Ask any ordinary person what they think of scientists and you will get this sort of response. Scientists are very brilliant people but rather strange. They are the sort that will run off in mid-sentence in the middle of an interesting conversation because they have suddenly remembered an item in an equation that had eluded them for so long.
Or he is the sort of fellow who looks at you and sees a collection of cells performing certain useful functions that make you what you are.
Others might spend all their time gazing at stars, seeing things we can’t see and telling us that that they can see the origin of the universe in the vast darkness and emptiness of the sky.
The claim of emptiness is by the uninformed.
The clever star gazers will tell you that that apparent emptiness is teeming with bright objects eons old and millions of light years away.
Stuff and nonsense, of course. But still we do it. It is typical human behaviour. It is not even restricted to scientists. We love to say how politicians do very little; how they are only great talkers, liars and utterly unreliable people.
Even the religious don’t escape this unkind characterisation. They inhabit an unreal world and promise us an even more fantastic one after this. They are just as deceitful as politicians.
Human beings don’t seem to like anybody smarter, or in some way better, than them. We have a habit of saying or doing things intended to bring them down to our level or better still, beneath us.
The reality, however, is different from what we imagine or wish.
Last week some of Africa’s brightest young scientists were in town. They were meeting in the Next Einstein Forum Global Gathering. Some of us had the opportunity to sit in on their discussions and discovered that they are as ordinary as the rest of us, except for their brains, of course.
Yes, there are star gazers among them and others dealing with complex mathematical operations or investigating very intricate relationships in our universe. But you wouldn’t tell from looking at them.
They are smarter in other ways too, and have other abilities that most other people don’t have, and it might be a good thing to copy from them.
For instance, despite dealing with highly complex phenomena, they have the exceptional ability to make them easily comprehensible. Whether it is about astronomy and order in the universe, or the origin of matter, robotics or genetics, they explain them in ways we can understand and relate to.
This is markedly different from most people of average ability who actually make simple things difficult because they want to prove that they are very smart and even indispensable.
Scientists have an insatiable curiosity. Where most would not dare upset things as they are, they are always tinkering with things, arranging and rearranging them to see how they relate to each other and how they would behave or work in different arrangements.
They are always searching for cause and effect in the physical world and their applicability to everyday life.
The curiosity and tinkering are at the centre of the ability to innovate. This constant search for how things work in the physical world is what leads many into research – to seek solutions to various challenges and means of transforming our lives.
These have important implications in the way we look at science and, more importantly, how it is taught in our schools. We should develop and encourage curiosity, not stifle it.
We ought to make science more appealing and fun, not a boring task. We should harness its transformative power, not simply by talking about it, but by linking it to research.
Contrary to the popular imagination, scientists are not those incredibly brilliant but weird, anti-social people who spend all their lives messing up with the natural order of things to see how they work.
They are actually very likeable people, real and not pretentious, with an incredible sense of humour and can be wonderful story tellers. Telling a story and making it humorous is one way of breaking complicated stuff into easily understandable things.
The brilliant young scientists and their more senior professors who gathered in Kigali helped dispel some of these wrong perceptions.
They presented science as something readily available, usable and indispensable in our lives. It is not the stuff done only in sophisticated laboratories.
Then they showed its crucial role in driving innovation and transformation of the world.
Finally they made a compelling case to policy makers for funding scientific research.
There is something else in the scientific method worthy of emulation. In their tinkering and research, scientist are least driven by personal gain. What a better world we would have if those who purport to manage affairs for the public good acted with similar disinterest.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.