Dudley Herschbach Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science and Society: Conversation with Dudley Herschbach, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry; Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science, Harvard University; September 29, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Science and Society

You touch on a very interesting problem, because society and government seem increasingly unable to understand this connection between basic research and all the goodies that come out of it, whether for the economy, for industry, and so on. How do we get around that problem? I know that one way that you like to do it is talk about the history of science. Talk a little about that.

What comes to mind is, I've several times in recent years been involved in looking for a new director for this non-profit organization or a president for this society, and you read the books about how to interview candidates. What they tell you is you ask questions that find out what is relevant in their past performance to the qualities you think this person should have. Don't ask them, "Can you do this or that?," what you want them to do, but ask questions and find out whether they've done something already that illustrates their capacity and their instincts, and so on. Well, that's what we do in science, isn't it? We have a curiosity to understand something fundamental that has emerged probably out of a lot of other work. They sort of grow. I love this quote of Feynman who said, "Science is not about what we know, it's about what we don't know." Really good science is opening up your eyes to more things you don't know, so it defines important questions to focus on, and when you address those, of course you ask, "What that we know already can we bring to the service of this new challenge?" Usually it involves putting things together in a new combination, a different way than people had in mind before.

In one interview that I heard that you had given, you talked a lot about Ben Franklin. What struck me as I listened to your account of his success as a public figure and as a scientist was that we're not as successful these days in identifying these achievements of particular scientists, essentially building a legitimacy for science. In that account of Franklin you were making a very interesting insight about that, namely that here was a guy who had a public role, was actually doing very basic science, and when we look back at it we don't realize that. We remember him as one of the founding fathers.

Yes, it's very interesting. He was a very curious man about all kinds of things, self-educated, two years of school. He retired at age forty-two, halfway through life, in order to concentrate completely on his experiments with electricity that had obsessed him, is the way he described it, although he was a very practical minded guy, as the image, the icon says that's quite true. Yet he had no idea that it would lead to anything practical. In fact, there's a famous letter to a friend in which he confesses that he can see no future for any value, practical value, of electricity, except to keep a vain man humble. You have to realize up 'til then electricity was a toy. You rubbed glass with fur, you got some sparks. What touched it off was the discovery of the so-called Leyden jar, [where] we could store some electricity. And then people started making electric generators that were really a way of rubbing fur against glass and generating more sparks. So, with that equipment you could start exploring.

He did a beautiful series of experiments that clarified what it was like, then he recognized, gee, lightning must be electrical. Now at that time, lightning was thought to be supernatural. So, that had enormous impact, and it had the practical result of lightning rods which is no minor thing in those days. Well, that made his reputation enormous. He was called a Newton of electricity. In a way, it was more shocking than Newton, if you don't mind the pun, because people were familiar with gravity and Kepler's analysis of the planetary motions before Newton's fantastic theory of what all happens. Franklin didn't provide a mathematical theory that had to wait for Maxwell's equations the next century, but he had provided this insight, and it opened eyes so much that he was recognized as a very great scientist. That had so much to do with why he was successful in France, in getting the French to donate the money and the troops that made it possible for this ragtag thirteen colonies to defeat the most powerful military nation the world had ever known up until that time. So, respect for a nation's scientific capabilities, especially when you're the leading debtor nation in the world, as the colonies certainly were then -- and we're now in that situation ourselves ...!

That's what I was just thinking. Except now we don't recognize the scientists.

You don't recognize the lesson? Well, we should recognize, since so many young people from the rest of the world come here to study science in our universities that the rest of the world does admire our science, but also that science is not something that you can plant and preserve just one place. With the right encouragement, it takes root everywhere. Stem cells are a good example. If, for political reasons, we are hampered as we are right now, or even prevented from pursuing research in stem cells, it's going to go on. It's going on brilliantly in South Korea right now. They're the world's leader in doing the most interesting research, developing new ways to get stem cells.

As somebody who thinks a lot about history, about the history of science and science in history, what is your analysis of the difficult period we're going through in the dialogue between science and society? Is there a failure here? Is it the politicians manipulating the discourse to get votes? Is it religious constituents who are concerned about seeing the world in a different way? Or has science itself failed in some way to help legitimate itself in this dialogue?

I think the fundamental problem is that we, and I mean everybody, scientists and all the people you've named, have allowed science to be perceived as not part of our general culture but something that's just separate for this sub-species of geeks or nerds, or whatever. If it would be recognized that that is not actually so, that science is a shared human adventure for a whole species -- I could talk a lot about that, but we need to break down this notion of science as something just for these very special people and we hope we get some benefits if we allow them to play around in something we don't understand, and so forth. That's not, in the long run, a sustainable or healthy situation for society.

What I think is crucial is that we find ways to integrate science into our whole education enterprise. For example, the founding fathers in the Age of Reason -- that's when our country placed great value on science, wonderful statements by John Adams, and so on, not only Ben Franklin, we've already seen how important his scientific stature was, the fact that our nation exists at all -- but Jefferson, who had read the Principia of Newton in the original Latin. We have correspondence between physicists of the day who knew Jefferson was very well read in Newton, who would send what we'd call a pre-print to ask his opinion because so often they're referring to something in Principia, [which] was a foundation of so much development at that time of ideas in science. And we have letters where Jefferson wrote back and said, "Well, you don't have it just right, this is what Newton really was saying." Imagine? Okay?

Here's another story about Jefferson. When he went to France, his successor to Franklin as our ambassador there, he was appalled by the French plows which were so crude. His whole political philosophy was based on the idea of the free farmer, a nation of free farmers. So, he set himself the problem of improving the plow, particularly what's called a moldboard, the thing that peels the soil back, that has that very beautiful shape. That's Jefferson. He recognized that was a calculus problem, he knew calculus, he solved it, and then he not only did that, he figured out how to instruct the machinist to approximate the calculus solution that he got. For a hundred years that was the standard plow. The French gave him a gold medal. He was, however, philosophically opposed to patenting anything, so he didn't. And as you know, he died a pauper.

At any rate, these stories ought to be part of our whole education. It's shared stories that make a society. But we have blinders on. When you study history, you don't talk about the importance of Franklin's stature as a scientist in history, you don't talk about Jefferson and his plow -- when you do calculus, for that matter, you don't have kids solve the plow problem that Jefferson solved. There are lots of ways we can knit together science and other courses. Until a lot of science is integrated into other courses, we won't begin to break down this notion that it's something totally separate instead of something that's pervasive, that naturally shows up all over.

For example, have you ever come across in history how it was that the Greeks beat the Persians in the famous Battle of Ships? It was because the Greeks had sliding seats in rowing which made them much more efficient and much more maneuverable. That was a scientific, technological improvement. Over and over, you have this through history, but because history in our mind is something about generals, politicians, they often ignore the things that make much more fundamental changes. Well, we can do better, and we have to do it in a way that gets teachers and faculty together to share these mini-cultures and find that they can hybridize and produce something new -- again, a biological metaphor.

It sounds like you're saying that in a way, the short-term problem may be press coverage of science and of scientific discovery, but the basic issue here, the fundamental issue, lies in the way we educate future generations so that they know science but know how science fits into womankind and mankind's story. Is that what you're saying?

Yes.

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