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To Encourage Young Scientists? Or Not?

by Alan Hale and Stephanie Lester

January 1998

 

This article is adapted from a statement released via usenet on October 4, 1997.

Many of you may recall that, back in March, I posted an open letter on the Internet concerning the current
abysmal state of opportunities for aspiring scientists. The response to that posting has been completely
overwhelming; many young scientists shared stories that I know must have been painful for them to talk
about. I would like to thank everyone who replied, and I'm sorry that the sheer volume of responses
prevented me from acknowledging each one individually. I learned a l o t from what everyone
wrote me. Thank you again.

since my original posting of the letter, I have received approximately 1500 responses to it

Forty years ago, the then-Soviet Union launched a small metallic ball, named Sputnik, into orbit around
the earth. That event shocked a complacent America, as well as the rest of the world. But not for long;the
legacy of that event stimulated what was clearly one of the most incredible golden ages in scientific
discovery that humanity has ever seen, and is what stimulated many of us who grew up during that era to
pursue scientific careers in the first place. Less than twelve years after Sputnik, we witnessed what
humanity is capable of when human beings took their first steps upon the lunar surface. Some time later, I
had the personal privilege of playing a small part in one of that era's successes, as I was part of the team in
the Deep Space Network that helped guide Voyager 2 past the planet Uranus.

Now, forty years after Sputnik -- well, I guess things aren't all bad. The two cold war adversaries who
were competing so strongly against each other are now cooperating in projects like the Shuttle-Mir
missions. And of course, there's been the revolution in communications and computer technology which is
making it possible for me to share my thoughts with so many via the Internet. But in many ways, though,
it seems to me that Sputnik's legacy is dying. The personal circumstances which prompted me to write
my open letter, and those that were described within the hundreds upon hundreds of letters that were
written to me in response, illustrate just how far we have fallen from the promise that seemed to shine so
brightly for so many of us during the post-Sputnik years.

All along, I've been deeply concerned about the future direction of our society, and about the message that
we are sending to the aspiring scientists of the next generation. With that in mind, I'd like to share with
everyone an exchange I've recently had with one such person who saw a copy of my Internet letter that was
reprinted in the magazine Mercury. This exchange perfectly captures the essence of what I'm been trying
to say to society. My correspondent has given me permission to reproduce our letters to each other, and
moreover has specifically requested that I identify her by name.

You will notice that, as a result of our exchange, she is starting to take action on her own to try and change
the present situation, so that she and those like her will have the opportunites to pursue their dreams
once they come of age. I can think of no more appropriate a response than to add a few thousand,
or a few million, additional voices to hers.

While you're thinking about that, allow me to point out that, after a brief encore appearance in our
morning skies this past fall, Comet Hale-Bopp has now dropped below our southern horizon
permanently. For those of us in the northern hemisphere at least, it's gone — not toreturn for
another 2400 years. But in the meantime, the rest of the universe awaits us, and we have the power to go
take our rightful place within it. All we need is the will.

Sincerely,
Alan Hale

__________

Received September 15, 1997

Dear Alan Hale,

I found the letter you contributed to the latest issue of Mercury magazine very disturbing. I am 15 years old,
and I've been seriously considering for the past year or so following a career in astronomy/astrophysics.
Your letter stated in very obvious terms how you felt about the current situation involving openings in the
field and I was very sorry to hear it. I know that you are recommending strongly against entering
astronomy as a career; however, I very much would like to pursue the field. Is there anything positive
that you can suggest for me? I'd really like to hear what you think.

Stephanie Lester
_____________

Mailed September 16, 1997

Dear Ms. Lester,

Thank you very much for your letter. I would dearly love to be able to encourage you in the strongest
possible terms to pursue the scientific career that you want, but as you have read in my letter in Mercury
(and which I posted as an open letter on the Internet back in March) I simply cannot do so with a clear
conscience. The opportunities simply are not there; they're certainly not there for aspiring scientists
right now, and unless we start taking some kind of action now to correct the current situation, they're not
going to be there when it's your turn to start making contributions. The whole point of my letter has been
to raise awareness to the problem so that we can start taking the necessary actions to ensure that those
opportunities will be there for you.

You may be interested to learn that, since my original posting of the letter, I have received approximately
1500 responses to it; they came from just about every scientific discipline imaginable and from all over the
world. (I still continue to receive responses, even now six months later; already three today.) With
negligible exceptions, they are almost all overwhelmingly supportive and in agreement with what I've said. For whatever it's worth, my mail suggests that things are somewhat better in astronomy than in some of the other disciplines, although "better" is a relative word.

The causes of the current situation are many and complex. It's easy to say that it's due to cutbacks in
government spending and, to be sure, that probably is a part of it. But I'm quite convinced that widespread
scientific illiteracy (97% of the adult American population, according to one study I've read) is a
major contributing factor and, as much as I hate to admit it, the scientific community itself bears a
significant part of the blame. Many of the current policies and practices of the scientific and academic
communities are slamming the doors shut on the very people who might be able to make a dent in that 97%
figure I cited earlier.

Allow me to share with you a couple of my own experiences. (I've been accused of generalizing from
my experience, but my mail strongly suggests otherwise. Many of my respondents shared "horror
stories" about their searches for decent scientific careers that make my own seem rather tame in
comparison.) As you know, I have recently achieved worldwide fame for a scientific discovery. Of course, I do have a Ph.D. in astronomy – the result of many years of hard work and effort -- my dissertation was on the subject of planetary systems around other stars, and if you read some of the recently-published papers describing some of the recent discoveries of extra-solar planets, you will see that several of them cite the research I have done. I have also refereed papers for some of the major research journals, including one paper which is receiving quite a bit of attention in the popular scientific press. In other words, I have some
objectivereasons for believing that I'm a decently capable scientist. I also thoroughly enjoy teaching,
with a fair amount of teaching experience under my belt, and some of my former students have told me
that my course was one of the best courses, if not *the* best course, they have ever taken.

