The Science of Discovery
Texas A&M chemical physicist Dr. Dudley R. Herschbach believes the role of higher education is to produce two things: discoveries and people who make discoveries. And, he believes in getting them when they're young. "Every little kid is a natural scientist," he says, "because they're naturally curious. And they also want to understand the things they see so they ask lots of 'why' questions. And that's what science is."
"In real–world science, getting the answer right isn't important, because people don't know what the right answer is," he continues. "But in school, science looks dull — nothing more than a question of giving the right answer."
To Herschbach, the best model for teaching science is the way children learn to speak their native language. "They learn with very little help from adults, because they're not worried whether they're getting it right," he points out. "They just play and they experiment. In scientific research you have to play in a way and you have to guess. Really good science is opening up your eyes to more things you don't know." Science, Herschbach adds, is a human adventure, and should be seen as part of our general culture. Ideally, he believes, it would be taught to everyone as one of the liberal arts, rather than as "something for this specialized sub–species of geeks."
Herschbach — who grew up milking cows, feeding pigs and chickens and picking prunes, apricots and walnuts on his parents' farm in rural California — went on to become co-winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discoveries in molecular dynamics. At the time, he was a chemistry professor at Harvard, where for 40 years he taught both the most advanced graduate courses and a freshman–level general chemistry class that he describes as his "most challenging assignment." Though he remains the Baird Professor Emeritus of Science at Harvard, he joined the Texas A&M physics department in 2005. He is also a tireless, good-natured advocate for improving K 16 science education along with the general public's understanding of science. As chairman of the board of trustees of the Society for Science and the Public, Herschbach writes articles, talks on radio and television, lectures to school audiences and alumni clubs and attends science and engineering fairs in search of new talent. (He's also lent his voice to a 2003 episode of The Simpsons in which his character presented the Nobel Prize in physics to mad-scientist Professor Frink.) But he's never far from the classroom.
"It certainly is possible that some of the students today will be the ones who solve major problems [in the future]," he declares with confidence. "Throughout history we find this again and again."