had to rappel down the cliff to rescue it….maybe nobody thinks what you do is important, but they’ll wish they had that chance.
Above all, don’t dodge. This is your chance to make science sing and alive for folks who probably don’t come into contact with actual scientists (and hey, even if you have scientific relatives, how many are geo-types?).
When you do, see what works. You might want to file that away for some time if you teach or have to talk at Toastmasters or are stuck in an elevator with a used car salesman. Being able to make science sound worth doing is a useful skill in a world increasingly dubious of the value of supporting scientists. So put on your game face and get ready to give it to Uncle Ned….