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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

The Ides of March by Matt McGann '00

On the ides of March, I attended the awards ceremony of the Intel Science Talent Search (STS). As you may have read, this year’s big winner was David Bauer from New York City, who did a project on quantum dots. David is off to the CUNY Honors College next year.

The STS awards ceremony is a black tie event; I was sporting my tux. It’s a pretty swank event. With all the glitz, the people dressed to the nines, the great food, it made me feel like I was at the Oscars of high school science. And, in a way, I was.

Science isn’t celebrated enough in our society, and I think a big part of that is it’s not really in the nature of the science community to self-promote or to create idols, anoint heroes. This really struck me on the day after Einstein’s birthday, two weeks after an article in the Science Times wondering who is “the next Einstein.”

Could it happen again? “Who or where is the next Einstein?”

No question is more likely to infuriate or simply leave a scientist nonplussed. And nothing, of course, would be more distracting, daunting and ultimately demoralizing than for some young researcher to be tagged “the new Einstein,” so don’t expect to hear any names here.

“It’s probably always a stupid question,” said Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at Case Western Reserve University, who nevertheless said he had yet to read a profile of a young scientist that does not include, at some level, some comparison to Einstein.

Dr. Stephen Hawking, the British cosmologist and best-selling author, who is often so mentioned, has said that such comparisons have less to do with his own achievements than the media’s need for heroes.

But maybe it’s more than the media’s need for heroes. Perhaps it is the next generation of scientists and engineers who need role models, who need to see science as something to be celebrated. (Still, some newspapers today called the 40 Intel STS finalists “top teen eggheads.”) How can we inspire future scientists to follow their calling?

So, even with all its excess, I think that a black-tie gala culminating in the naming of the so-called “junior Nobel Prize” is a great thing, as it is a great celebration of discovery and invention. And despite the Times’ criticism of high school research programs last week, I still think that anything that gets more students excited about doing real science is a good thing. And possibly the Science Talent Search has done that better than any other program.

At the reception, I stood as a representative of the first university to get undergraduates significantly involved in research, chatting with the people behind the Research Science Institute and California’s COSMOS. Each year, more and more students are becoming involved with research at the high school and university level, thanks in part to programs like STS (started in 1942), UROP (1969), RSI (1984) and COSMOS (2000), and new programs spring up each year. I thought to myself, we’re making progress.

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