Science and Education

Genrich L. Krasko

             

I want to know how God created this world.

Albert Einstein

 

These days are marked by quiet revolutions—the ones the man on the street does not even notice.  New fundamental discoveries are being made in almost all branches of science and technology.  Most visible—because they are transformed into products we buy right away—are those in computers, electronics, telecommunications, medicine, and new materials.  Our space exploration programs bring spectacular, breathtaking discoveries about the universe.  Literally, not a week passes without an announcement of a new drug, a new life-saving surgical procedure, or a discovery in molecular biology.  Genetic engineering gradually has become a profitable business.  A huge and unprecedented project has been recently concluded—the project of identifying the whole set of human genes, the so-called Human Genome Project.

What used to be the stuff of science fiction is now a reality.  We are used to driving our cars—they are an important and indispensable part of our lives.  When we are planning a trip, we just go to the Internet and with a few magical strokes on a computer keyboard, reserve airline seats, a hotel room, and a rented car.  Mobil phones and computers are household items now.  Even elementary school children carry beepers or cellular phones.  Ten-fifteen years ago these devices were used only in cases of emergency by medical doctors or trouble-shooters.  Within just a couple of decades, a worldwide communication network has emerged, which is now also an indispensable part of our lives.  Those who use the Internet know how web-like the Worldwide Web is.  For so many, it has become “a second home” where they stay for hours upon hours.  The Internet – now a teenage child – the dot com economy, especially Internet shopping, is now an every day reality.

All these miracles are now commonplace.  But only a very few of us feel a deep sense of awe, astonishment and, in fact, pride in “us the people,”— the humankind.  What about the others—the people on the street?  Most of them just accept these miracles as things taken for granted, and simply do not care.  This stuff is just a convenient part of life.  We pay for those conveniences, so we can have them.

The world has just stepped into the new high-tech century.  However, fewer and fewer people understand those wonders and how they are created, and more and more people just use them and do not care about the why and how of those miracles.  American society today is the most conspicuous example of this social phenomenon.  This is simply because of the disintegration of the only social device that could make a difference—our educational system.

 

Our Scientific Ignorance

 

The scientific ignorance in our society is unprecedented.  The prevalence of so-called soft knowledge, which does not require intellectual concentration (and a certain level of intellectual development in the first place), makes scientific ignorance quite a natural and normal phenomenon, especially if entertainment and having fun are the main objectives of people’s lives.

As usual, superstitions come with ignorance.  Millions of Americans passionately believe in the supernatural—from devil worshipping to UFOs to “aliens.”  Fifty-two percent of teenagers believe in astrology.  More than half of the American population today believes that astrology has scientific foundations.  More than half also believe in miracles that appear in everyday life.  A new branch of popular culture has emerged, and symptomatically its name was coined as the New Age—everything occult, supernatural, and para-psychological is there.  People believe in everything that is exciting, which gives something to their empty and wondering souls. And this is against the background of diminished faith in God—a faith that makes one morally strong and helps one to live a fulfilling life.

An old friend of mine, a professor at a Moscow medical school and a practicing psychiatrist, told me of an interesting experience.  A few years ago in Russia, all kinds of psychics, magicians, astrologers and other “occult specialists” became popular.  They were even given prime time on TV. At that time, my friend came across a few cases of psychoses that he had never before encountered in his practice as a psychiatrist.  At the same time, he could not help feeling that those symptoms were somehow familiar to him.  He eventually recalled that he had read about such psychoses in a book by the great French psychiatrist of the 19th century Jean-Martin Charcot.  Those psychoses had to do with obsession of the patients with “evil power.”  My friend was shocked to encounter a mental disorder that had been quite typical in the 19th century, had completely disappeared in the 20th century, and had reappeared in our time with the recurrence, in a time of societal crisis, of old superstitions.

I am sure American psychiatrists have also observed cases like those inherited from medieval superstitions.  But perhaps much more widely spread today are the psychoses that have to do with science fiction scenarios.  Among them, of course, is the alien abduction craze.  Is it possible that people’s obsession with UFOs and aliens have a powerful existential drive?  Being unable to find meaning in their lives, people subconsciously hope that the arrival of some “aliens” will solve their problems, give their lives direction, and make their lives meaningful.  Or it is simply the urge for nerve-tickling entertainment, like crime or horror movies?  It seems—at least to me as a “man on the street” — that there is no attempt on the part of psychiatrists or psychologists to explain to the public the origin of these phenomena.  On the contrary, sometimes it is representatives of these professions who are involved in reinforcing the beliefs in the alien interference in our lives and who give these beliefs professional credence.

While magic is something that people understand well, science is becoming more and more estranged from their intellectual lives.  Even worse, science is often not trusted any more.  Freeman Dyson, one of the renowned theoretical physicists of our time, wrote[1]

The image of noble and virtuous dedication to truth, the image that scientists have traditionally presented to the public, is no longer credible. The public, having found out that the traditional image of the scientist as a secular saint is false, has gone to the opposite extreme and imagines us to be irresponsible devils playing with human lives. 

Negative attitude toward science, in our society, is not restricted to just mistrust.  The intellectual Left, as a part of their general philosophy of post-modernism, rejecting any absolute attitude toward the world, has been attempting to strip science of its objectivity.  Since, according to this philosophy, 

…all facts are socially constructed rather than being deduced from evidence…scientific knowledge is merely a system of beliefs and as such is…a subjective human construction, like art or music.   

This harmful perception of science has been gradually taking over our education, both in schools and colleges.[2]  The detrimental situation in teaching science in our schools, which I briefly touch on below, is mostly the result of the progressivist-constructivist educational philosophy[3].

Mistrust or no mistrust, for the man on the street, as well as even for many people highly educated in humanities, science is yet a kind of magic.  This belief can be easily understood in those people who have never seriously studied science.  Yet, it is astonishing (at least to me, a retired scientist, who has devoted over 40 years of life to scientific research) that people are simply indifferent to the physical world we live in—to its miracles and mysteries.

Just a few anecdotes from my own life.

A nurse, attaching electrodes to my head, asked, “What do you do for living?” 

“I am a physicist.”

“What is that?” 

“Well, I am doing research in physics. Did you study physics in high school?” 

“No”.

“Did you ever hear of the laws of Newton?” 

The nurse said, “Have they something to do with a falling apple?”

She did hear somewhere the legend that a fallen apple had prompted Isaac Newton, the great English physicist, to formulate his law of gravitation, but that was all she knew.  The conversation was over.  She was beginning a sophisticated test on my head, involving state-of-the-art devices that had been developed by physicists.  She knew how to attach the electrodes.  But she did not care about how our world was made.  Very unlikely did she know anything about the brain waves she was going to measure, and the electric processes behind those measurements.  It was shocking to me. 

A few years ago, a young woman had parked her SUV next to my car in a supermarket parking lot.  Her four little children were in the car.  Neither the children nor she were buckled up.  When the car stopped, the children were everywhere, even in the space between the front passenger and driver’s seats.  I asked the women if she ever hears about the Laws of Newton.  The woman said that she had never heard the name of Newton.  I explored further:

– You know, Newton was a great scientist.  He lived in England almost 250 years ago.  He discovered that if you abruptly brake, or your car collides with another car or an obstacle, your body goes on moving and strikes the windshield with the force proportional to your deceleration and your body’s weight.  If you brake abruptly enough, then you surely will smash your head against the windshield.

– But this is a matter of luck, if I strike the windshield or not, isn’t? 

– Well, it is a matter of luck if you are severely hurt or not, but the law of inertia will work on you just the same, unless you buckle up.  That is, it will not stop working if you buckle up, but the belts will prevent you from smashing the windshield.

– But what kind of a car did that Newton guy have?  Mine is very safe. 

I gave up.  I apologized and left.  She was very friendly and patient with me; besides, I was a foreigner, with a funny accent.  

The following story has to do with “popular mechanics.”  A while ago, the raising of the speed limit above 55 mph was being discussed on a talk show.  The host, a journalist who I highly respect, was discussing the pros and cons of the new law with someone competent in highway safety.  The interviewee said, “Don’t forget that increasing speed from 55 mph to 75 mph would double the energy released in case of an accident.”

The talk show host was astonished.  Perhaps, he thought that the energy released upon impact will be proportional to the increase in speed.  Obviously, he did not know a simple yet fundamental law of physics:  the kinetic energy of a moving body is proportional to the square of its velocity.  According to this law, doubling of the energy comes from increase in velocity by just a factor of 1.4 (1.4 times 1.4 equals approximately 2). 

Here is the formula:  E=1/2 mv2, which is pronounced:  “E equals one half m v squared,” where E is energy, m is the mass (weight) and v is the velocity.  I recall a joke popular among us Russian sixth-graders (13-year-olds) when we were taught mechanics as a part of a Physics I course.  A guy is falling from a roof of a skyscraper and cries out, when flying by another guy in the seventh floor window:

–Thanks God it’s only one-half! 

–One-half of what?”

m v squared!”

 

Finally, an anecdote that has to do with “global warming.”  I had a conversation with a woman in her mid-forties; a receptionist at a New Hampshire ski resort.  There was no snow in New Hampshire in December, which was unusual.  It prompted a discussion about how the climate has changed during the recent decade.  “You know,” says the woman, “my mother—she is an avid reader—has a theory of this global warming.  Our earth’s axis is tilted a bit, and because of that, from time to time we get more sun energy.  We are now in one of these periods.”

I was stunned. “Well,” I said, “actually, because of this axis tilt we have seasons.  Scientists believe that warming up of the climate has to do with the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’ caused by accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  We burn too much fossil fuel, and thus produce too much of this gas.”  

The woman smiles condescendingly.  “Oh, that theory of my mother’s—it may be wrong.  You know, she is almost eighty years old.”

There is nothing mysterious about such ignorance.  If a teenager is allowed to choose what to study, and what must be studied is not mandatory, the outcome is quite obvious.  I am not going into details here of the flaws in our educational system.  I have already discussed them elsewhere.  But the outcome is quite depressing… 

I wonder what percentage of high school graduates can explain how an internal combustion or a diesel engine works (an engine which is the heart of our cars.); or what electric current is[4]; to say nothing of why the sky is blue, and why the grass is green.  Only 11 percent of them can explain what a molecule is.  Just ask why we have seasons on Earth, or name the planets in the solar system. According to the Washington Post (March 2, 2006, The Science Quiz), more than one out of five Americans think the sun orbits around the Earth – including about 10 percent of college graduates. 

Our kids are fascinated with dinosaurs, but half of their parents believe that humans and dinosaurs had once been contemporaries.

Paul Davis writes [5]:  

The neurotic fear of mathematics experienced by most ordinary people is chiefly responsible for their estrangement with physical science.  It is a barrier that efficiently cuts them off from a full appreciation of scientific discoveries, and prevents them from enjoying vast areas of nature that have been revealed through painstaking research. 

Our ignorance in science originates from our pathological ignorance in even elementary math.  Millions of people do not understand what a percentage means.  Otherwise, how could advertisers have the audacity to claim that a cereal is “20 percent more crunchy”?  Or a trailer is “25 percent easier to tow?”  Even fewer people understand important concepts of probability or statistics.

Our ignorance in understanding the principles of statistics and probability is already taking its toll.  The number of parents who have chosen not to vaccinate their children is growing.  Virtually all drugs have side effects—vaccines are no exception.  In 1997, about 100 million vaccinations were given, and only 92 deaths in children (that might or might not have been caused by the vaccination) occurred.  However the information that vaccines “are not safe” is deep in our psyche.  As a result, parents refuse to vaccinate their children.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the chance of contracting encephalitis from the vaccine is 1 in a million, whereas an unvaccinated child has a 1 in 2000 chance of suffering encephalitis as a complication of measles.  Fortunately, in our relatively healthy environment, the chances of contracting a deadly disease for an unprotected child are rather low.  It is regretful, however, that many parents do not understand what the concept of chance is.  

Here is another example.  After the 9/11 terrorist acts, the number of people using airlines as the main mode of long distance transportation has significantly dropped.  Instead, people used alternative ways, mostly cars.  As a result, the number of cars on our highways—especially during holidays when most non-business travel happens—increased, with the increase of automobile accident related deaths.  People did not understand, and nobody cared to explain to them, that the probability of being on a plane that becomes a victim of a terrorist attack is thousands of times less than the probability of being killed in a car accident.  Even officials—especially after the terrorist acts—explicitly warned the public about the dangers of flying.

 

Foreigners Are Coming

 

Over the last 15 years, the number of students receiving a bachelor degree in engineering dropped 50 percent.  Fewer and fewer college students major in science.  Within the last decade, their number dropped by almost 40 percent.  John Chancellor[6] writes:  

From 1950 to 1970, the number of degrees awarded in the basic sciences increased fourfold.  In those decades, carrying a slide rule or working in a laboratory was a mark of prestige on American campuses.  And those young scientists created the American dominance in technology.  Today, the image of the student scientist or engineer seems to be that of a nerd. … 

Our society is paying a toll for a trend that started almost 30 years ago.  With the emergence of the so-called dot com economy, and the explosive development of computer and communication industries, the lack of qualified specialists in computer and engineering in general, is being felt more and more acutely.  The only way out that many companies have is to import specialists from overseas, mostly from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.  The number of working visas issued by the US Naturalization and Immigration office (before the post 9/11 economic crisis) increased every year, but even that was not enough.  Typically, all the quotas were fulfilled within just a few months of the new fiscal year, leaving American businesses in limbo for the rest of the year.  

In 2006, 35 percent of all doctorates awarded by American universities went to foreign students; more than half of Ph.D. recipients in all engineering fields, computer sciences, math and physics were non-citizens; and in electrical, civil and industrial/mechanical engineering the percentage was even higher than 70.

This trend is also acutely felt by our academia. Many professors in science departments of American universities are from elsewhere in the world, rather than American-born.  In American graduate schools of engineering, half the professors under thirty-five are foreign.  The same situation can be found in science departments.  Having been hired as talented or distinguished experts in their fields (and the competition in academia is quite severe), many professors do not master fluent English.  As a result, the quality of teaching suffers (to say nothing of the fact that teaching is often entrusted to graduate students, also mostly from other countries).  Should our universities lower their standards and begin hiring professors based on their command of English rather than being high-quality scientists?

What shall we do, if one day, for some reason, those professionals and professors decide to return home?  This day is approaching:  Due to outsourcing of high-tech industry, services and even research, talented Chinese and Indian university graduates, including Ph.D.s, return to their home countries.  Just a few years ago they preferred to stay in the US, where they were easily naturalized.  But in their home countries they can now join a growing scientific and engineering elite:  professors of universities, high position managers, and the like.

Where are all the smart American boys and girls?  The really smart ones go to medical and law schools—for this kind of training promises a lot of money in the future—while the less talented prefer business administration.  A bit less money, but much easier studies—just soft knowledge, and no boring math and science whatsoever.

Unfortunately, the consequences of our illiteracy in math and science manifest themselves not just through a state of ignorance or the inability of ordinary people to understand important issues that have to do with our physical world.  The social consequences are much more serious.  Among them:  inability to control politicians who manipulate scientific issues for their political purposes (or special groups who back them), and inability to make a judgment that would enable people to actively support this or that program involving scientific issues[7].

 

Nuclear Scare

 

In fact, some of the consequences of this peril are already comparable to the devastation of war.  Take nuclear energy.  It occupies a special place in the psyche of many Americans.  Nuclear inevitably means some kind of a doom.  A very powerful medical method originally named after the physical phenomenon called the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), has been renamed Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)—to get rid of the repulsive word nuclear and thus enhance confidence in the method’s safety, not only in patients but also in doctors.  This method has absolutely nothing to do with nuclear energy or radioactive isotopes.  It is about the response of the nuclei in our body’s atoms to an external magnetic field.  I wonder what the reaction of an “average American” would be if, tomorrow, Charles Gibson were to disclose that the human body consists of nuclear matter—exclusively nuclear matter, and nothing else.  For every atom in our body (as well as everywhere else in the universe) does have a nucleus.

Here are some interesting statistics.[8]  A poll of radiation health scientists shows that 82 percent of them believe the public’s fear of radiation is “substantially” or “grossly” exaggerated.  Another poll shows that 89 percent of all scientists, and 95 percent of all scientists involved in energy-related fields, favor proceeding with the development of nuclear power.  However, 56 percent of the American public is opposed to having a nuclear power plant in their community, while this opinion is shared by only 31 percent of all scientists, by only 20 percent of scientists specializing in fields related to energy, and by only 2 percent of scientists specializing in radiation or nuclear science.

Especially after the Chernobyl catastrophe, nuclear energy in this country has been an absolute taboo.  A few insignificant accidents in American nuclear plants have sealed the verdict on the fate of our nuclear energy industry.  If, again, you ask a man on the street whether we should use nuclear plants for producing energy, the answer will almost unanimously be no.  Why?  “It is unsafe, it is hazardous.”  Nobody listens to the experts who are desperately trying to convince us that nuclear energy can be made (and, in fact, already is) as safe and “clean” as any other energy.  Activists burning symbols of nuclear energy at their demonstrations do not know how much effort and scientific ingenuity is being devoted to solving the problems that the development of nuclear energy poses.

Safety of reactors is one of the problems.  But the most serious problem is not the reactor safety, as people believe, but nuclear waste disposal.  Here, the projects that scientists discuss address the issues that may be important thousands of years from now.  The integrity and responsibility of these scientists and engineers are of the highest level, yet they are being condemned and castigated by the crowd of people who do not even understand the whole problem and therefore cannot see it in perspective.

It is very difficult to estimate the scope of negative effects on the many sectors of our life and on policies that have been inflicted by all kinds of lobbyists.  Usually, a special group is behind a lobbying effort.  I doubt that this is the case for the anti-nuclear lobby.  Although the leading anti-nuclear activist organization in the United States is the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), its social support comes from the general scientific ignorance of the population and its acting force—activists who lack a basic educational background in physics.

Nuclear plants are not competitors to the conventional electrical energy plants.  The demand for electrical energy exceeds, and will probably always exceed the existing power plant capacity.  We are always encouraged to save electricity.  Although the supply of oil is not going to wither away soon, with the recent decade’s dramatic increase in its price, the problem of alternative energy sources becomes one of the most important for the future of both our economy and our international standing vis-a-vis the Arab oil-producing states.

Let us hear what an expert on nuclear energy, Dr. T. A. Heppenheimer wrote[9] twelve years ago.  Unfortunately, virtually nothing has changed since then.  

Our 109 plants in operation are a legacy of decisions made in prior decades.  Even before the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, the utility industry had virtually ceased to order new reactors, and afterward it canceled nearly 100 plants that had been on order.  Since 1974 no nuclear power plant has been ordered without later being canceled.  

As a research affiliate with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Nuclear Engineering Department, I was an eyewitness to development of state-of-the-art new technologies, nuclear reactors and nuclear methods in medicine.  Most of those products of high-caliber research went to shelves, and stayed un-demanded for years.  Unbelievable as it may sound, the United States does not have its own nuclear reactor for producing radioactive isotopes for use in radiation treatment and diagnostics.  We purchase them from Canada and Europe.  In December 2007, because of some glitch in supply chain, radiation treatment in Boston’s hospitals was put on hold.

On the other hand, most of the world’s industrial countries have developed a strong nuclear energy base.  In Britain and Germany 25 percent of electricity is produced by nuclear plants; in Japan, 30 percent; in Sweden, 50 percent.  France has made a real commitment to nuclear energy.  Its share in the country’s electricity pool is as great as 80 percent.

Hopefully, due to the enormous increase in oil price and, as a result, the necessity to break the dependence on Arab oil, the political climate is changing for the better.  The nuclear energy field may soon be revived.  A few proposals of building new nuclear power plants are now under consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  This is a long process, but one hopes that the ice has been broken, and the United States is ready to develop its nuclear energy industry

 

Basic Research Philosophy

 

Let me add just a few more words regarding the future energy problems and the basic philosophy behind the scientific research.  Whenever, in my discussions of scientific and technological problems of our civilization with non-scientists, I voice my concern about the diminishing supply of energy or the growing environmental problems, I hear a unanimous optimistic response: “Well, it is not for the first time that the earth is facing problems.  Scientists are smart.  When the time comes, they will come up with something.”  

Alas, science is not magic after all.  What most of non-scientists do not understand is that our knowledge of nature and its laws is still far from perfect.  Even though some phenomena (not only physical but social as well) may obey established and well-understood laws, it does not mean that we can reliably forecast the outcomes of these phenomena or technological (societal) implementations of those laws.

Here is just one example.  Sixty years ago, at the dawn of the computer era, the distinguished mathematician John von Neuman, one of the fathers of computer science, believed that when computers became sufficiently powerful we would be able to forecast weather at any point on Earth with needed precision.  Weather is but a direct consequence of atmospheric phenomena that can be described by well-established, albeit very complex, equations which then can be solved by a powerful computer.

Alas, von Neuman did not know then that when one deals with so-called “nonlinear media” – and our atmosphere and oceans are just such media – solutions of the basic mathematical equations may be unpredictable, no matter how powerful the computer that attempts to solve them.  These solutions are called chaotic.  A whole branch of mathematics called chaos theory has developed since then.  Weather forecasts become more reliable every day, but they are inevitably short-ranged in time.  When we better understand chaos, they may become even more precise, but, probably, never absolute.

Unfortunately, typically, we do not know the time that may be required to solve some of those important problems.  We may pretend that they are unimportant, or that much time is still left, but too often this is just self-delusion.  When attempts to attract society’s attention to the pressing time problems – such as global warming – are interpreted as an “assault on American values,” it is tragic and, unfortunately is just a manifestation of ignorance, rather than of patriotism.

Let us examine the energy problem.  Oil and gas are becoming more and more expensive.  Nuclear energy is “bad,” “unsafe,” “hazardous,” “dangerous.”  For decades, the United States was a leader in research and development of so-called renewable energies, among them solar and wind energy.  This leadership, for at least two decades, was lost.  Hopefully, today with the new aggressive investments and support of the administration, the future of new energy sources in this country does not look as bleak as it used to.

Now I am coming to a dramatic moment.  I am sure that few non-scientists are aware of the fact that for almost sixty years there has been a concerted effort by scientists of a dozen industrial nations, directed at development of the so-called controlled thermo-nuclear fusion.

Thermonuclear fusion is the process that gives a hydrogen bomb its power.  In the H-bomb, a chain reaction of fusion of four hydrogen nuclei into one nucleus of helium releases an enormous amount of energy within one millionth of a second.  Now, the problem is how to make this reaction much slower, how to control it, and how to monitor the energy production.  If and when this problem has been solved, the earth will have access to an unlimited source of energy.  Our oceans are an inexhaustible reservoir of hydrogen which can be produced from water.

After almost sixty years, and hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars, and the full time work of the thousands upon thousands of scientists, Nobel Prize laureates among them, we are not close to a solution of the problem—a solution that could be satisfactory for any application.  Nature has its secrets, and nobody knows how much more time our science will need to crack them.

It is not that no success has been achieved at all.  In 2005, an international meeting in Moscow, Russia, approved the construction of the first experimental nuclear fusion plant in France at a cost of 10 billion euro (almost $15 billion)[10].  Construction will begin in 2009, and the plant is expected to be put into service by 2016. 

Of course, there is a strong resistance to the nuclear fusion project, this time by Green Peace International: 

With 10 billion [euros], we could build 10,000MW offshore wind-farms, delivering electricity for 7.5 million European households. …Governments should not waste our money on a dangerous toy, which will never deliver any useful energy.  Instead, they should invest in renewable energy, which is abundantly available, not in 2080 but today. 

They are both right and wrong.  We could and will build windmills and solar energy farms.  However, as a source of energy, neither of the alternatives can be compared with nuclear fusion:  One kilogram of fusion fuel would produce the same amount of energy as 10,000,000 kg of fossil fuel!  And yet, the expense and the amount of human intellectual energy spent on the development of this “energy of the future” may not be justified, because an economical and practical fusion plant may be developed.

In my view, the problem is similar to that of space exploration.  The money and resources put into various space programs – from reusable space vehicles to present and future space stations – might be spent on solving more pressing problems.  However, space exploration is impossible to stop, because the urge for knowledge is an inalienable part of human nature[11].  It is quite possible that, in spite of the enormous expenses, we will never be able to leave the nearby space and colonize other planets; unless, of course, a completely new knowledge – and a following revolutionary technology – will emerge.  This may well be applicable to the problem of the “energy of the future” as well.

Nature can keep its secrets, and there is something important that activists lobbying for enhancing the speed of scientific research should understand.  Too many people still believe that in order to get a breakthrough in physics, biology or medicine, all we need is just more and more funding.  Though, in general, a more generous financing often results in great achievements and breakthroughs, it is still controversial:  Injecting more money into a research, as we saw in case of nuclear fusion, sometimes may not bring about desired results.  However, to insist that those who refuse to give the money, or do not do it willingly enough, are morally responsible for not solving the problems in question, is almost always wrong. 

Of course, I refer to the desperate attempts to speed up AIDS research.  AIDS is a real threat to our civilization.  Over 20 million people have already died, and nobody knows how many more are doomed.  The problem is exacerbated by the ignorance of some groups of people or their unwillingness to take elementary precautions against contracting the disease.

The recent development in treatment of AIDS, a so-called drug cocktail, may be able to prevent the virus from killing people, but will not eliminate it altogether. And yet, the development of an efficient anti-AIDS vaccine may still be many decades away—no matter how much money is poured into the research.  Again, the example of controlled thermonuclear fusion should be a warning to those who want quick solutions to difficult problems.

Here I would also like to mention what could be called a tragedy of one of the greatest scientists of all times—Albert Einstein.  Everybody knows that he was the one to formulate the theory of relativity that has become the foundation of the 20th century physics, and that was, in particular, instrumental for both the development of nuclear weapons and for space research and exploration.

However, non-scientists probably do not know that Einstein’s great works—the so-called special and general relativity theories, as well as the theory of the so-called photo-effect (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize)—were done at the very beginning of the 20th century, when Einstein was in his early thirties.  During the next almost 40 years of his life, Einstein feverishly worked on the unified theory—a theory that would explain within the same framework all the known interactions of matter: the electromagnetic, the “weak,” the “strong,” and the gravitational.  He failed.  Not because he was not smart enough, but simply because, at that time, there was not enough experimental information that could  have enabled him to put forward the right hypothesis and draw the right conclusions. The new experimental data were obtained, and the breakthrough in the unified theory was achieved only after his death.[12]

 

Our Children’s Science Education

 

Let me return to our children’s education.  The non-humanities subjects in our school curricula are subdivided into “math,” “science,” and “biology.”  This kind of subdivision already invites abuses of the learning process.

I spent hours at my computer, scanning through the Internet home pages of dozens of high school math, science, and biology departments.  Obviously, those were the departments that had resources, expertise, and enthusiasm to organize their own home pages (and some of them are state-of-the-art) are well above the average.  And yet, the overall picture I saw was rather depressing.

In our public schools, up to the tenth or eleventh grade, “math” inevitably means “a little bit of math”;  “science” means “a little bit of this, and a little bit of that about nature.”  By this age, in all the other developed countries I know of, children have already studied a lot of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry and, perhaps, an introduction to calculus.

In Europe the course called nature is taught in elementary school, while in middle and high school, a series of courses called physics is taught, and there are two separate courses on chemistry: inorganic and organic.  And these courses are mandatory.

Biology, in my Moscow school was split into three separate courses: botany (sixth grade: 13 year-olds), zoology (seventh grade), and human anatomy and physiology (eighth grade).

In American public schools, typically, only in high school, separate courses of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry (the latter not in all schools.) are taught.  Physics, chemistry and biology courses are also put off until the last two years of high school (and mind you, the senior year is quite unproductive).  As much as I could understand from the course descriptions on the Internet pages, most of the courses are application-oriented.  They do not give understanding of the fundamental scientific ideas and principles behind today’s knowledge of nature (for example, students do not have to prove theorems when studying geometry).  Serious science courses in high school are not mandatory. 

An ad by a book-selling company: Basic College Mathematics, Third edition. “Textbook covers the topics needed for success in a developmental math program, providing background and review in whole numbers, fractions, decimals, ratio and proportion, and measurement as well as an introduction to algebra and geometry, and a preview of statistics and consumer mathematics...” The subjects listed here are covered in grades 5 through 8 in most European and Russian schools.  In high school there it is no more “introduction to algebra and geometry,” but serious algebra, geometry—both two-and three-dimensional—and trigonometry.  The book would probably be a good textbook for a remedial course, but unfortunately, today it is “college mathematics.”

 

Geography is also an elective course in American public schools. As a result, the majority of American students cannot locate the United States on the map, to say nothing of other countries. But what is more serious, our kids are ignorant about the outside world and, in the future, will be indifferent to the world’s problems.

Back in Russia, in my time, there were at least four consecutive geography courses:  Physical geography of the world, Political geography of the world, Physical geography of the USSR, and Economic geography of the USSR[13].

The 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, among other things recommended that the high school curriculum require at least three years of math and three years of science.  Comparing these requirements with the already existing curricula in most European countries (requiring four years of math and science[14]), one can see that our projected requirements – formulated almost 25 years ago –– are mockingly insufficient.  And yet, we are still far from implementing them.

Dr. John Silber, an educator and former president of Boston University, writes:[15] “ 

At the present moment, I believe very few [American] college graduates could pass the A-Level examinations required in England of students who wish merely to enter the university.”   

