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Ingenious: Kirk Johnson

The director of the National Museum of Natural History on how we get into science.

Not all of the more than 128 million specimens and artifacts that Kirk Johnson oversees as director of the Smithsonian National Museum…By John Steele

Not all of the more than 128 million specimens and artifacts that Kirk Johnson oversees as director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History can be seen or touched. For 20 years, Johnson has been collecting stories along with dinosaur bones and seed pods—stories of how a lifelong passion for science is sparked.

His capacity as director gives him access to 500 museum employees, 7 million yearly museum visitors (the third-greatest total of any museum in the world), and countless colleagues and fellow scientists. Through a combination of everything from direct video interviews to anecdotal interactions, Johnson has developed a remarkable bird’s-eye view of what motivates (and de-motivates) young scientists today.

Nautilus caught up with Johnson last month to talk about what he’s learned. And, inspired by his dedication, we’ve built our own page dedicated to the origin stories of scientists. You can check it out and contribute your own story at

The video interview plays at the top of the screen.

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Interview Transcript

What were you first interested in, geology or paleontology?

I would have to say it was paleontology but it might have been archeology. This all started very early for me, I was finding rocks when I was 6, 5 or 6 years old, but I actually have photographs to prove that. And one of the first ones was an arrowhead and one of the second ones was a fossil brachiopod. But I think I was looking for agates too, so it could have been archeology, paleontology, and geology lust in the midst of time.

When it started for me it was finding things, I loved finding things. It could have been a coin I was obsessed with, getting a metal detector and finding buried coins, finding Indian artifacts, finding agates, finding fossils. It was more the fact that you as a little person could go to the library and read up some stuff and then go and find something yourself, you could find these cool little treasures of the earth. And so I didn’t really make the distinction of what kind of objects they were initially. Pretty quickly I zoomed in on fossils though.

What’s the most geologically interesting place you’ve ever visited?

As a paleontologist I like places where the layers of the earth are stacked up and visible. The earth creates its layers by subsiding and piling them up, and then the area uplifts and it erodes and exposes them. And the most interesting places to me are the places that show the most of earth history in one spot. You might think that’s the Grand Canyon—which is a really amazing place because it’s 300 miles long and a couple of thousand feet deep—but it’s more or less the same slice, it’s about, you know, it’s not that much time, it’s 300 or 400 million years but it’s not that much time.

But the place I like the most is the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, the area east of Yellowstone out in what is not that visited but it has this complete run of geologic time. There’s about 35 layers that can take you from the beginning of life on earth right up to the eruption of Yellowstone. You can actually go to that one place—and there are spots you can go like the mouth of Clarks Fork Canyon coming out of eastern Yellowstone—and in one spot you can move your eyes from the bottom to the top of the hill and you can see the history of the planet in one place. Which is really pretty amazing. Most places you go you’re seeing some moment in the history of the planet and here in Washington D.C. the bedrock beneath this building is about 100 million years old, it’s kind of nice but it’s not the whole story, it’s one frame of the movie. 

What do people most misunderstand about the earth’s geology?

Truly, the age of the earth has been an elusive concept for people, and it’s in part because of a strong religious backlash in this country that argues that the earth is only 6,000 years old. But even if you didn’t have that perspective it’s very difficult to conceive of a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old—4.5 billion years is so much time for organisms that live 50 to 90 years. Billions of years, it’s almost inconceivable for people. So I think the understanding of the temporal nature of the earth, how long it’s been around and what time means is very challenging.

We don’t understand very well how big the earth is either, I mean obviously we know precisely how large it is, but as a human being here scale is often forgotten about. It means a different thing for you to walk from Washington D.C. to San Francisco than to fly there. And if you were to walk there you would have a great impression of how big North America is because it would take you a long time, you’d be very tired, you’d wear a lot of shoes, and you’d realize this is a huge place that we’re on. So it’s a huge place with a tremendously long history—but we live in our own lives and move around, we’re moving in a very quick timeframe and in small spatial areas, we’re not actually experiencing huge distances ourselves in a real way. I mean when we fly somewhere you do, but you’re going 600 miles an hour, which is beyond your comprehension anyway.

So the time and the space of geology, those very simple parameters, are so vast that it makes it really hard for people to conceive of what’s going on in the planet. And it’s not only the space that you can see, the distance from Washington to San Francisco, it’s the space you can’t see, what happens beneath your feet. What happens when you go down a mile underground or 10 miles underground or 100 miles underground or 1,000 miles underground—what’s down there? It’s beyond your comprehension: It’s as obscure as deep outer space or the bottom of the ocean. That’s what makes the place so interesting is we’re so familiar with it in one sense and we’re so ignorant of it in so many other senses.

How has technology changed what you do?

