Oh, the good old days. Most of the world may remember Sputnik as the seed of a standoff between superpowers, but for Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman and many of his colleagues, it's a rosier memory: a time when it was cool to be a scientist.
Fifty years after the Soviet satellite initiated the space age, scientists and educators are again arguing, as they were in the years before Sputnik, that the United States is falling behind its competitors in producing scientists and engineers. Lederman, who received the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics with two colleagues at Columbia University for pioneering work on subatomic particles, has now turned his attention to finding new ways to inspire science and math teachers. He spoke with usnews.com about what it will take to get science education back on track.
Is there any hope of another Sputnik-like event to reinvigorate science education?
People have often joked, "Can we invent a Sputnik? Pull a fake Sputnik?" Frankly, we really don't have to. We have a menace hanging over our head which is, if anything, far more dangerous than Sputnik, and that is global climate change. I think it's going to take maybe oceans rising and the wiping out of some islands in sensitive areas before we realize that this is personal, that this really constitutes a menace to civilization.
You advocate a "physics first" method of teaching science, instead of the common practice of beginning with biology. So physics isn't too scary for ninth graders?
[Renowned physicist Richard] Feynman once said that if all civilization was going to fall apart and only one sentence of knowledge could be preserved, it should be: "Everything is made of atoms." Physics and chemistry are basic to modern molecular biology, and ninth grade is just perfect. Biology in ninth grade is about the stupidest thing. It's a concept subject. It's more mathematically complex than string theory. Physics starts with the simplest concepts. You have a broad sweep of how nature works. There is nothing in chemistry which, if you say, "Why does that happen?" you're not forced to go back to physics.
But won't it be harder to engage students with atoms and molecules than with organisms?
Telling stories is very important for that. You say, "Galileo drops two students off a tower, a fat one and a skinny one, and he listens for one squash or two squashes." There's a sense of wonder that you have to teach. One thing about physics that hasn't penetrated high school classrooms or popular science writing is its symmetry. What begins to emerge is a kind of simplicity and beauty. Science is not easy to teach—even physics teachers do not teach physics all that well.
How can one engage those of us who have escaped high school?
We could certainly use more communicators, like [The Elegant Universe author] Brian Greene, who's sort of a replacement for Carl Sagan. I'm working hard on that particular problem, the notion of getting the public involved in science education. My goal is to get invited on Oprah Winfrey.
Not yet—and I'm in Chicago. But you slog on.
So what exciting things are heading our way?
There are many discoveries to be made, maybe more in biology than in my field, especially in neuroscience. They're going to make incredible breakthroughs in how we think, in the whole human consciousness idea.
What can we do on the policy side?
We need more scientists going into Congress. There's a huge difference between being an adviser and being an elected official. [Nobel Prize-winning physicist] I. I. Rabi used to tell us that: "Some of you go to law school and run for Congress."
I worry so much about the danger that can come from fundamentalism, because we're a fragile society. Three young guys with college degrees can design a nuclear bomb.