Below I will make a suggestion of how the teaching of scientific subjects could be improved.  But what do we do now to improve our children’s knowledge of the physical world?  Not much.  A few years ago PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, had a few scientifically oriented programs for children.  But, from my (perhaps not competent enough) view, some of them were seriously flawed.

As I have already discussed elsewhere, the main idea of our educational establishment is that learning should be easy, it should be fun.  I do firmly believe—and the grim consequences of this concept have proven that I am right—that this idea lies in the very core of the failure of our educational system.  Only knowledge that has been obtained by hard work is firmly established and stays forever.  Only overcoming difficulties brings about satisfaction—that’s what they teach us in personal development seminars.  But we deprive our children of the happiness that this victory can bring

Our educators believe that if the knowledge they want children to absorb is in an entertaining or, even better—amusing form—the children will learn it better and faster.  Again, I believe this is fundamentally wrong.  Meanwhile, PBS—the only TV station that is really concerned with our children’s education—unfortunately does espouse this philosophy in their programs for children.

A few years ago, children could watch the fascinating Bill Nye the Science Guy program.  It should have been called Clown Bill, the Funny Science Guy.  The host, “Bill,” has all the attributes of a good circus clown.  He grimaced, walked in a funny way, talked in a funny way. They even used television tricks to make him look even funnier, by distorting his face or body, for instance.

In the program on energy, a teenage girl helped Bill.  She commented on some experiments or animated illustrations of the physical ideas that Bill wanted the children to learn, and, of course, she used teenager’s language.  It is not a secret that, as a result of the functional illiteracy of our children, their language has become increasingly poor, the vocabulary restricted.  In fact, their ability to express themselves has been severely hampered.

This deterioration is quite understandable.  Both the vocabulary and ability to express oneself and to speak fluently develop only as a result of massive amounts of reading.  No exception in the history of world pedagogical science is known.  However, our children are no longer encouraged to read;  instead, they watch TV.  The producers, who want the children to like their programs, do exactly what the children like.  The characters of their programs look like kids, talk like kids and behave like kids—the kids in conflict with the adult world—those very kids who watch these programs.  So, here we have a vicious circle.  How can children develop meaningful role models if they are being convinced that they are OK, when they are not?

Returning to Bill Nye the Science Guy, as I said, that girl, who helped Bill, spoke teenagers’ language.  One of the most important and most meaningful words in children’s (and more and more often not only children’s) vocabulary today is cool.  Its meaning is virtually unlimited.  It has mostly a positive connotation: great, fantastic, and fabulous.  After Bill showed an interesting experiment demonstrating the transformation of energy from the kinetic form to the potential form and back, the girl commented: “Isn’t it cool how the energy transforms from one form to another?”  But the culmination was at the very end of the program, which concluded with the girl’s words: “Energy is cool.” 

To me, the person who values language as one of the greatest treasures of our civilization, this abuse of language does not make sense.  But what is even worse, in the context of physics, it does not make any sense at all.  Especially when it is used for educational purposes, and used deliberately in order to score with the children.

This is just one of the programs from the Bill series that was presented to our children on a permanent basis.  The ideas were great.  Their implementation, I am afraid, was counterproductive.  The Bill program does not exist any more, but open a PBS web page, and you will see the invitation to click a promising link:  “Computers are cool.

People may disagree with me as to whether learning should or should not be fun, or whether a criminal element can or cannot make teaching more successful.  But there is no doubt that an educator should not be disguised as a clown or a Mafioso (in other, now dead, PBS program Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?).  In fact, something much more important is at stake and to be deplored, rather than just the producers’ bad taste.

Youngsters desperately need and are looking for role models.  In so many cases I have observed during my life, it is a teacher who became a role model, having changed the direction of whole life of a group of youngsters.  As a matter of fact, subconsciously, children hope that someone will win their hearts.  This someone must be greater than they are.  That person must be someone the youngsters want to emulate when they grow up.  I remember that the rating of President Clinton’s dropped abruptly when, sometime during his first term, he showed up in a McDonald’s restaurant.  He wanted to show that he was like everybody else, whereas the people wanted the President to be different, special—to be the President.

When a teacher wants to win cheap popularity among children, not only does he or she lose but, what is much more important, the children lose.  They lose the secret hope that “this is the one—the one I have been waiting for.”  The educational impact will most probably also be lost, for it is of secondary importance to the children, the primary one being the teacher’s personality.  If they love the teacher, learning is successful.  If they do not respect the teacher, there is no learning at all.  You cannot win children’s love and admiration by being funny or arrogant.  There is, however, a sure way to help youngsters find their role models.

If you still want to follow me, let us try to see what can be done in order to bring us out of this state of scientific ignorance.

Of course, the earlier the education begins the better.  As I already discussed elsewhere (see This Unbearable Boredom of Being), the initial “natural” learning of a child, during first years of his or her life, is intuitive.  The objective of education is to introduce the true, non-intuitive understanding of the world.  This process has to begin as early as possible.  The later it begins, the more difficult it is for a child to abandon the intuitive.  It is quite obvious.  As a physicist, with the experience of explaining physics to young students, I know that discussing fundamental phenomena of nature on a scientific, rather than an entertaining level, with parallel experiments performed by the children themselves, may be a source of deep satisfaction for them.  It may also bring about true knowledge, which apart from being an important fragment in their picture of the world, may also be a springboard to their future careers and meaningful lives.

Many years ago, as a high school senior and a “leader” of a “physics circle,” with a dozen 13-year-old boys (there was no coed education in the Soviet Union at that time), we recreated Thomas Edison’s invention of an electric bulb.  We made it out of a few pieces of wire, a graphite rod from a pencil for a filament, and a chemical retort for a bulb.  Slowly increasing the electric current with a rheostat, we made the graphite first glow and then shine brightly.  I wish you could have seen the faces of my fellow boys.  They were glowing with happiness at the achievement, at something they created with their own hands.

Another experiment I performed with the boys was a Volta arc: two graphite rods from an old battery and a water solution of regular salt as an electrolytic rheostat.  We also played the game: “What would have been if...?”  What would happen if there were no force of friction? Or, would balloons fly if the earth’s gravitation were twice as strong?  It was great.

