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The first thing that comes to mind is this: it's not easy.

Now, there are the obvious reasons. The course work is incredibly difficult, and sometimes incredibly hard to conceptualize. As one delves further and further into physics, the physics itself gets farther and farther from your daily observations. Sure, we've all seen the effects of a car crash, and so we can all conceptualize how that translates into the physics of collisions. We've all seen a baseball pop up into the air in that perfect parabola, and once we learn those first few concepts, we can see how the equations describe reality.

But how many people have seen the Aharomov-Bohm effect, a strange quality of adding an internal magnetic field to the double-slit quantum experiment? Not many, and therefore, it's a lot harder to grasp at first.

The material of physics itself requires a certain mindset that has to be acquired through constant study and inquiry in daily life. You can't set physics aside and pick it up later like you can a book of poems or philosophy.

This also means that a lot of liberal arts majors don't know physics (and aren't required to practice it). However, at Oberlin College, we have a series of breadth requirements called the 9-9-9 requirements. This means that, in order to graduate, all students must take at least 9 credits each in each "department of learning." These departments are natural sciences, humanities, and social studies.

This means that any given liberal arts major is only required to take half as many computational classes as any given science major is required to take liberal arts classes.

Also, take a moment to think about the skill sets used in these departments. For both the social studies and the humanities, the majority of coursework will be based off of reading and analysis, which will then be calculated based off of testing and class participation. All of this is subjective to the mindset and preferences of the professor.

How about in the sciences? In the natural sciences (which includes everything from computer science to mathematics to psychology), the students are given a set of topics which they must know and understand, are given assignments that show objectively what the student knows and understands (as there is a defined right and wrong answer) and are graded accordingly. The students are given tests that also test this knowledge, and are given some credit for their participation in class, though it is minimal. Grading is based off of demonstrated understanding, which is objective, and cannot be changed because the professor doesn't like the way you wrote the equation.

Another observation: the classes in these departments are biased towards the liberal arts majors. When skimming through the catalogue, there are a variety of 100-500 level courses in all of the 9-9-9 departments, but natural science is the only department that offers 000-099 level courses. Oberlin College specifically allows liberal arts students to get by doing less intellectually difficult work so that they can graduate. They are placed in classes designed to be easier for them, whereas the science majors are expected to analyze poetry and write essays on the same subjective grading curve with the liberal arts majors, who are (hypothetically) getting a career in analyzing this poetry and writing these essays.

However, this administrational bias towards liberal arts, and the naturally more computationally difficult course work, are not the main focus of my rant. The main focus of my rant is the actual sociological bias of the students themselves against science majors.

There's a tendency in science-type majors to be socially awkward. I believe this is because we find the work that we do so consuming and fascinating, we forget how to interact with people. That processing center of the brain gets partially redirected towards thinking about research and each individual's main interest. Personally, I almost never have difficulty communicating with other science majors. We empathize with each other's social awkwardness, and our general understanding of science enables us to be interested in what they're saying. This is why I love talking to physics majors: not only do we think in similar ways, we also are interested in topics that require a lot of the same background training. It makes it very easy to share enthusiasm.

I don't know why liberal arts majors don't appear to have this problem. Maybe their topics are broad enough that they can empathize with the enthusiasms of a wider variety of people. Or maybe they don't find French and Cinema Studies as instinctively intimidating as science-type majors. I don't know. And, honestly, I can't judge a person for being better equipped than me in social interactions.

What I am judging them for is taking the first hit. Honestly, scientists have the stereotype of being socially awkward for a reason: a lot of us are. We kind of can't help coming off strong. We don't know how to talk to people.

So it really doesn't help when a science-type person tries to reach out and have some real social interaction, and gets shot down based on some preconceived bias that these liberal arts majors have against science and math. It doesn't help that there are a great deal more liberal arts majors than science majors as well. Not only are these science-majors having trouble in individual encounters, but these incidents aren't isolated. Many times over, I have had the experience of watching people become disinterested in me after hearing my major. And it hurts.

I refuse to be dishonest. I am an astrophysics and electrical engineering major. I will not tell someone a lie in order to reel them into a longer conversation and the possibility of a friendship. I value the truth too much, and this value stemmed from my deep passion for science. But after repeatedly watching people's eyes gloss over at the mention of math, it begins to get disheartening. I may be socially awkward, but that doesn't mean I want to be alone.

So here's my call to bridge the gap. Have some empathy. We might not be the best at initially forming contact with people, and we might be a bit rude on occasion, and we might have a slight obsession with objectivity and truth, but we're really nice people for the most part. We have individual interests and personalities that aren't dependent on our research or field. Yes, a lot of us love math, but have you ever stopped to consider why?

Have the open mind you claim to have.


[Of course, I'm not saying that all scientists are socially awkward, and I'm not saying that all liberal arts majors avoid being friends with science majors. I'm just reporting my personal findings.]


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Nov. 20th, 2010 06:57 am (UTC)
It's pretty much the opposite at my school.
"Uggh. Another ART student..." has been uttered quite a few times.
When out taking photos, people look at me strangely.

But basically, this art student loves you. (but I also really like math and science, so I'm not sure how that plays into it.)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )