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Leon Lederman

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Leon Lederman that took place at the "Winding Your Way through DNA" symposium at the University of California San Francisco in 1992. Leon Lederman is a Nobel laureate in physics, and has been a leading advocate for reform of science education in the US.

Excerpted from the symposium transcripts with permission of the University of California, San Francisco.

Q. Do you think the role of scientist within society has changed over history? There were days of solitary inventors. What is the role of scientist today?

LL. There has been a change in how scientists interact with society in modern times, of course. I mean there is a general recognition that science plays a vital role in industrial nations and also in fact a "planetary role"-- I mean in all kinds of problems. If you open up a newspaper and you analyze the headlines it would be very difficult not to find half of them or sometimes all of them that have a scientific side. And this is different.

In early days of science, as we look back on it science had devastating effects on how people lived. By devastating I don't mean negative, I mean just dramatic changes in how people lived, but it wasn't known at the time that that would happen. There was no idea of the outcome of something like Newtonian mechanics, of how it would change the world, or Faraday's electricity, or Maxwell's invention of what amounts to communications, radio communication. All of these things were done as part of a scientific community, and were recognized as great breakthroughs in science.

Their societal implications--they might have been aware of this. I mean Faraday knew that when he invented the electric motor some day it would have a big impact, but he was too busy trying to understand the nature of electricity and magnetism to bother with that. And when some guy asked him, some minister asked him, "What's the good of all this?" he said, "Ah, I think some day you'll tax it, Sir."

And 40-50 years later England levied a tax on electricity, so he was right.

Today, because those lessons have worn in, and because we have a complex society and because there is another thing that happens, a kind of cycle. Science begets technology. Technology is where science impacts on daily life. The technology empowers science to do better science, because now science has machines that plug into a wall socket, you have electricity, giant computers which were in turn an invention of an earlier science and now are available to scientists to do more science. So you have an increasing cycle: science begets technology, technology empowers science to beget more technology, and this accounts for the fact that we now live in a world dominated by the science technology spiral. So that clearly impacts on how scientists think, how they learn, how they study, and how they behave.

Q. What roles do modern methods of communication play in science today?

LL. Well, communications of course is one of the facets of technology that impacts very greatly on science. There are, I don't know, 50 or 100,000 science journals nowadays, and the newest trend is on-line journals where you can just electronically receive scientific information.

The pace is enormous. The pace of communications of course not only impacts science, it impacts politics. Clearly the changes in Eastern Europe that took place over a very short period of time was accelerated by the communications. Somebody picks up a rock in Ukraine and you read about it in the Amazon or you know about it in the Amazon almost immediately. That has impacted the methods of scientists. Clearly there is a lot of, a tremendous dump of information and no scientist can absorb even in his own field everything that is going on. On the other hand, it has had remarkably small effect on how a person thinks about what he is doing. Now again, there are all kinds of exceptions. There is such a wide spectrum of activity, but I think if you are doing science, and whether you are doing it as a small individual investigator, the lonely scholar at 3:00 in the morning in a studio, or a group of 100 scientists collaborating on some complex experiment, there is time. There has to be time to think about what you are doing, and the traditional components of creativity, imagination, thought, and so on are still there in a remarkable way. The externals look terribly different.

But if you would sort of ferret yourself away in the earlobe of a young scientist going through his daily activities, you would be surprised at how the traditional activities of a scientist are still there, still replicated. Of course, the sociology is different, and he is running for an airplane to get to the accelerator, or he is on a ship or he is in a rocket, or he is at a terminal looking at the data coming in from some satellite observatory. The activities are quite different, modulated by all the modern stuff. But what goes on in his mind and thinking is still there.

Am I answering honestly? Maybe there is an element of change that comes from the pressure, because the scientific community has grown so large, it may be that more young scientists feel pressured to do things too fast.

Are we making more mistakes now? I don't think so. Science is a high-risk activity. And when you do science--this is very important incidentally for the general public, and for policy makers--if you are not wasting some of your money, you are not doing good science. It's a funny way to say this. You've got to back high-risk opportunities. And high-risk opportunities means some fraction of them are going to fail. And I think in any science funding scenario, you've got to say, 10, 20, maybe even 30% of your funds are going to be invested in failures. Now hopefully sometimes you learn something from a failure. Often you do. And often you don't, you know, it's a wrong alley--we've been in this alley, it looked very promising, we pursued it, we put money into it and resources and everything else and all of a sudden the brick wall hits the alley. Somebody calls you over and says, here's where the action is, over there. That still happens.