There are thousands of experiments a teacher and kids can do.  As a result of only one year of this activity (one or two hours every other week, after classes), my friends not only knew, but also understood and could explain what the Newtonian laws were, why a rocket could be propelled, and what atoms were “made of.”  Most of this material they would have to study in physics courses, two or three years later (although in the sixth grade they had already started their first Physics-I course, Mechanics).  In fact, their understanding of many physical phenomena at that time was already profound enough to save much learning time in the future.

This kind of activity in groups (they were called circles) was encouraged by Communists, simply because they understood that a teenager in a classroom is much better than a teenager on the street.  There were circles for physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, geography, literature, theater, dance, photography—mind you, this was an ordinary Moscow public school, one of many.

Usually a teacher, or an older student was in charge (as in my case; when we were re-inventing the bulb, I was 17, in my senior—tenth—year, about to graduate from high school), but sometimes a university or a technical college sent its students to organize the activity.  Moscow State University, the best in the Soviet Union, and now recognized as one of the best schools in the world, had under its auspices a series of circles for high school students (grades 8 through 10).  In fact, almost every department had its own circle.  I attended the physics circle at the university and the astronomy circle at Moscow Planetarium.  Every spring all-Moscow competitions of these circles (they were called Olympiads) were held.  The Olympians, winners of, say, the physics competition, were granted privileges upon entering the University[16].

The Moscow Planetarium deserves a few warm words.  Apart from being the largest in Europe, it had on its staff true enthusiasts and devoted scientists.  Attending lectures there was included in the tenth grade astronomy curriculum of many Moscow schools.  By the way, those were the times when space travel was still the stuff of science fiction.  Sitting in a comfortable leather chair, with the bottomless night sky high above, recognizing old friends—the constellations (which, I knew, would be blinking again through the smoggy Moscow sky on my way home after the lecture) —I felt happy and proud of humankind that some day would challenge the Universe.

At that time, the only tool of penetrating the mystery of space was an optical telescope.  The Planetarium had a good 5-inch refractor telescope in a dome pavilion (it was used for “advanced” research by more experienced “astronomers” — there were a few absolutely brilliant teenagers; I wonder what has happened to them later), and another one—a 3-inch instrument under a sliding hood-like cover.  In order to use it, one had first to pass an exam and get a special license.  (I recently found that license among my old papers.)  On cold Moscow winter nights, it usually took at least half an hour just to remove ice from the hood and open it, and then, perhaps another hour to draw the contours of the moon’s oceans and craters, with pencil almost slipping from one’s numb fingers.  I remember those enchanting nights of 55 years ago, as if they were yesterday.

It was at the Planetarium, in the eighth grade (I was 15 years old), that I decided to become a physicist.  On the first floor, there were a few small lecture-rooms where lectures on various subjects in physics and astronomy were given for groups of 15-20 students —mostly by the Planetarium professors or the Moscow University astronomy students.  I do not remember what that important lecture was about—I believe it was on low-temperature physics.  As one of the experiments, the lecturer made a hammer out of mercury (frozen by immersing it into liquid nitrogen), and hammered a nail into the blackboard covered with drawings and formulas.  I was stunned.  A youngster needs just one event like that, and his or her life becomes meaningful, acquires direction—the star that will always shine, and will never fade away.

I met my future wife on a hiking trip in the Caucasus Mountains after our freshman year in college.  But we could have met three years earlier at the Planetarium astronomy circle.  She, a PhD in electrical engineering, for twenty years had been one of the leading developers of new high intensity gas discharge lamps with OSRAM Sylvania.  However, her life as a future engineer and scientist also began as a mesmerized fifteen-year-old youngster at the Planetarium.  The lecture that gave her impetus was on luminescence—glowing of gases in electric field.  After the lecture was over she knew she would become a lamp scientist.  She would create new lamps that would be better and brighter.

This system of circles that I have described does have a counterpart in American education.  What I mean are school clubs.  Elsewhere I already discussed the importance of school clubs in organizing a vibrant after-school extracurricular activity.  What I want to stress, however, is that the role of school clubs in our schools’ extracurricular activity would be enhanced many times over were they led by students of sponsoring universities rather than by school teachers.  I also want to point out again that in order for the clubs to achieve their important role they must be regarded as an indispensable supplement to formal education—an indispensable part of children’s lives, rather than just another nice activity.

Of course, in order to organize an extracurricular activity of this kind, huge resources are needed.  Again, as in the problem of improving the quality of education in general, what we need is not so much more money, but more enthusiasts.  These days we hear a lot about the necessity for college students to fulfill so-called communal services.  What can be more useful, meaningful and noble than to send those young people into schools: to teach, to show miracles, to play with the lost (and abandoned.) teenagers, to bring light and meaning into their lives, to be their role models.  This work, the necessity and importance of which is simply impossible to overestimate, will also be important for the young “teachers,” for their maturing into responsible adults.

There is no doubt that this movement—Kids Teaching Kids—would be a success, for, with the conflict of generations in full swing and at its worst, only people within the same or nearly the same age group are able to help each other.  This does not contradict with what I said about the necessity for a teacher to be above the students. A young teacher is above simply because he or she is a teacher, someone who is knowledgeable and respected. Besides, he or she is a vivid example of what can be achieved by a student just in a few years. If this comes to pass, there will be deep understanding and trust between them, and our society will have changed dramatically.

Of course, perhaps MTV, and the thousands of other businesses that produce all kinds of poisons for our children’s consumption will disappear.  I wish I could live to see our teenagers all to be truly happy, teenagers that know how to dream, and how to fight for their dreams to come true.

 

Do We Need Education?

 

Let me return to what this essay is about: the role of science in our society and the importance of education. I want to answer the obvious objection that some of my readers may voice. “Why, on earth, should I study all this stuff about energy and atoms that I will never use in my life, and that will not help me earn my living?” 

