This weekend, I attended the 2008 Quadrennial Congress of Sigma Pi Sigma held at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois (for all intents and purposes, a suburb of Chicago). Sigma Pi Sigma is an honor society for physicists and scientists. It works closely with the Society of Physics Students (SPS) - a chapter-based organization with many goals all related to the betterment of science, students, and society. Every four years, they hold a congress which is attended by representatives (students and their advisors) from SPS chapters across the country to discuss various themes and ideas, as well as to vote on recommendations for the next four years' activities. The theme this year was "Scientific Citizenship: Connecting Physics & Society."
I was inspired. I have never seen such a wonderful representation of individuals from different walks of life in physics. No, the percentages were not ideal. But for a science field which currently "boasts" only 21% of bachelor's degrees awarded to women, only 4% awarded to African-Americans, and only 4% awarded to Hispanic-Americans, it was a vast improvement (I promise these statistics had citations during the conference, but I was unable to locate them quickly and I wanted to get this post done. I will keep trying to find them). More encouraging yet, these students were not just any physics students, but the physics and science leaders of tomorrow (not to toot my own horn or anything ^_~).
The reason I think we (meaning everyone, not just scientists) should care about this at all is summed best in two little words we've heard a lot lately - hope and change. When the theme for this congress was chosen in 2006, the organizers had no idea how historic the year 2008 would be. They had no idea how significant would be the concept of citizenship as scientists. But it has become so significant. At the welcome reception on Thursday night, a retired Vice President for The American Institute of Physics, James Stith, kicked off the conference by referencing our geographic proximity to the historic speech given in Chicago only two days previously - and at his words whoops of enthusiasm, pure and unadulterated, erupted from eager young throats throughout the room.
At the congress, we heard about how Einstein was a vocal anti-racist. We heard a talk about minority underrepresentation and how to combat it. Reference was made, over and over, to how our President-Elect, Barack Obama, has provided us with the opportunity to bring true science, citizen science, beneficial science back into the mainstream - some of the presenters, those who had interacted with Congress and the government, had even spoken with him personally, and assured us that he believes deeply in the value of science, and knows that our education system must be improved in order to facilitate this. They talked about how our President-Elect marks a moment in history in which we have the opportunity and the obligation to become better citizens, to become more active in our communities. They called on all the young people in the room (hundreds of us) to recapture the notion of the citizen-scientist, and to take advantage of this marvelous opportunity.
For too long, there has been this notion of the aloof scientist, reclusive and reserved from mundane life and thoughts. Our closing speech came from 1988 Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman. He said to us, "Scientists have never lived in ivory towers, isolated from society," and that we work only with the blessing of non-scientists. This image of the hermit-scientist seeps into the minds of young scientists until they believe that a true, dedicated scientist cannot bother with worldly concerns - and eventually pass this notion on to the students who succeed them. But this notion is foolish, in so many ways. Some of the greatest scientists in history (Einstein and Bohr, among them) were actively involved in their communities and in politics - many of them had no choice, living in Nazi Germany. Similarly, many of today's scientists do not fit this mold. Many of my own professors contribute so much to the local community (the wife of one of my professors is the chatelaine of the local SCA group, for example), and sometimes let their strong political feelings slip out in the classroom (you should hear my professor for Introduction to Atmospheric Physics talk about the global warming issue. He got quite worked up and said that anyone who refuses to belive in the greenhouse effect is "an idiot." This is entirely true, of course, since "greenhouse effect" is just the popular name for certain properties of electromagnetic radiation reflection/absorption/scattering that do exist - it's only the amount, long-term effects, and causes of changes in its strength that are in question). Finally, the notion of the ivory-tower scientist is foolish because, as scientists, we are the guardians of science for the future. Even if there really were some monolithic culture opposing societal awareness/intellectualism/education, it would be no less than a crime to ignore our responsibility to preserve knowledge - and a belief in its value - for the next generation.
There has been no greater opportunity in recent years to rekindle the belief in the value of learning, science, education, and discovery than that which we have delivered into our hands. The message of change is catching on. Science is ready for a change. We'll back it up, lend our support. We have to. Society, now, can go nowhere without science - technology is much too integrated a part of our lives. Dr. Lederman said to us, "...there must be a major increase in the capability of ordinary people to cope with the technological and scientific culture that is shaping their lives." We must all acquire "A Science Way of Thinking."
One of our speakers was Dr. Aziza Baccouche. She is a blind multiracial woman, a physicist by training, currently working as a science media producer and a correspondent for Evening Exchange on Howard University Television and occasionally for CNN. She talked about how she went to her teacher as a student to ask if she'd really be able to pursue physics - something she'd discovered herself to be very passionate about. Her teacher replied, "Yes, you can."
Our auditorium erupted in cheers. Scientists can be citizen-scientists. Citizens can be scientific citizens. We can make a difference.
Yes, we can.
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