The Glittering Prizes
Every few months, American newspapers publish another dreary indicator of the country's deepening scientific ignorance. In knowledge of chemistry, a 1988 study showed, American students placed eleventh on a list of thirteen developed countries; in biology, they finished dead last. A 1990 report even found that only 45 percent of Americans are aware that the Earth revolves around the sun once a year.
These reports not only wound our pride, they show that America is losing its economic and political dominance. Such slippage would begin to eat away at the well-being of every American just as Britain's decline as an empire sapped some of the sweetness out of the lives of its people. For the vaunted American life-style depends on a powerful engine of productivity, a stalwart military arsenal, a great network of hospitals and medical providers, a genius for churning out the conveniences that give life its savor; all of these are the result of America's ability to generate scientific discoveries and harness technology to them.
"Once upon a time, American science sheltered an Einstein, went to the moon, and gave to the world the laser, electronic computer, nylons, television, the cure for polio," said Dr. Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize—winning physicist, in 1990 as he took the helm of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the country's largest science organization. "Today we are in the process, albeit unwittingly, of abandoning this leadership role."
The picture is bleak, but not entirely so. There are places all around the country that show us a way out of the gloom, schools that year after year teach students how to do pioneering scientific research. I learned about them by taking a close look for several