My book is devoted to answering this question. It is also the gist of the fight, which Harvard University President Charles William Eliot and his Committee of Ten lost over one hundred years ago[17]:  Education—a profound academic general education—is necessary for everyone, and not in order to help one to make money.  As a matter of fact, it may be absolutely useless for that purpose.  Specialized training will do that.  Education, as I understand it, and as it has been understood by thoughtful and responsible educators in this country for over one hundred years, is necessary for an individual to become a member of the family called humankind and, as such, have a share in its inheritance, and be responsible for its destiny.          

Learning the world’s history enables us to understand where we came from.  Knowledge of literature and extensive reading enable us to understand ourselves and envision the road ahead of us.  Learning the arts teaches us to better see the beauty of the world, both within us and outside of us.  Learning science enables us to be the masters of our world.  Having absorbed all these treasures we gradually learn how to love.  And then we see that the world is good.

Silly idealism?  Perhaps.  But I am certain that unless, through making mistakes and bruising ourselves, we start moving that way, our civilization, and our Democracy, are doomed...

There is also a factor (I have already mentioned it) that is far from any idealism, but which is rather important in our everyday life.  That is what Dr. James C. Garland, a noted physicist said:[18] 

I fear we may have seriously underestimated the consequences for our culture of a scientifically illiterate population.  Lacking an understanding of the physical world, we easily fall prey to hucksters, charlatans, and those who promise easy solutions to complex problems.  We abrogate our social responsibility to self-styled experts.  We waste our dollars—and sometimes our lives—on useless medicines.  We allow our political leaders to embark on costly, ill-fated schemes cooked up by special interest groups.  We ignore real dangers to our planet because we cannot understand the warnings.”  Gradually, we, the people are losing control of our own destiny.  Where will it lead our society? 

Everybody loved Star Trek.  It was breathtaking.  It was enchanting.  It was entertaining.  Among the host of entertaining programs that the TV industry has been feeding us with, that one was perhaps the most thought provoking.  Not only were moral dilemmas formulated, and the track toward their solutions found, but also philosophical questions were raised and, of course, some “scientific” (well, sometimes just quasi-scientific) puzzles presented.

But have you ever thought what kind of society was on the planet Earth at that time?  Those kind, brave, and intelligent people on board the Enterprise, although being probably among the most qualified and the smartest of the Earthlings, and yet were they, in a broad sense, representing the human race on Earth?  Was the Earth still their spiritual and cultural home—the home they loved, the home they wanted to return to?  When they return, will they still be a part of the earth’s society?   

If the answer is yes, then how can we envisage our ascent from scientific ignorance to the heights of scientifically enlightened society, challenging the universe in the endless quest for knowledge? 

If the answer is no, then is it not difficult to imagine the Earth as a huge GULAG, with the majority of population, ignorant and good for nothing, contained in Pleasure Cities?  Supplied with unrestricted amounts of entertainment and drugs, they are allowed to intellectually and emotionally rot in their prison of pleasure.  The minority of the population are those who were able to overcome the hedonistic spell of the majority, made use of hard work and intensive studies.  They are The Ruling Class.  They may be the guardians of the Earth’s intellectual treasures, but democracy on the Earth is dead. Scenarios of this kind have already been explored by science fiction writers.

Think about it.  Fewer and fewer people now understand (and, as a matter of fact, even care about) the fundamental scientific and technological basis of our civilization.  Is that not awful?  Is that not mind-boggling?  And yet, not everything has been lost.  We the people, can make a difference.

 

 



[1] Nature's Imagination. The Frontiers of Scientific Vision  (Edited by John Cornwell), Oxford University press, Oxford, 1995, p. 9.

[2]For scientists’ critique of these principles see, for example, K. Gottfried and K. G. Wilson, Nature, April 1997, p. 545, and D. O. Morrison, Scientific American, Nov. 1997, p. 114 (the above quotation is from the latter article).

[4] A clerk in a Radio Shack store who sells electric appliances could not answer my elementary question about the electric parameters of a relay I was going to buy; he also could not understand and would not agree with me that “speaker wire” could be used for applications other than to connect speakers to a tuner.  When Kodak began selling its disposable “weekend camera,” thousands of people called and asked if the camera could be used on week-days! I am not 100 percent sure that this is a true anecdote; but this well could have happened.

[5] Paul Davis, God & the New Physics, Touchstone Books, New York, 1984 (p. 221).

[6] John Chancellor, Peril and Promise:. A Commentary on America. Harper Perennial, New York, 1991, pp.46-47.

[7] Today, only 25 of the 535 members of Congress are scientists; including a veterinarian and an optometrist.  The Office of Technology Assessment at least supplied Congress, on request, with detailed and non-partisan reports, until it was eliminated in 1995 as a budget-cutting measure.  Today, nobody can stop distorting or concealing politically inconvenient truths.

[8] Bernard L. Cohen: Before It's Too Late: A Scientific Case for Nuclear Energy, Plenum Press, New York, 1983.

[9] T.A.Heppenheimer, Innovation and Technology, Summer 1995, p. 38:

[10] See, e.g., http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4629239.stm; the quote hat follows is also from that page.

See also How Far Away is the Fusion?

[11] In this respect, I cannot refrain from mentioning genetic engineering.  Experiments have become more aggressive and challenging.  They may result in cloning a human or creating a Frankenstein or a virus that would kill humankind.  No moratoria will help:  it is impossible to stop “scientific progress”!

[12] See, e.g., Walter Isaacson, Einstein. His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster, 2007.

[13] As far as I know, public school education in the former Soviet Union, with the collapse of communism, has also collapsed. However, the tradition of excellence in education has not died. A variety of semi-private and private schools has emerged.

[14] Across French middle and high school, six years of math and five years of science are required.

[15] John Silber, Straight Shooting. What Is Wrong With America And How To Fix It, Harper & Row, New York, 1989.

[16] Unfortunately, for a Jewish kid, winning an all-Moscow competition in physics did not automatically mean acceptance to Moscow University, but it gave one a weapon in the struggle to come.  Among my friends were people who both won and lost that struggle.

[18] The American Physical Society (APS) News, Nov. 1996.

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