So this whole world of remote sensing and measuring things, which are invisible to our primate eyes and senses but clearly demonstrable by other techniques, clearly technology gives us a huge ability to understand things we couldn’t understand before. And that’s been this incredible run from the beginning of the Enlightenment to now, 350-plus years of using technology and logic to reason out what makes the planet work. That’s the joy of science, and it wouldn’t have happened without technology. But what I find so interesting is that often the technology that I use is really simple; it might be a hammer or a crowbar. I mean—I use Stone Age and metal age technology to figure things out as a paleontologist.

I just did this, for the Making North America series, we filmed with Brian Atwater who is the great coastal geologist who figured out that Seattle is in danger of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. The tools he used were a canoe, a shovel, and a saw—that’s how he figured it out, he was able to like dig in to this buried coastal marsh, expose a forest soil that had been buried by the rapid dropping of the landscape during this huge earthquake, and locate this little layer of sand that was a tsunami deposit. Then he was able to cut into the roots of the trees that were killed by that event and date those trees and cut into the roots of the adjacent trees that were living that didn’t get killed and date the precise time when that thing happened. So it was all done with a shovel and a saw, and a canoe. You don’t have to have big technology to have big ideas. So this idea that technology is necessary is true and advances come from it but advances come from simple observation as well.

I find that a lot of the things that we illustrated in Making North America are the things I see in my brain all day long, I’m driving down the road looking at the roadside outcrop; I’m seeing the ancient landscapes that are now those rocky outcrops on the side of the road and I’m always integrating that in my brain.

What got you interested in how people get into science?

You know, in about 2000, I started working on a book with an artist named Ray Troll. We would drive around the country talking about fossils, the places they’re found, the people that find them, the science around them, the museums—the whole world of fossils. And we found ourselves interviewing scientists. We’d go in and raise an artist and we both had cameras and we wanted to get a photograph of somebody with a fossil and we’d talk to them. And so I got into this journalistic mode which was new to me because I’m a scientist. So here I was interviewing scientists, often my own colleagues. I’d been used to talking to them about science but now I’m saying so, I’d ask them about their certain fossil sites or things like that. But I started getting into this like “how did you become a scientist?” and that led often to really interesting stories of their childhood and their first discoveries.

I got into this mode of whenever I was talking to a scientist or visiting universities and talking to graduate students, I’d try and probe at them and find out how they got interested and what flared their interests. And then, when I took on the job as the chief scientist at the Denver museum, I did that with all the scientists that were there, trying to get a sense of what makes somebody a museum scientist. And when I took the position here in 2012 with 400 scientists in the building I thought, well I need to go talk to everybody, and I found it a really interesting conversational gambit to start asking them so “tell me about yourself” and they inevitably started talking about what they’re doing. I said “no, no, no take it all the way back, I want to know when you first got interested, what it was that made you from a little person or a big person into a scientist.” It turns out it’s pretty rare to find somebody who becomes a scientist late in life and by late in life I mean even beyond college. People usually have their eyes set on it from a relatively young age. And the things that drive these kids to become scientists are things that they experienced when they’re young—they can be really young too.

What are some of the common reasons you’ve found for people to get into science?

After the interviews I started seeing patterns emerging. People often had lots of experience as a little kid or kid out of doors. It didn’t matter where they were—whether they were tide pools, or hiking with their parents, or riding horses, or fishing around a little pond in their backyard—they had this primary experience of being a kid outside, when they were mucking around. Sometimes it’s finding things, or watching things, or bird watching, but it was often just being outside. And then tagging on right behind that one was finding something. Maybe finding an animal, or a frog, or something you’d never seen before ,or finding a fossil, or finding a certain kind of rock, or some kind of personal discovery where they themselves found it. It wasn’t someone saying “hey come over here kid look at this.” They would be at a family group somewhere on a beach, they’d wander off and they’d find something really interesting themselves. So it’s a personal discovery moment when you’re a kid, often outside. Although some people had these discovery moments in labs as well, that kind of thing.

One thing that really played into it was—so it’s being outside is number one, making a personal discovery is number two—third one very often was supportive parents. Parents who themselves were scientists or mathematicians or analytical. So parents that were either of the bent of pro science or simply really supportive parents, parents who are really desirous of their kids having their own interests. That was a really common theme that you had that.

Another one would be, the fourth would be some sort of other adult, a mentor figure, who took an interest in the kid early on, who wasn’t the parent, who had some sort of stake in the kids being successful. So you had supportive parents or these other individuals.  Sometimes it was a teacher, sometimes an advisor, sometimes a family friend, or an uncle or something like that, but it was somebody who often had interests themselves and was interested in the kid, so the kid was in that space.

The fifth one would be some sort of media experience and many people (depending on their demographics) will talk about it being Jacques Cousteau, or Marlin Perkins, Wild Kingdom, or Jurassic Park, or a National Geographic show about the Leakey discovery, but certain key characters keep showing up.

