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The biggest problem on the planet

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Photo via Thinkstock.

A couple months ago the National Science Foundation released some surprising stats about what Americans do (and don’t) know. One in four of us, apparently, believes that the sun revolves around the Earth. That made me cry a little on the inside when I first read it. But in a lecture on science, society, and education on Tuesday, Nobel laureate Sir Harold Kroto said that’s not really the biggest problem. It’s the percentage of those other three who simply accept that the Earth revolves around the sun without demanding the evidence.

“Common sense tells me that the sun goes round the Earth,” said Kroto, whose two-day visit to Northeastern was hosted by the Center for High Rate Nanomanufacturing. If you look up at the sky, he said, you see the sun start at one point on the horizon and it drops to the other by the end of the day. Common sense says that means the sun is moving around us.

But then he asked the audience how we know that the common sense view is wrong. Not many raised their hands. “It’s uncommon sense that tells us that the sun is there and Earth is moving around it, but it actually appears to be going around because the Earth is turning on its axis,” Kroto said. The evidence is Foucault’s pendulum, which proves the Earth is turning on its own axis. Oh right, of course! The giant slowly swinging pendulum at the Boston Museum of Science that used to mesmerize me as a kid! How could I forget?

I forgot because I, like most people these days, have fallen into the habit of accepting things as true even when I don’t remember the evidence. Kroto called this is the biggest problem on our planet today.

So how do we deal with it? We get the kids early.

At a conference on symmetry in Delft last summer, Kroto set up a Bucky ball-making station for children. They had all the little tubes and connectors for assembling three-dimensional molecular models. If they could successfully construct a Bucky ball, they could take it home. One little girl who wanted to try was just 3 years old. Kroto’s wife Margaret snapped photographs as the girl first assembled 12 flat pentagons and then connected them all together to make the spherical C60 molecule. When they looked at the photos later, they saw how the girl’s face betrayed an incredible amount of concentration and determination throughout her endeavor. But it was the final photo that Kroto loved the most. It showed a huge smile of utter satisfaction and pride. “Three years old,” he reminded us.

The most creative people on the planet are under 6 years old, he said. “And the creativity is beaten out of a lot of them before they have the experience.” But great discoveries happen at that sweet spot when one has accumulated enough experience and hasn’t yet lost too much creativity to be able to think in new ways. He showed us a picture of Einstein as an old man with wiry gray hair and his characteristically mischievous smile. “This guy is thought to be a famous scientist. It’s not true. He’s actually an impostor,” Kroto said. “It was this guy that did all the work.” And then he showed us a picture of Einstein as a boy. “He was 16 when he first started to think about what it was like to travel at the velocity of light,” Kroto said.

It’s the same story for Charles Darwin, Rosalind Franklin, and James Clerk Maxwell, whose equations are used every time we make a call with our cell phones.

We need to instill in our kids a sense of curiosity and exploration, Kroto said. We need to encourage them to be skeptical of their world and seek proof for the answers to their questions. Otherwise, we may be sending ourselves back into another dark age.

“Chemistry is a gift to humanity,” he said. It was chemistry that gave us penicillin and antibiotics and the human genome project. Imagine where we’ll be when evidence becomes so secondary to the human experience that chemistry becomes extinct.

In response to a question after his Profiles in Innovation talk on Monday, Kroto said that while he was glad to see a packed house, it was nothing compared to a talk he gave in China a few weeks earlier. People were waiting in line to get in three hours before his start time. Here in the U.S. it’s people like Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie who draw that kind of crowd. Not scientists. That needs to change, he said, if we’re to remain an international competitor in the sciences.

That said, Kroto also pointed out that we’re all living on “an insignificant little blue dot” in the midst of 10 billion trillion stars. Every one of those stars will eventually die out and so will ours. “Extinction is just business as usual,” he said. By treating the Earth poorly (due to inadequate STEM education), “we’re just improving business efficiency.”

I asked him if that’s the case, then what’s the point of teaching STEM education at all? We’re all going to die, and so is our planet and this whole thing we call life will be no one’s forgotten memory. “You create your own point,” he said.

To put it another way, he called on the words of his friend, Leon Lederman, another Nobel laureate who recently passed away: “Remember your humanity and forget the rest.” We may be a glancing moment in the history of the universe, and our education may only prolong “business as usual” for a few relative nano-seconds in the grand scheme of things, but while we’re here, we ought to do the best we can.