Prior to graduate school, I spent 2 1/2 years working at JPL as part of the Deep Space Network. I was
involved in several spacecraft projects, most notably the Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus in 1986. I can't
say I wrote any scientific papers while working there, but there were a lot of papers that wouldn't
have been written if I hadn't have done my job 100% properly. (There were a lot of 7-day work weeks and
18-hour work days around the time of the encounter, and I loved every minute of it.)

But did all this lead to my fame? Of course not. At the time of my discovery of H-B I was unemployed. I
suppose I could have gone the post-doc route, but the prospect of going from one low-paying temporary job
to another low-paying temporary job to another young scientists are facing these days – didn't seem very appealing, especially since I had a family. What brought me my fame was a completely
accidental discovery I made with an amateur astronomer's telescope that I keep in my garage. You
probably know the story: I was taking a look at the globular cluster M70 when I saw a diffuse object in the
same field of view. You may be interested to learn that, whenI was 14 years old, I looked at and
sketched a lot of deep-sky objectswith the $80 department-store telescope I had then, and one of the
objects I happened to draw was M70. I recently unearthed that old drawing of M70 -- I almost never
throw anything anyway, much to my wife's chagrin - - and after looking at it I am quite convinced that,
had that comet passed my M70 in 1972 instead of in 1995, I would have discovered it then. In other words,
all my skills and abilities, all the years I invested in trying to become a good scientist, led to absolutely nothing; what has brought me recognition (and, perhaps more importantly, is finally allowing me to put food on my family's table)is a discovery I could have made at the age of 14 with an $80 telescope.

And has my newfound fame and recognition brought any job offers? Nothing but a couple of part-time
teaching offers from university branch campuses in this area. Do you know what these pay? Well, by the
time you figure in all the hours spent on class preparation, grading, meeting with students, and all
the other things that come with being a universitylevel instructor, the payscale comes out to . . .
minimum wage. That's right; if you or any of your friends are working at the local McDonald's you (or
they) are making as much money per hour as I would make in teaching one of these courses. What does
that tell you about how much my skills and knowledge are valued, and about how our society
values education in general?

Besides trying to raise awareness about the overall seriousness of the current situation, one thing I am
trying to do is create a private organization (which I call the Southwest Institute for Space Research) that
will engage in some of the research and educational activities that might advance our knowledge some
more and possibly work on reducing that 97% science illiteracy. At the very least, perhaps I can help
create a few opportunities for up-and-coming scientists; I would consider it an honor if I could hire
you someday.

I really want you to pursue a scientific career, which may seem like a strange thing to say after all I've
said and written. I'm convinced, however, that if our society is to survive and thrive in the 21st Century
and beyond we need the scientific skills and brainpower of people just like you. At the same time,
though, society and the scientific community have no right to expect you to devote the time and hard work
you'll need in order to be able to make your contributions, if they'll do nothing to create opportunities for you to do so and are just going to slam the door shut in your face just like they've slammed the door shut in mine and in the faces of so many other scientists of my generation.

So, what can you do? Well, this is your future we're talking about. Perhaps what you – and I don't just
mean you personally, but all the aspiring scientists your age – need to do is tell our governmental leaders,
our scientific and academic communities, and society in general, in no uncertain terms that you want those
opportunities to be there for you when it's your turn to start making contributions. Make it clear to them
that, if they're going to keep talking about how important education is, how important science is, etc.,
etc., etc., that maybe it's about time they start putting their money, and their actions, where their
mouth is. I'm convinced that our society can do just about anything it wants to do if we just put our mind to
it; and if enough people like you start shouting that you want to have a future where science and
education are valued as they should be, perhaps society will eventually start listening and start
taking the appropriate actions to bring that future about. I stand ready to assist you; please let me know
what I can do.

Sincerely,

Alan Hale
_______

Received September 27, 1997

Dear Alan Hale,

Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my letter. I found it a down to earth description of
what it's really like out there. Your story about how nothing you ever did before, earned you the kind of
recognition that you received for discovering Hale- Bopp – which could have been done at age 14 – was
really symbolic of everything else you were saying. It may interest you to know that because of your
letter, I wrote to one of my state's senators and basically told him that I wanted a chance to follow my dreams and that he should, as you said, "put his money where his mouth is" if he's really for education.

You briefly mentioned in your letter something about the Southwest Institute for Space Research – an
organization you are trying to create in order to raise awareness of the current situation. How is that going?
Again, I want to thank you for writing back. Also, just for the record, I'm still aiming towards someday
joining the scientific field of astronomy.

Stephanie Lester
_______

Mailed September 30, 1997

Dear Ms. Lester,

Thank you very much for your comments; your letter made my day. I was extremely happy to read what
you told me about contacting your state Senator. I am afraid that that is the type of action it is going to
take to turn things around; if you, and those of your generation who have dreams to pursue, will shout,
and keep shouting long and hard enough, perhaps someone will eventually start listening.

As far as the Institute goes, well, it's a vision right now, but it's a vision that I'm committed to trying to
bring to reality. It's going to take time and hard work, and a fair amount of money, but I really want to
see this happen. You see, I really do want you to pursue a career in astronomy (if that's what you want
to do), and when the time comes, I want to be able to hire you. I sincerely mean that. Pleasekeep me posted
on your progress.

Sincerely,

Alan Hale

 

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