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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The Future of Science Education

What do you see going on in science education? Are we meeting that challenge that you're posing? Is the curriculum at places like Harvard and Berkeley reflecting that need to integrate science with the humane disciplines?

I'm afraid I can't say yes, much as I would like to. Compartmentalization is a very powerful force in large institutions, as you know. There are few people that I know of, you know, the proverbial voices in the wilderness, except it's hardly a wilderness, it's the opposite, that speak in this direction, and I can quote many from the past who have, too. But I think we're going to have to just keep at it, like the myth of Sisyphus who pushed the rock up the hill, and the version I like is a Czech version where as the rock rolls down again, as he knew it would, he's whistling as he goes down the hill, knowing he has to push it up again. If you think it's a truly worthy thing, you keep doing what you can in that direction.

I know that in some of your voluntary work you've been very active in programs that identify budding scientists in high schools. What are you seeing out there in terms of the way talent is emerging? Is it the way it always was, and then the failure lies with the educational system? Talk a little about that.

Well, this is the most positive thing, in fact, in my judgment, at the moment, and it's something we could build on far better than we do, especially now with this wonderful tool, the Web, which of course can be misused and can be just a garbage dump instead of a cornucopia which it also is, fortunately, of powerful information and methods. I don't think, for example, we're ever going to have in the foreseeable future as many qualified teachers of science and math as we need. However, if we realize that the kids that wind up going pretty high up in these fairs that you mentioned, high school science -- the science talent searches are the most well known. But it's just forty finalists in Washington each spring.

There's a lesser-known but much bigger International Science and Engineering Fair -- both of those, incidentally now, are sponsored by Intel as the prime sponsor, which is a very sensible thing given the nature of Intel as a company. The International Science and Engineering Fair has 1400 kids from 50 countries. They meet in a different city every year and they've all been winners in regional, state, or local fairs. Now you go talk to those kids, they're very aware of these science education problems in the schools they came from. They would love to be our resource to interact with their own schools. We could generate a great network with these kids. Remember the story I told about my experience in high school, my teacher in algebra? Well, these kids can do wonders. And there are instances in college education. My colleague, Eric Mazur at Harvard, Alex Pines here at Berkeley, have done a lot with what's called peer instruction, where you pose questions and the students argue out, and then they vote, and then they find out who got the right idea, then they argue again to see if they can understand why.

The key thing is getting students in the first place to take ownership instead of allowing it to seem to belong to some higher authorities, the previous generation, or whatever. Then they'll get the wider community therefore to take ownership too. What I would love to see, since we're here for TV cameras, is every week on the news, on every network, a one or two-minute segment allowing one of these kids from the science fair describe their project. They're usually excellent at it because in working their way through a series of fairs they've had to describe their project to whoever comes, sometimes little kids, sometimes even scientists, and they adjust accordingly. They're the best ambassadors for science, because as I mentioned before, society views the scientist as too rarefied, who won't understand, and all that, and that's been inculcated in school. Unfortunately, it puts most people off if you have a scientist speaking, even though sometimes we have marvelous programs, Nova and all. They're not watched as widely as they really deserve to be. But everybody then would see kids. There is interest in the kid just because they're a kid. But then [people] discover they're very good at explaining their science, and teachers, other kids, parents, they watch -- I think it'd be a regular thing. I think it would change very much the whole society's attitude. And as you know, TV, the way it works, there's plenty of little one or two-minute gaps they have to fill. We know what they fill it with now. This could be done.

It sounds like we have a real role model problem in the sciences. Our current president is not Jefferson, we don't have Franklins in the halls of Congress, and so it sounds like you're saying that, in fact, we may wind up having to turn to the excitement of younger people, the newer generation actually doing science, to inspire a broader sense of what science can do.

I think it would be the best way to go, in fact. Science is a youthful thing, even if it's done by very senior people occasionally. It's intrinsically youthful. I had said earlier it's child's play. Of course, you don't say that to funding agencies, but in a serious way it has to be, if you're talking about basic science that is a chance to learn Nature's language. And that's most fundamental, and as I argue, the most practical kind you can do.

Of course, there's a whole range. I wouldn't belittle science in the service of a short-term technological aim. That's making use of what we've learned already of Nature's language, and often in a very enterprising, imaginative way. But if we fail to recognize that we've got to have people who are so inclined, scientists who have this burning urge to probe deeper in a fundamental way, we are losing out in a most important long-term aspect, which is to learn more of Nature's language, explore more of that ignorance that opens up, as we learn more, as Feynman emphasized.

How would you advise students who want to go into science to prepare for the future?

I think they should explore widely, not just science and math but literature, history, that they should make themselves a person who has wide eyes, because often what you wind up doing, in all kinds of thoughts and I think especially pronounced in science, is metaphorical kinds of comparisons and analogies. Often the thing you think of in science isn't some narrow technical thing that depended on having taken X number of courses to get you to this point. No, it's some down-to-earth metaphor with something they've done that people wouldn't ordinarily think of as related to science at all. It may be related to art or music, or whatever. A lot of what you do in, say, chemical synthesis, where you have these simple elements, chemical bonds -- often you're especially interested in biological things, [where] the main atoms are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, the big four, and maybe a few others here and there, so, the elements are simple -- well, the elements of a Beethoven composition are pretty simple. You just have a few notes, intervals, and whatnot, but it's a matter of how you assemble them. So, it's the same thing.

I like to say science is not really a technical thing as much as an architectural thing. An architect has to understand quite a few technical things, but they are not the essence of architecture. Architecture itself is more than that. It's a broad thing that has to recognize the aim of the project and the fact of how are people going to experience this space, how it's going to serve the functions, the activities. It has to be very broad. So, a lot of the best science is architectural in character. You don't necessarily invent the materials or the building construction, but you put them together in a way that opens people's eyes to new possibilities that they didn't see before, just the feeling we admire when we say, "Wow, that's really good architecture." That's the character that's so important to recognize.

Standing back and seeing the whole.

Yes. So, that's why I say an education that's very broad -- for example, Einstein, who is, of course, the most convenient icon, especially this year, had a very broad cultural education. His mother was a fine pianist, so he learned music -- he fell in love with Mozart about age thirteen. He'd studied the violin since six, and he said that he never really began learning to play well until he fell in love with Mozart. He said love is a much better teacher than duty, and it certainly was for him, not only in the violin but elsewhere.

We have to foster -- you see, every little kid is a scientist. They're just so damn curious, they inevitably are. And too much of our social and educational system tends to squelch this, because oh, the important thing is to get the right answer. Well, it's not the important thing when you're doing science, because people don't know the right answer. So, you're asking instead, "Am I thinking in an interesting way? If I come up with an approach that ... " So, that puts a great premium on individual imagination, just what counts in a poem, whereas the image of science is nothing like that. The student gets the impression that there's no room for individual scope because you learn how to do everything the right way. Well, that means only one way. There's not only one way. Even in mathematics the crucial invention comes from people who do it a different way than others.

On that note of hope for what we will be able to achieve in the future, I want to thank you very much, Professor Herschbach, for coming back to Berkeley and taking time to be on our program. Thank you.

Well, it's been my pleasure.

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

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