Charles Townes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Adventures of a Scientist: Conversation with Charles W. Townes, Nobel Laureate, 2/15/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 6 of 6

Lessons Learned

Let's talk about the future now a little. How would you advise a student who might see this interview or read it on the web about how they should prepare for a career in science?

Well, for one thing, I think it's important to have a rather broad education. Get a broad basis in science and also in the humanities, and understand things broadly. You see, if you're going to advise government or interact with other people, there are a lot of very basic human things you need to understand, too. So I think a broad education is very important. Even in research it's important, because you never know where your research is going to lead exactly. And knowing other things, my knowing a bit of engineering for example, was so important.

So a broad education is important, but then I think, look at science, look at the things that you think are most interesting to you, that you think are important and interesting, and have fun at. I've always said that you do your best at things you enjoy doing. Do the things that you like to do, that you think are interesting and important, and then delve into them deeply. But remember this requirement of a background too, a wide background. And who knows what science is going to be important? When I started in physics, nobody had ever heard of physics. I told my friends I was going to do physics, they didn't know what physics was. I had to explain, "Well, it's a little bit like chemistry--" they'd heard of chemistry, "--a little bit like electrical engineering--" they'd heard of that. Well now everybody's heard of physics, but there are other fields they haven't heard so much about. We can think of many important fields, but I think for a student, you explore and find the things that you think are most interesting and you think are also important. That's what you have the most fun at and probably make the biggest contributions with.

Do you think our K-12 educational system is doing a good job of preparing students to be scientists?

I don't think our schools do as well at preparing for science as they should. One reason is that the teachers frequently don't know a lot of science. It's hard to get many teachers with good scientific backgrounds. The teachers are a little afraid of it even. So that's one reason. I think also that science has been growing in importance, steadily growing in importance, and it's going to continue to grow in importance. So whereas in the old days we could sort of forget about science for a while in schools, now I think it's more important for everybody to know science. The ordinary citizen, even though not a scientist, ought to know enough science to help out in some of these judgmental things: what course should the nation take in science and technology? So it's important that we have much more science and it's important to have good teachers.

Now, how to get youngsters interested in science: I think a lot of it ought to be participatory. Mathematics is one thing you can participate in just with a paper and pencil, and in class. And I enjoyed mathematics, partly for that reason, while I was in school. But participation is an important part of it. Look at the stars and think about them. Go look through some telescopes. Think about animals, how they're made and how they behave. Explore the fields around you, the areas around you, the backyards around you. There are insects and all kinds of things. The people who look at the world and try to figure it out, and for teachers to encourage them and the parents to encourage them, that's part of the curiosity which is necessary in order to develop a strong interest in science.

I hear you suggesting that maybe too much of an emphasis on facts, on detail, is the wrong way to go, whereas stimulating the curiosity is what we want to do.

Exactly.

It's understanding, rather than facts, that is important. If you just know a lot of facts you may not understand how things fit together. Understanding and curiosity and exploration and fitting things together; because once you fit things together then the facts are more obvious, and you don't have to remember the facts, you just understand how things work.

Many of our leaders have identified K-12 education as a problem area. How do you think scientists can contribute to changing the view of how science is taught, and maybe intervening in the classroom to prepare the kids who will then come on to college clearly doing better?

I think for one thing, scientists who have some time -- and this would include retired scientists, for example, retired engineers -- I think they could be in contact with schools and the teachers at least. We all can be in contact with teachers and help the teachers. The teachers welcome a real contact like that. Come and talk in the classes, and so on. I think also things like the Exploratorium here in San Francisco, things which youngsters can go and participate in and try some scientific experiments and try things out and see things and watch things, those are of some importance, and scientists can help produce those and help bring them into class. But I believe a personal interaction with the teachers and students on the part of the scientists, to make an effort for that personal interaction, would be an important part of it.

I have one final question. You mentioned that religion was a part of your upbringing, and I'm curious as to how the awe that you find in doing science has stimulated or invigorated the religious side of you.

Well, it is very interesting. I think increasingly, people are recognizing that kind of input. For example, the Big Bang was discovered by Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson. I am proud to say that Arno was a student of mine and worked with me. We now know that the universe had a kind of a special occasion that was unique. It was very, very small, and then it suddenly exploded and expanded and produced what we are now. We study how that happened and all the special things that had to happen, and how it was constructed; the laws of physics were made and atoms were made in just such a way that all this could happen and we could finally be here: it's just amazing. Many scientists say, well, somehow there has to have been an intelligence that made it work this way, that did the right thing, that put the right things together. It is impressive. And there's still much more to be found out that I'm sure we'll be amazed at as we learn it.

Professor Townes, thank you very much for taking this time to talk with us about your intellectual journey and the exciting exploration that is science. Thank you very much.

Thank you. Nice to be here.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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