Michael White recently blogged about Rock Stars of Science (July 8), which is an educational effort to attract kids to careers in science.  (Michael characterized this as “another hopeless attempt to make nerds look cool.”) 

My guess is that nerds are born, not made.  Many, perhaps most working scientists were not nerds. They drifted into their careers more or less by chance, taking a modest interest in science sometime in college, then choosing to do graduate work in a science program just because it seemed more interesting than a career in medicine, law or some other profession. 

But a few scientists are “to the manner born.” That is, at some point in their childhood they knew with certainty that this was the only thing they wanted to do. I would compare this to the rare musicians who were prodigies as children, attracted to music to the exclusion of all else.

For myself, I treasure a brilliantly clear memory of being five years old in Chicago, and watching an older neighbor kid pouring a concoction down a hole in the sidewalk. I asked what he was doing and he replied, “Made some ant poison with my chemistry set.” Wow! I wanted a chemistry set too! Which my parents wisely bought for a Christmas present later that year.

I can still remember the names of the chemicals, and the excitement of watching them react. This early epiphany affected the rest of my life. I endured nerdship in high school, then joined a few fellow nerds as a Chemistry major at Duke University, and now live in a happy community of nerds at UC Santa Cruz.

I wonder how many readers had a similar experience in their childhood? Is there a genetic predisposition that inevitably draws a rare few into science?