In Search of Science Role Models

01/13/2014 04:07 pm ET | Updated Mar 15, 2014

When six of the United States' top scientists, garbed in white ties and tails, dined on Guinea hen and lobster tartlets as honored guests of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden last month, we were holding our own little ceremony on this side of the Atlantic. The attire was individualistic, Hollywood and Silicon Valley luminaries were the royalty of choice, and dinner was catered by Napa Valley's famed Chef Thomas Keller and The French Laundry.

Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri Milner and friends were awarding six Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences and two Fundamental Physics Prizes to top American scientists -- with a $3 million prize, tripling the traditional Nobel award.

As an American, I am proud of this great step toward honoring the crucial contributions of science and scientists. But as a public high school science teacher, addressing our country's poor math and science scores on a daily basis, I can tell you that it's not enough.

By the time American students reach high school, the majority have had their curiosity crushed and are struggling with inadequate math skills. But we also have a role model deficiency. Kids may be able to list the starting lineup of the Boston Red Sox, but probably can't name even one contemporary scientist. Some 75 percent of the 2013 Nobel prize winning scientists are United States citizens, and yet they live in virtual anonymity among the general American public.

Compare this to Sweden. During Nobel Week, the recipients are regarded as celebrities. "The closest analogy we would have here would be Super Bowl weekend, only it would have to be Super Bowl week," recalls Dr. Richard Lefkowitz, 2012 Nobel laureate in Chemistry.

"Our pictures are on the front page of the newspaper every day. We are recognized in the street. People seek our autograph. They can't get enough of us. We're on prime time TV every night." On the night of the Nobel banquet, all five or six hours are televised live. "We have Super Bowl parties, they have Nobel parties. People come to each other's houses. They dine. They dress up in black tie and white tie, some of them to mimic what's going on at the banquet, which they're watching on TV, and they watch the whole thing."

At home in North Carolina, Lefkowitz adds, it's not quite the same thing. "On the boulevard where I turn to come into the campus, there's a huge sign that says 'Welcome to Duke University, home of the 2013 Men's Lacrosse National Champion.' You would never have a banner saying 'Welcome to the home of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.'"

As children and adults we feed on the fruits of technology's labors. Keep a student from learning about the electronic substructure of binary code, and you get a sigh of relief. Keep a student from her smartphone, a product of the electronic substructure of binary code, and you've cut off her very life-sustaining breath. So it isn't that science lacks relevance.

But science is often complicated, or as my students say regularly, "too much work." Most of our media can't understand science well enough to explain it, either -- and unlike, say, the mating habits of reality TV stars, scientific discovery by its nature rarely provides an EZ-pass story line.

"It is always piecewise knowledge, hard-won," says Dr. Roald Hoffman, 1981 Nobel laureate in Chemistry. "There are often not single 'Aha!' or 'Eureka!' moments. There are little pieces of understanding that slowly fall into place." The collaborative nature of research also makes it challenging to attribute a "Eureka!" moment to just one scientist. Consider the thousands of scientists who worked toward discovering the Higgs-Boson particle. The Nobel Prize was awarded to the first two who published about it in 1964, but thousands of other unsung heroes who have worked on it in the past forty years. "I don't know how they could ever award a Nobel Prize for the experimental work," says Dr. Paul Padley, a physicist at Rice University who was also involved in isolating the particle.

A scientific theory can also never be "proved." It can only be "disproved" by experimental evidence. (A statement that cannot be disproved by experiment may be reputable but it's not science.) Hence, the great Eureka! moment of 2013, the discovery and confirmation of the Higgs-Boson, is a big fat "maybe" with a whole lot of evidence behind it. Gravity is a theory. So is evolution. Reporting on scientific discovery, in other words, unfortunately goes against the journalistic creed of "Just the facts."

But the fault lies not just with the media. We need scientists to do a better job communicating to us about what it is they do. We need them to occasionally step outside of the laboratory and engage with us. And when they do, we need to listen, read and learn. The ever-growing complexity of our world demands our daily occupation in understanding it.

Every now and then, a legend does appear out of the sea of numbers and test tubes, giving us proof that it can be done. Consider Nate Silver, the mathematics genius who, with an overwhelming degree of accuracy, predicted the 2008 and 2012 state-by-state presidential returns, and who continues to apply his statistical chops to Major League Baseball, among other popular genres. We revel in Nate Silver, not because we understand what he does, but because he plays out what he does in arenas that we do understand.

Are there scientists who can successfully crossover into popular culture with comparable success? I am optimistic, because we need them to, if our students are ever going to marvel at their "slam dunks" and "Oscars."