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A Lecture with Michio Kaku, National Science Fair 1963 alumnus

By Carolyn Carson

As the Society for Science & the Public’s new Alumni Coordinator, I’m occasionally given the opportunity to do some seriously cool things.

One such thing happened earlier this month, when I got to go to Pittsburgh to hear a lecture through Robert Morris University’s Pittsburgh Speaker Series given by Dr. Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York and an alumnus of the Society’s 1963 National Science Fair, now known as the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF).

At the lecture, Dr. Kaku relayed a story. It was the story of the Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator that was meant to be built in Texas in the late eighties and early nineties. Construction on the accelerator was suddenly halted in 1993, when the United States Congress cancelled the project due to budget concerns.

At the congressional session where they voted on terminating the project, they called on some of the physicists involved to give testimony. Specifically, they asked those physicists whether the project would be worth the budgeted $4.4 billion investment in basic research.

Evidently, the physicists — who launched into explanations of how the accelerator was supposed to work and what they hoped it would find — gave the congressmen and women the wrong answer. Not only was construction halted, but congress actually put money into filling some of the tunnels that had already been dug.

The physicists had answered the how and the what, but not the why.

“And that is how,” Dr. Kaku said at the end of the story, “physicists learned that they need to be able to sing for their supper.”

What a timely message. Now more than ever, scientists are learning that not only do they need to do research, but they also need to defend its worth.

And what a timely place to hear that message. Because, just a week and a half after Dr. Kaku spoke at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, the Society returned to Pittsburgh for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the modern iteration of the National Science Fair that Dr. Kaku competed in back in 1963.

In our modern world, it’s not enough for burgeoning scientists to learn how to do research; they also need to learn to communicate that research to a broad audience. And that’s exactly what the Intel ISEF does: it provides our students with a forum to talk science — not just with the notable scientists serving as judges, but also with their peers and with the public.

Over and over again, I hear from our alumni that their most powerful experiences at our competitions came from talking to everyday people about their projects. Not about the nitty gritty details of their projects — about the how — but about why they did their project: why they’re passionate about their research, and why they think that research is important.

Which gives me great hope for the future of science and research, even in a time when scientists need to “sing for the supper.”

Because maybe the next time scientists are called before the United States Congress to defend a major investment in basic research, they’ll have gone through the Society’s competitions. And just maybe, next time they’ll be able to answer the why.

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