How ‘Smart’ Do You Need to Be to Do Science?


When I listen to noted scientists Steven Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, or try to comprehend the immense impact of the recently discovered gravitational waves, I quickly get overwhelmed by both the subject matter and its preceptors. I am in awe of the intense genius that came up with these ideas in the first place, the brilliance of those who disseminate it, and grapple with how far short my above-average mind falls. Scientists must be really, really smart, I think to myself. And if I’m thinking it, you can bet my students are too.

“I’m just not good at math,” they explain. ‘

In the classroom, math mistakes result in low grades. At NASA, math mistakes such as not converting between English and metric units cost the loss of a $125 million dollar Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft. For both students with high aspirations and scientists alike, neither of these consequences is acceptable.

So, just how smart do you have to be to become a scientist?

The better question is, “How hard am I willing to work to become good at science and math?

There’s a belief in the United States that there are two types of people — those who are good at math, and those who aren’t. And yet, studies have shown very few, if any, genetic differences between a strong mathematician and someone “not good at math.” The reason is clear. Everyone has the capacity to be successful at math. However, by labeling ourselves from an early age as either “good at math” or “bad at math,” these labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Sure, on occasion, there have been extreme math geniuses in our midst, but for the most part, math skills are the direct effect of two things — diligence and confidence.

I used to —> Read More