Good luck with getting a nation that ranks 31st in math and 23rd in science among developed countries to care about a “Higgs boson.” The champagne bottle popping of old White guys doing their old White guy jig over the “God particle” goes largely unnoticed by millions who glance at it on cable news.
Part of the problem, of course, is how these cats explain it. Scientists want you to get excited, but they end up ruining it in muddled caution and scrambled hypothesis. “It looks like a Higgs; it quacks like a Higgs; but we need DNA tests (more data) to make sure it is the Higgs,” was Michael Turner, a University of Chicago physicist to The Washington Post recently. Well, is it a Higgs or not? And, are we settled on calling it a “God particle,” which is a lot closer to something the average person can understand?
The other part of the problem is our national science policy – or lack of it. This is the country that, literally, celebrated the death of its space program. We cheered and gawked at the sight of the shuttle being towed to storage. Note: it didn’t even fly on its own when it circled the nation’s Capitol.
Having a Commander-in-Chief who is a reported sci-fi and comic geek won’t be enough. He runs into an audience of deficit-obsessed partisans who believe in such things as the non-existence of climate change despite abundant evidence. Passing anything that requires investment in those things that make America great – such as research and development and expanding programs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) – becomes an exhausting legislative enterprise.
When you’re dealing with folks who bash women amputee war heroes, what do you expect? Lack of imagination and focus creates an atmosphere of embraced meanness and cynicism on Capitol Hill. Reduced IQ is not far behind. That leads to dramatic reductions in budgets for critical agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Since 1960, U.S. investment in research and development has declined by two-thirds.
While NASA’s budget is only 1% of the federal budget, constituents complain that it’s too much while we rot on recession. Many laughed hysterically when former House Speaker now defunct Republican candidate Newt Gingrich had the gall to suggest we build a moon base. Pundits who lament our global STEM standing giddily exchanged jokes with late night comedians in one very anti-science stone throwing session at Gingrich.
You can’t have it both ways. Either you do want more American kids interested in math, science and engineering or you don’t. Crippling their imagination by ridiculing the prospect of space exploration and advancement – as if the Earth were flat and the center of the universe – is as egregious as burning books. Seriously: are you in or are you out?
Sadly, it actually makes you miss the Cold War because that seemed like a great motivator. Now, we excel in mass denial. A small satellite called Sputnik appeared to push us to the moon 55 years ago; yet, the three Chinese astronauts that just returned from a space station prototype barely got a sneeze in American media.
Our space program is something of a global laughingstock as our astronauts hitch rides on Russian rockets. Instead, we seem fairly content with private contractors and billionaire investors making our next-level discovery decisions for us. How privatized space travel ends up is anyone’s guess, including who benefits. It is the fulfilled fantasy of many a sci-fi flick from Aliens to Avatar: scenarios of greedy, carnivorous corporate space explorers conquering the universe one light year at a time and with little government oversight or incentive to uplift the rest of the planet.
Of course, we’re too preoccupied with the monotony of monthly jobs reports and the desperation of our bad finances to worry about stuff like space, science, math and other things that make human civilization tick. We talk on smartphones and enjoy modern conveniences as if they appear from thin air. Little thought goes into how the flat screens we love to watch in the Best Buy showroom are getting thinner, lighter … and cheaper. We are an app-happy society, yet most of us know nothing about why apps exist in the first place. But, on a more dangerous level, we are no longer driven by a national motivation to reach beyond our current reality and our planet.
It’s fascinating to watch us get excited over technological toys that we make no effort to know anything about. Even more fascinating is when we throw them away after they’ve reached the outer edges of their warranty or we get trapped into the next great marketing gimmick. Hey, don’t blame the kids if they prefer an X-Box to your star-gazing hobby.