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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sphere and Me

Sphere by Michael Crichton

I went through a phase about my freshman year of high school where my career choices were changing weekly. I read Jurassic Park and wanted to be a mathematician and study chaos theory like Ian Malcolm. I went to the zoo and decided I should design the habitats that zoo animals live in. But then I read Sphere and everything clicked into place.

I'd been thinking I was interested in how people think, how people learn, what is intelligence, questions like that. But when I heard the word "psychology" all I thought of was Freud and psychoanalysis and therapy - I didn't want to be a therapist. So I wasn't seriously considering a career involving psychology, because I didn't know that anything but clinical careers existed. But the main character of Sphere isn't that kind of psychologist - he's a psychology professor, a researcher. The rest doesn't even matter - what he researches, what happened in the book (though I do love the book). All that mattered to me right at that moment was that people do research, scientific research, about thinking and minds and psychology..

This was such a revelation to me. Having spent most of my life as a working class kid, in a family with no college degrees, I had no exposure to academia and research. Yes, I'd read Smart Girls, but that didn't seem like the kind of thing you build a career out of. That was the kind of research you do to write a book - you interview a few people, that kind of thing. I had no concept that Kerr had a whole ouvre of research beyond that, with dozens of publications in academic journals representing several strands of research.

And so that was that. This wasn't a fad or a phase this time - this completely fictional piece of work had opened my eyes to a very real fact. That thing I wanted to do but didn't think existed? It exists. And I'll do it.

Side note: Now one of my research interests is how people/kids interpret science in fictional media - why did I immediately accept that this character's career was real, while not believing that aliens were living at the bottom of the ocean? So the experience of reading this novel continues to influence my career 15+ years later.

This post is part of a series in how informal learning has personally impacted my career path. For the whole series, please check the tag "Informal Learning and Me."

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