Cable's Learning Channel and Nobel laureate show how to have fun with physics

December 21, 1990|By Kenneth R. Clark | Kenneth R. Clark,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate and professor of physics at the University of Chicago, does more than just study subatomic particles. He makes quarks downright cuddly and leptons objects of tantalizing intrigue.

They need better press than they have been getting because America's young, undereducated in virtually every field, are ignoring them in droves. Lederman fears that if the trend continues, the U.S. eventually may become little more than a sprawling, Third World country filled with people unfit to fill a burgeoning demand for scientists and technicians.

"When you look at how U.S. kids are doing [in education], it's somewhere between Burma and Lower Slovenia," he said recently. "The attitude is, 'So what? As long as we have our share of really bright kids, who needs the rest?' That's not valid for reasons you see in the daily newspapers."

Crime, poverty and increasing ranks of the unemployable and the homeless are headlined in those newspapers, and Lederman blamed not only a school system that fails to teach its young, but a society that fails to motivate them as well. As a result, under the aegis of his university's William Benton Broadcast Project, Lederman will seek out the young this year where they are most likely to be found: on TV.

He will bring his unique approach to particle physics to the Learning Channel at 10 a.m. tomorrow and 3 p.m. Christmas Day.

The program, "Quarks: A Christmas Lecture," was inspired by a holiday series launched 125 years ago by William Farraday, who sought to make science palatable to young people in England. The modern version is designed to convince an audience of American kids that science can be fun.

Lederman said they start out believing that, but that teachers, cultural biases and the "media image" soon stamp out their natural interest, especially among women and minorities.

"In earlier grades, children are natural scientists," he said. "What does a scientist do? He asks questions. Kids ask questions all the time -- good, terrific questions: 'What keeps the clouds up there? If I talk too much, will I use up all my words?' But unfortunately, when they get up into school and the teacher's busy and harassed and uncomfortable with science in general, that curiosity is stifled.

"Women and minorities are traditionally underrepresented in math and science," Lederman said.

Grimmer still, he said, is the image of the scientist that the media project to American teens.

"I don't think the media treatment of scientists helps at all," he said. "When was the last time you saw a particle scientist riding off into the sunset, having won the woman?"

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