I've heard from some people and had my own personal experience, sometimes the experiment that doesn't work tells you more, then you are confronted with a new problem which you have to solve. Certainly if you look at the history of breakthroughs, the history of successful scientific activities, the false leads, the false starts, are often productive. I mean clearly when something doesn't work you know there's a reason why it doesn't. It impacts back on your reasoning for starting that in the first place, it modifies that thought that this is a good place to look and you're ahead in a smaller way. It is true that you often learn something from experiments that have been unsuccessful.

Sometimes experiments are unsuccessful not because they lead to a brick wall or an unprofitable side alley, but they are unsuccessful because they were too difficult. They were ahead of their time. The technology or the wisdom of doing the experiment correctly wasn't there. And then so 10 years later or 20 years later somebody finds out how to do it and then old Joe, who failed, is remembered fondly in some sort of a conference saying, "Oh yeah, remember old Joe? He had the right idea, but unfortunately his slide rule wasn't powerful enough to analyze all the data that we need our supercomputer for."

Q. How is the scientific method of hypothesis, experimentation and analysis, different than what people do in terms of decision-making?

LL. Well the scientific method, it takes different ways of thinking about it for different scientists. We teach our kids that the scientific method is one in which everything is governed by empirical facts. You've got to have a hypothesis: start out with a hypothesis, you find out what its implications are in the laboratory, you do your experiments, if the experiments are correct the hypothesis has been supported, if the experiments turn out to not be what was predicted, then the hypothesis is relegated to the dust bin--and to history, if the experiment was right. So that is what we call, everything must be subject to experimental test. And then there is a logic that goes with science, that usually involves what the students in horror call math.

I teach liberal arts students so I know their reaction when you write down an equation. AxB=C. Oh, they say, math, I don't want math. It's not that they can't solve the equation, it's that equations are the basis of thought. They are a way of organizing your thinking logically and I think our math instruction in the schools doesn't convey that clearly enough, that you are empowered by mathematics. But that's another aspect of the scientific method, is a certain strict logic which is subject to review and criticism and so on. Now how does this differ from (other endeavors), well it certainly differs from anything you might call artistic activity, which doesn't have criteria, it doesn't have a body of--well it has a body of heritage which science has, but it's not a rigorous heritage, and it's a heritage which you can easily depart from freely as a creative artist or musician.

In science you cannot give up the heritage unless you have a very good reason. On the other hand, one of the interesting things about science which is not understood is something called the Establishment in science. That is another part of the scientific (endeavor): there is an establishment. I'm part of the establishment. Swedish holy water sprinkled on me. I'm part of the establishment, but you get to be part of the establishment by destroying the establishment, by blowing it up. That's the way you make your reputation.

So every establishment member has in his turn been an intellectual bomb-thrower, a revolutionary. Because every time you destroy the established dogma or the established body of knowledge, the accepted body of knowledge, you are going to get something better to take its place, at least that's the hope. Although nobody likes his own theory to be overturned, that's a human endeavor. You grouse, and if you're more of a human being and less of a scientist you're going to feel very bad about it and defend your theory as best you can. But at some point deep down inside the scientist will creep in and say gee, but this gives possibility of a different theory which might even be better. Of course if you find it you feel real good, if someone else finds it you feel awful. So I think that's all, there's a big difference. We have objective criteria for what's good and what's bad, whereas you know, there are critics of modern art and there are critics of atonal music and you can't convince them that this music is right and that music is wrong. That's the big difference.

Or this economic theory is right and that economic theory is wrong. Economics is a good example of an artistic expression, which sometimes masquerades as a science, philosophy is another case where there is no philosophy that is wrong, just by definition philosophy can't be wrong. Science can be wrong.

Q. Why did you get involved in science? Was there a central person, or were you just curious?

LL. I've thought about it a while to try to give an honest answer. I think there was a sequence of things. It was reading, and science books somehow--I got hold of a book in big print that was written by Einstein in the 1930's which presented science as a detective story. And I loved that presentation.

