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Science Education and the Future of Humankind

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In the 17th and 18th centuries, technology, whose origins go back to pre-history, was largely invention-based. Inventors did not have a basic training in scientific fundamentals. They thrived by gifted intuition, by trial and error, and by a heritage of experience handed down. But beginning in this period, and much more so in the 19th century, the driving force for technology was scientific understanding. Faraday’s invention of the electric motor and generator in the 1820s came directly from the drive to understand the physics of electromagnetism. Faraday didn’t even take the time to patent his discoveries.

In our own times, new technologies still flow from understanding basic scientific principles, but additionally, some of those new technologies provide a powerful tool for conducting basic research. Thus we have an accelerating pace of change: Science begets technology and technology enables new science, which begets more technology. An example helps: In the 1920s, experimental data from the atom required an entirely new theory, which became known as quantum theory. Applied to electrons in metals and semiconductors, quantum theory led to the invention of the transistor. The transistor revolutionized electronic engineering and gave rise to microelectronics and high-speed digital computers. Modern physical instruments and particle accelerators are based upon these inventions and provide the tools for further advances in all fields of basic research. Out of these came, for example, sophisticated controls, cell phones and MRI.

Now the pace of science-driven change is increasing so fast that what used to evolve over a period of 50 years can take place in 10. Such change has increased longevity (because of improved sanitation and health care) and launched revolutionary improvements in communications, transportation and access to information and entertainment. Of course, not all of these changes are positive, but they are a fact of our times and they influence economics, politics, modes of living and thinking. These changes have entwined continent with continent, region with region, so that the fate of nations is welded together into what is aptly named “the global village.”

As a world society, it seems clear that we have arrived at a point in our history when there must be a major increase in the capability of ordinary people to cope with the scientific and technological culture that is shaping their lives and the lives of their children. In a world in which illiteracy is the shame of societies where it is found, science illiteracy is increasingly disastrous. And wherever it is measured, this illiteracy rate is 90 to 95 percent.

Our world is full of brilliant potentialities and menacing threats. For the past 100 years, science and technology have been driven largely by military and economic forces. Today, environmental catastrophe joins the menu of problems to be addressed. We face a crucial choice: whether to apply our science with humanistic wisdom for the advancement of humankind or to succumb to the base forces and epic tragedies that weave through our history. The global village image raises the stakes enormously in this age-old conflict.

Can we modify our educational system so that all high school graduates emerge with a science way of thinking? Let me try to be more specific. Consider Galileo’s great discovery (immortalized as Newton’s First Law): “An isolated body will continue its state of motion forever.” What could be more counter-intuitive? The creative act was to realize that our experience is irrelevant because in our normal experience, objects are never isolated — balls stop rolling, horses must pull carts to continue the motion. However, Galileo’s deeper intuition suspected simplicity in the law governing moving bodies, and his insightful surmise was that if one could isolate the body, it would indeed continue moving forever. Galileo and his followers for the past 400 years have demonstrated how scientists must construct new intuitions in order to know how the world works.

But let us all realize that to change ways of thinking by students, we must first change the ways of thinking by teachers. Whatever you think about education, bureaucracy, politics, Internet technology, it is fundamentally the teacher in the classroom with students that is the key priority. For teachers who love children and who love teaching, it is still a major problem—changing culture is extraordinarily difficult. And teachers who must teach science are too often poorly educated to do this. The role of scientists in this task should be obvious. It is critical that they get involved in many ways: in the curricula of primary and secondary schools, in the training of teachers and in a new and more profound science requirement for the liberal arts students.

Amen!

Leon Lederman is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

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