The future Nobel laureates of the world

I’m pretty certain that these students are going to be the ones who help save the world.

This week, I’m in Reno for the International Science and Engineering Fair. You know your out-of-the-box volcano experiments you showed off for your teachers at your school science fair? Well, I’m here with about 1,800 students who won their school science fairs, followed by regional science fairs, to appear with projects titled, “Infested Forests and Evapotranspiration: Is the Loss of ET Significant Enough to Solve the Water Crisis in the West?” and “Transport Studies of Magnetism in Individual Gold Nanoparticles.” (Some were more casual, such as “Are You Gellin’?”) I’m pretty certain that the students who are here are going to be the ones who help save the world.

Unlike many kids between the ages of 16 – 18, these kids took two hours to listen respectfully to their elders on Tuesday. A panel of Nobel lauretes had been assembled, for a question and answer session moderated by NPR’s Joe Palca. The questions, given by selected students, varied from “How do you predict the economic recession will change the way science is viewed?” (answer: We’re getting more funding) to “Do you have any artistic ability?” Judging from this small sampling, Nobel scientists seem to enjoy poetry. Jocelyn Bell Burnell (Herschel Medal) held up a book of astronomy poetry she edited. Douglas Osheroff (Physics, 1996) took the opportunity to recite a cowboy poem in its entirety.

One student asked what they thought the main renewable energy of the future will be. Without hesitation, the consensus answer was, “Solar.” The Nobel winners established that in fact, all energy comes from the sun, even fossil fuels. Leon Lederman (Physics, 1988) went further than the question to say, “Even more vital than a change of energy is a change of lifestyle. The ability to drive 10 miles to buy bread is going to change. We need to bike, or skate, to do things in a more energy independent way.”

The scientists made jokes, talked about collaboration, creativity, and imagination. They told stories about dead ends in research, and how the ability to be wrong (and accept it) is an important part of science. They were trying to convey to the students that there’s no particular path to science greatness. I talked to one student afterwards who said she really enjoyed the panel. She was surprised and excited to find out that the Nobel scientts were like, regular people. They’re brilliant, of course, but so is she.

Lindsay Patterson