Newspaper articles that covered science--I remember reading an article, I must have been 8 or 9, about the discovery of the positive electron, the positron, it was a front page article in the N.Y. Times describing this very romantic discovery and I just thought that was terrific. So you know science writers, of course in those days, the media was the newspapers. Today we have so many other opportunities of presenting science to young people. Unfortunately we don't use them. But that's one of the tragedies and things we are going to try to change. But I think it was books, newspapers, and then in school fellow students, kids that I was with, that somehow were interested in science

And you know, hang around the lab after high school, the chemistry lab, and there was another kid, and the both of this talked to the young lab technician who was in charge of stuff and he taught us how to blow glass and so all kinds of things like that emphasized this. Good teachers, terrific teachers in high school--absolutely magnificent teachers, New York City, 1930's--and so one thing led to another, and then here I was entering college as a chemistry major. But chemistry didn't last because of all the smells, that was one reason. I graduated as a chemistry major but convinced that I wasn't going to be a chemistry major. I found physics simpler somehow, cleaner.

You know, you can be a chemist and only know a little bit of physics, and if you want to be physicist you have to know more. I found physics simpler to grasp in some sense and as I said it was cleaner to do experiments in physics. I always spilled something in chemistry and dissolved my pants and so on, and dropped things on the way to quantitative balance measurements and all kinds of things, but I wasn't a bad student in chemistry. I loved it in high school, and even in the early days of college. Physics just replaced it.

Q. Talking about your research, why did you like doing the things you were doing?

LL. When you're in research, when you start research it is exciting because--if you're lucky as I was, and I sort of became of age in research in roughly 1948--the times were very exciting for science in general and physics in particular. Physics had just won the war. They had invented all kinds of things and now they were back in the laboratory and research, so you had a feeling that you had 'picked up the baton' if you like, in a small way, of this set of masters, of great men. And I had read about Enrico Fermi and some of the heroes--J.R. Oppenheimer--of modern American physics. And they were exciting things, and they communicated in ways, and here I was, in some sense their colleague. And through the course of time I met them all and they were indeed colleagues. And then you go all the way back to the traditions of Einstein and Maxwell and Faraday and back to Isaac Newton, there is a tremendous heritage. And you're a part of that club, all of a sudden, you know, you have the secret handshake and it's part of a tremendous community, so that puts the burden on you, but it's more than that. That doesn't carry you day to day. Day to day there was the interaction with inanimate objects which really are vicious and they hate you, like oscilloscopes and hammers and lathes and all kinds of machinery that you had to deal with, you had to use your hands. I was an experimental scientist.

And I found although I was not gifted in that way I enjoyed that tussle with equipment and trying to get equipment to work, because that's the day to day thing. It may be that an experiment which is going to last, in those days an experiment lasted 6 months, but maybe a program might last several years, those experiments had a grandiose goal, we're going to find out, you know, the nature of the universe, but what you're doing every day is getting the oscilloscope to work, or making a counter, and making sure it counts, and has no noise and an amplifier, and you have to like that stuff. You have to enjoy working with students because if you're doing research, you're a graduate student, you have fellow graduate students. When you're a professor you have graduate students and post docs and working with other people is an important issue in all of this. And being part of an enterprise which is going to change our knowledge of the world. And to me that is fundamentally deeply cultural, that's the thing that characterizes. You're doing something, in that sense I think you're no different from a poet or writer or a musician and so on, creating and adding to our culture. In that sense we have a lot in common.

Q. Why did you switch from being a researcher to being involved with science policy?

LL. Wait a minute, wait a minute, I didn't switch. I'm still doing some research, a little bit of it. Well, I got into science policy deliberately because first I sort of switched from being 100% honest scientist to being a 30% honest scientist and 70% dishonest administrator and managed a big laboratory, and that got me in contact with the outside world in a thorough way. And I began, although I'd dabbled in the suburbs of science policy before that, here I realized that in the United States science was in trouble. And when I had the opportunity of running for office at the American Association of the Advancement of Science, which is a large science umbrella organization, anthropology all the way to zoology, I seized on that and then I became elected and I got interested in trying to find out what's wrong with American science and try to quantify it. And I was off.

I think American science in 1992 is under stress. I think now everybody agrees with that. All kinds of surveys document the fact that there is an unhappiness in the scientific community, that American kids are not going into science any more. The unhappiness doesn't mean we don't still have a robust scientific activity. We do have one. But the symptoms of danger to the substructure, the infrastructure of science are there. And it is something that is very hard to repair. It is like education: we knew that we had symptoms of failure in the educational system, but nobody paid any attention, and now for 10 years we have been trying to repair an infrastructure which has crumbled totally. I'm afraid science may be going in the same direction unless scientists themselves take on a tremendous effort to reverse this.


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