On Sunday, The New York Times fronted a story about a 36-year-old man, Matt Heverly, who "started a recent workday as any young father might: up at 5:30, gulping coffee, fixing a bottle for the baby. He threw on jeans and a T-shirt and drove his two sons to day care. He stopped to get the brakes on his Toyota checked and swung by the bank."
Then, the Times breathlessly reports, "he went to the office … to drive a $2.5 billion robot on Mars. The emphasis is mine, but it could as easily have been that of the Times, if it allowed italics for emphasis. The writer, Brooks Barnes, is evidently astonished that somebody who drives a NASA rover–on Mars!–also spends his time filling baby bottles and getting his brakes checked. Yes–this is rocket science!
The story is fine. For the most part, it talks about what's involved in driving a rover on Mars, and it's illuminating and entertaining. But Barnes can't quite drop the idea that scientists, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, are different from you and me.
He's amazed by where they work: "In many ways, this is like any other office: gray industrial carpeting, fluorescent lighting, cramped cubicles that are mostly undecorated, unless you count empty cans of Red Bull. A small pantry has packages of dried fruit snacks. There is the occasional potluck dinner and an office softball team…"
Wow! Rover drivers work in cubicles and play softball! What did Barnes expect? Space suits and empty glasses of Tang?
This could have been a story about any other scientist, who fills the baby bottle, checks the brakes, and goes to the office…to find a cure for cancer. Or to predict the climate 100 years from now. Or to construct an entire genome from a finger bone thousands of years old.
These are the kinds of things scientists do. The front-page editors at the Times might have massaged this story so that Barnes didn't sound quite so surprised to discover that even rocket scientists sometimes mow the lawn.