What are some of the things that turn people away from science?

You look at why people choose not to become scientists, which is the other way to look at this. Not why they become a scientist but why they choose not to become scientists. When you talk to people they’ll say “well, my physics teacher made me cry. Physics was really hard and I got a D-minus on the first test.” When I go back and talk to these physics teachers they say “yeah, we actually kind of made a mistake here, we were trying to make it so hard to weed everybody out, we were trying to weed people out.” And that’s not exactly the way to create scientists, I mean you’re going to get a couple of really good ones. But, you know, you’ll lose a cadre that would have been interested or were interested and bail out.

A lot of professors now are saying “you know we’re actually trying to figure out ways to make science more compelling so people get interested.” Because when you’re interested then you will dig into it but if you’re kind of interested and you get weeded out, you’re off the trail, you’re not going to get that space. When you think about it, so much of this decision about to become a scientist or not become a scientist happens when kids are young. It’s not when they’re in college, it’s when they’re in fourth grade or fifth grade or sixth grade. And we know that most of the people teaching science at those grades in this country are not scientists, often don’t have science education, and just don’t know what to do. If you don’t know what it is, it’s hard to teach it and that’s pretty basic stuff. So a lot of people are not being turned on to science because the people that are teaching them themselves haven’t been turned on to science. It’s sort of a death spiral for science and I think we lose so many smart people into different disciplines because they weren’t opened to the amazing world that is the discovery world of science.

How is the digital revolution changing children’s experience of discovery?

It’s really interesting because I don’t think we realize how fast we are changing in how we interact with information right now. You can look at a 2-year-old with an iPhone and everybody who’s got 2-year-olds has iPhones and they give their iPhones to the 2-year-olds and the 2-year-old stops crying and starts poking away and is mesmerized by that device. It’s nearly perfect technology for mesmerizing advanced primates as far as I can tell, both adults and children—you watch people walking around town with their iPhone in front of their face. And I’ve yet to find any scientist who tells me that they became a scientist because of a digital experience that they had. I’m sure it will happen, I’m sure that there will be somebody who gets drawn in by the joy of coding or the infinity of opportunity with digital experience. I do think that one of the things that makes you a scientist is having the realization that there are certain things that are infinite.

I can remember my own experience was hiking with my Dad when I was 6 in the Olympic Mountains. I hated hiking because you had to put a pack on and carrying this giant pack around: Who wants to do that when you’re 6 years old? But I crawled out of the tent one morning and it was sort of a foggy morning and there was a ridge in front of us and there was a ridge behind that and a ridge behind that and I could see like nine ridges going off into the distance. I just had this realization, “whoa the place is endless, like there’s an endlessness to this place.” And that was my first concept as a kid that something could be endless. Normally you’re in the spot where you’re in your house, you have your friends, you know, you can count up what is around you, but this whole concept that there is an endlessness or an infinity to space or information or time—those are the things, I think, that drive scientists on, the realization that there’s so much to know that we don’t know, this infinity of the unknown. That you have to actually be aware that that infinity exists before you can get interested in understanding it.

How good a job is the science media doing?

Science has become so amazing and complicated that it’s really difficult to access as a non-scientist. So if you look at how the media treats scientific discoveries, they’ll go to the wonder “oh a new species of frog was discovered” or “there might be a thing called the quark” or, you know, sort of the in-member “here’s this thing that’s been discovered,” not the process of how we figured it out. And I think that understanding of how we know what we know is so critical, but it makes for a longer more nuanced tale. That’s why in Making North America, rather than me sitting in a chair talking about something I was out smashing into the side of the hill or digging into the bank with a shovel and exposing the layer that was the tsunami that hit the west coast of Washington state on Jan. 26, 1700. There’s real things that you can figure out by using different kinds of processes, different kinds of tools, different kinds of technology. But if you don’t help people understand what those processes are, you just say “here’s the answer”; now they can go onto the web and dial up an alternate answer. I think we’re seeing an erosion of credibility of science to the public because of this huge flood of technology and information.

What makes for a good science communicator?

One of the things that was really surprising to me and a little bit depressing is that, when I talk to people about science and they respond positively they often say to me “you have such passion for what you do.” And I’ll say “yeah, I do,” and they love it because of my passion—not because what I’m telling them. This woman came up to me and said you could talk about sandpaper and I’d be interested in it. So I think the mode of presentation actually makes a difference because people remain interested in what you’re saying. Even if initially they’re just interested in how you’re saying it: “I’m showing my passion, I’m really interested.”

