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Telling It Like It Is (Paul Steinhardt)

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Paul Steinhardt in conversation with Howard Burton

One of the greatest challenges for teachers of science and mathematics, it is often declared, is finding ways of attracting young people to their vitally important subjects.

All too often this results in skeptical students being bombarded with an uninspiring mix of obvious propaganda (Science is fun!), appeals to self-interest (Mathematics is the key to unlocking doors to a successful career!), and a bit of social guilt thrown in for good measure (A background in science is essential for grappling with the next generation of societal issues!).

Unsurprisingly, such tactics don’t tend to work very well. The very nature of fun is that it is inherently self-evident: trying to convince people that something is fun is very much like trying to convince them that their healthy vegetables are also great-tasting.

Meanwhile a cursory look around us will demonstrate that there are at least equally many financially successful people with non-technical backgrounds as those with technical backgrounds, and an even more cursory look at today’s generation of political leaders will quickly give lie to the notion that a career in public policy requires a high level of scientific literacy.

There is, however, an alternative to trying to trick or cajole young people into developing an interest in STEM subjects: simply direct them towards the fascinating stories that are all around us.

The good news is that these are pretty easy to stumble upon, as the thing about fascinating stories is that, by definition, people are prone to talking about them. A while back, for example, I had the good fortune of speaking with the renowned polymath Freeman Dyson. Chatting with Freeman Dyson is a bit like the modern equivalent of having coffee with Da Vinci: there are so many things to ask and so much to learn that it’s hard to know where to start.  You have to be ready for just about anything.

But one thing I hadn’t expected was hearing Freeman enthusiastically point me towards fellow Princetonian Paul Steinhardt. We were discussing the far-too-homogeneous culture of contemporary physics and the debilitating lack of “heretics”, when Freeman suddenly highlighted Paul as an exception to this depressing contemporary rule, urging me to talk to him about his experience with quasicrystals:

So I did.

Given his track record, you might not be surprised to learn that Freeman was right, but you will probably be intrigued to learn that the “adventure story” that he was referring to went well beyond the standard sort of physics paean to the joys of unlocking the secrets of the universe, and was instead a genuine thriller involving Soviet-era drug smugglers, secret diaries and tracking down shadowy, potentially mythical, characters:

But it is also, of course, a scientific story – one that, for me at least, began in perhaps one of the most mundane circumstances imaginable: developing computer simulations to probe the structure of amorphous materials.

For it must be admitted that even those who do have a technical background often fall victim to the same sort of closed-mindedness that math phobic high school students are prone to – with even less justification.

When I was a physics student, it was hard to think of a more boring scenario than examining crystallographic patterns of the structure of materials. After all, I went into physics to discover big, bold, fundamental ideas about the nature of the universe, which seemed about as far away from crystallography as you could possibly imagine.

This was hardly an uncommon view in physics departments back then, and likely still persists today. Those at the very top of the intellectual hierarchy are the so-called foundational theoretical physicists whose day jobs consist of grappling with the abstract mathematical subtleties of cosmology and particle physics (and often, as it happens, both simultaneously).

Paul Steinhardt, as it happens, can play that card too. One of the pioneers of the theory of inflationary cosmology (and now, as it happens, one of its harshest critics, as can be seen in the separate Ideas Roadshow issue Inflated Expectations: A Cosmological Tale), Paul’s intellectual pedigree is clearly beyond any facile hierarchical distinctions that he himself routinely dismisses.

“I want to discover something new. I don’t actually care that much what the field is, but I want it to be an exciting discovery in something new.”

It’s true, of course, that science and mathematics can sometimes be complicated. But there are also times when we make it seem much more complicated than it is.

This is one of those times. A simple solution for anyone puzzling over how to make science “engaging” to her students is simply to point them towards the many compelling tales of discovery that are out there. Not all, of course, are as continuously captivating as Paul’s quasicrystal experience, but there is no shortage of magnificent stories to intrigue, entertain, and inspire.

All we have to do is listen.


For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Paul, click here. Meanwhile, two separate Ideas Roadshow eBooks with Paul are available on Amazon: Indiana Steinhardt and the Quest for Quasicrystals and Inflated Expectations: A Cosmological Tale. 

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