Thursday, February 21, 2008

A New, Improved Carl Sagan

I first started paying close attention to Nobel Prize Winner in Physics John Mather after a lecture at the Goddard Memorial Symposium last year. He's a fine public speaker -- especially for a physicist. He also seemed like a friendly guy -- at least on the podium. During his talk he displayed at one point photos of members of his team. I recognized one, Steve Leete, from my time at Goddard. I asked Steve what kind of guy Mather was -- besides being a brilliant physicist. He told me he was a really nice guy who listened to people, freely gave credit where it was due to team members and was a "real Boy Scout."

Many people note several problems with academia today. Undergraduate students are almost an afterthought. Graduate students are all too often treated as close to slave labor. Teaching is held in low regard. Listening to students -- essential for really good teaching -- is all too often neglected. And we wonder why students depart from such difficult fields as physics for more remunerative career paths.

But there are alternative models that seem to work. And John Mather seems to have first benefited from them and could now pass on the things he has learned. Here's a bit of John's biography, along with some comments of my own.

John grew up in a small town in then (possibly still) rural north New Jersey. Newton High School which he attended still has only 901 students according to Wikipedia. Hmm. Many observers now think that the smaller high school does a much better job of listening to students. Administrators and other school leaders get to know their students better. Teachers spend more time teaching and less administering. They also interact with other teachers who are considerably different from themselves. They're more likely to find out what Sally and John are doing in other classes and activities. It's also easier for parents -- especially intelligent parents -- to interact with the school. The school is nearby. The school's staff are people who are part of the larger community.

After high school, John did not attend a large research university. He went to the private Swarthmore College, current student population 1,500. Small schools like Swarthmore and Vassar College where I spent a year emphasize undergraduate education. While research is done by faculty, teaching is given highest priority. People who attend such schools pick up better listening and communication skills. The comments I made about John's high school apply just as well to places like Swarthmore.

By the time John hit the major research establishments of U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, his character had been formed in major ways. He had picked up skills that students who attended large institutions have much more difficulty learning. Also, by reaching Berkeley when he did, he escaped to some extent the problems that have come to engulf contemporary academia. Weren't there protests at Berkeley in the late 60s? There certainly were. While lots of people blame the students for not respecting authority, some of us note that faculty respect for students had begun to drop earlier -- possibly as a result of the schools becoming too big with too high a focus on research and too little on teaching.

Perhaps it is time for John Mather to become the new Carl Sagan. There's one advantage John might have right off the bat. It would be very hard for people to say he wasn't a real scientist. Since he listens to people, it might be possible for him to use his own life story to instruct others in ways that he developed.

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