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.