I’ve done this with many behind the scenes tours here at the museum with our scientists and behind-the-scenes visitors—very often they’ll comment on the passion that the scientist has for their work, not the work itself. I find that to be fascinating that we as humans are intrigued by someone else’s passion for a subject. You sort of get to like that person and then you trust that what they’re talking about is interesting because they’re so interested in it; it’s an indirect way of connecting with information and knowledge. I don’t know whether to feel good or bad about that because it means that I’m perhaps not being as effective as I could be communicating the actual science of it. On the other hand, people keep coming back to my talks and lectures and watching the shows and reading the books, because they’re interested in what I’m telling them—so it’s more than the passion it’s also the content and the process. I think it’s really important, for that reason, to not present things in a boring way, because you’ll lose people immediately if you do it that way. If you present it with passion, genuine passion, then you get the door open for further engagement.

How are museums changing?

Museums are really interesting things. They sort of began in the 1700s, late 1600s, as object collections as people are trying to figure the world out. By the end of the 1800s there’s a sense that “we have all this cool stuff, we should let people see it; it’s an educational tool as well as a tool of study.” So the big museums of the world were almost all built as temple-like buildings between 1880 and 1920. This whole concept that not only are these things to be studied and discovered but that we should share them with people who live in cities— that process has continued to this day.

Museums had a little bit of a slow run during the 1900s because of everything else that was going on in the world, and as a result by 1960 or so a lot of museums were perceived as dusty places that no one visited. But then here in this country we had the Sputnik thing and the realization that “boy we need to get up on our science game,”; museums got a lot more energy, we started building science centers. These continue to be places where people come because they know that it makes them better people and they can do it in a fun social way. You’ll see a family bringing their kids to a museum because the kids will find lots of things they want to do and the parents feel pretty good that the kids are having experiences that’ll make them better kids and better people. It becomes this social betterment, entertainment, education concept.

Museums have tried all sorts of experiments in the last 50 years, more and more media because media has shown to be really effective. People will watch a great movie or a great 3-minute clip because it’s great to watch a great white shark leaping out of the water and snatching some poor southern sea lion and that’s an amazing thing—who wouldn’t want to see that? So this whole idea that you can start to interact with stuff at the museum, touch the objects and do things that the museum scientists are doing. Even if you don’t know that there are scientists at the museum, you do want to interact with the stuff, which is what the museum scientists are doing.

Museums are getting better at understanding what the visitors engage with. So they build exhibits where kids can touch more things—that’s because kids want to touch more things. That’s what kids do, they explore the world with more than their eyes; they use their tongues and their toes and their hands. For them, it’s much more of a sensory kind of experience. And the museums are learning to allow that to happen. It’s not like the stuff behind glass, “don’t touch it,” it’s like “no, actually go ahead, pull it out, put it in a microscope, look at it.” We’ve started adding things like really high quality microscopes or SEM even, like scanning electron microscopes, to the museum experience and letting kids have some of the power that science has. You can look at something through a hand lens, but look at it through an SEM—it’s a different would altogether.

I think that the museum is moving in the right direction, a museum writ large. It’s going down a path where we’re paying attention to how people interact with information. I think the challenge is that there are not enough museums. There are lots of little museums, but there are lots and lots of communities that don’t have museums. So lots of kids grow up never having the chance to actually go to a museum. And most museums charge for admission, so there’s a demographic in life which prevents kids from going to museums in the cities they live in. You’ll see that only wealthy kids go to museums because it costs dollars to get into a museum. So we need to continue to open the museums in a broader way, make them more accessible to more people. And people argue that we do that digitally, and I’m not convinced that you do that digitally. I’m convinced that you do it in other ways. Digital is nice but seeing a dinosaur on a screen isn’t the same thing as seeing a dinosaur. And seeing the Hope Diamond on the screen isn’t the same thing as seeing the Hope Diamond. These things are real physical three-dimensional objects—they have stories, they have histories, they have inherent beauty. I’m not even sure that seeing an avatar of a dinosaur would be that good. Once you see the actual thing in a museum, you start to make the connection that you might be able to go find one yourself. That’s a pretty powerful concept, that there’s a triceratops at the museum, but there are hundreds of triceratops weathering out of the ground in Montana every year—so if you want to go find a triceratops, go to Montana and find a triceratops. This concept that the best fossils are still in the ground is a concept that’s not widely known. People think if it’s in a museum they must be very rare. They’re rare, but we’ve only been looking for fossils for the last hundred or so years. There’s not that many paleontologists and there’s an awful lot of land out there—it’s guaranteed the best stuff is still waiting to be discovered.

What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?

I’ve always bounced back and forth between science and illustration, imaging, art, however you want to call it. I’ve worked with artists my entire career in reconstructing ancient landscapes. I find that art is interesting because art is creativity and technique and that’s what science is, it’s creativity and imagination. Both science and art are creativity and imagination and execution. You come up with new ideas and you test those ideas and you execute them. So I find that the creative people of the world come in many flavors, but people always talk about science and art as being very different things and I find them to be very similar things. So I’ve always enjoyed the landscape of art.

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