What does science look like? What do scientists look like? What do scientists’ workspaces look like? If you have a sense of any of these, it probably confirms to a deserved stereotype. Scientists like to claim that they don’t care about fashion, but that’s not quite true. They don’t care much about what’s fashionable, except to avoid it, and in doing so create a strong aesthetic of their own.
This aesthetic manifests itself in everything from architecture and office furniture to design and dress sense. Yes, that’d be the concrete box buildings to socks with sandals. The anti-einsturzende neubaten, if you will, and stuck in the same era.
So how does this aesthetic come about? Based on more conversations than I care to count, it comes down to something pretty simple: Scientists want to project an image that they really are all about the science, and that anything else is a distraction, a diminution of their aims. Scientists have become so acculturated by this idea that they have practically become ascetics, rejecting anything that might signify a motivation other than scientific research. Their environments and accoutrements lean toward bland simplicity, self-abnegating and almost monastic.
“We,” the scientists say in my imagination, “have much more important things on our minds than fashion. And so we will make sure that we can never be accidentally mistaken for subjecting ourselves to the whims of trends, which have no logical or rational reason for coming about.
“We find our beauty in the world of the mind and, to signify that to the each other and be part of the club, deny ourselves the so-called luxuries. We stick to the essentials of function and find ourselves empowered by our asceticism.”
Of course, there is no evidence that this really helps anything.
Everybody within the scientific community over a certain age knows what happened to Carl Sagan, not only for daring to try to communicate beyond his peers, but also for wearing his famous turtlenecks, which were out of place within the scientific aesthetic, but well accepted at that time as a fashion option within broader society.
And yet, Sagan did more for the public appreciation of science, and more for encouraging students to study science than just about any other scientist of the era.
In a strange reversal, it is only a matter of time before the hipsters accidentally adopt the scientific aesthetic, having already passed through the turtleneck phase. Then it would be race between them to reject it all, except that the scientific culture won’t have even noticed the hipsters until they are long gone. And not just that passing fashion, but the whole tribe.
It’s fair to ask why it even matters what fashion choices scientists might make. The issue is that the ascetic aesthetic pervades not just clothing but all kinds of choices about the scientific environment and plays a big part in determining the public image of science. Most surprisingly, it is a decisively anti-creative choice given that science is fundamentally a creative pursuit.
Even the constraints of this aesthetic might not necessarily damage the creative scientific process. But they do damage the image of science among non-scientists. And so we end where we began, looking for an answer to questions about what does science/a scientist/a scientist’s workplace look like. Scientists have a well-developed intracultural aesthetic. It helps them convince each other that they are serious about their work. But it doesn’t do much to convince the rest of the world to play along.