On the 17th of February 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy. His mouth had been tied shut, denying him the possibility to speak out. His crime was that, as a scientist, mathematician and philosopher, he had dared to say that the stars in the heavens were actually suns with planets, and that those planets also carried intelligent life. He also claimed that the intelligent life on those planets were God’s creatures as well as humans.
Galileo Galilei was condemned as guilty of heresy on the 22nd of June 1633 for daring to claim that he had proof that the earth indeed circled the sun. His sentence was house arrest for the rest of his life.
One would think that persecution of science and scientists were a thing of the past, at least in our so called enlightened Western World. Sadly that is not true.
The 16 year old scientist Kiera Wilmot in Bartow Florida was expelled and arrested after performing the classical “erupting volcano” experiment. On the 29th of April 2013 she placed a small piece of aluminum foil in a small bottle filled with toilet bowl cleaner. This caused a small exothermic reaction and the lid popped off with a puff of smoke. No big harm done and no-one was ever in any danger. Certainly there was no intention to expose anyone to danger.
The Principal of the school, Ron Pritchard, was alerted by the school police and decided that action needed to be taken. He had the young scientist handcuffed and arrested, expelled and to top it all off he had her charged on two separate felony crimes, possession and discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device.
Now, there is one thing one need to remember here, she was doing what all curious young scientists do: experiment. We have all done it! So, she is arrested, expelled and charged for doing what she was supposed to do all along. That is persecution of science as we see it.
It also tells something about how much higher Kiera’s understanding of science and chemical practices is compared to the Principal’s. Pritchard should read Homer Hickam’s award-winning book ‘Rocket Boys‘. Perhaps the book can teach him what nurturing true scientists is all about.
In the western societies we tend to uphold scientists as ideals of what our children should aspire to become, but there seems to be a big difference between what we say and what we do. Science in its nature is rather anarchistic and scientists tend to follow their trail of investigation wherever it leads them. In Kiera’s case it led to a small and harmless experiment. Scientists make a nuisance of ourselves. It is the price the world has to be prepared to pay for our invention and theories. Teaching the young budding scientists safety practices is the school’s responsibility: teach, not punish.
The world is filled with professors sitting in high chairs, and to be honest most of us have blown things up on a much grander scale than Kiera did on our path to being stuffed up pompous professors. It is in the nature of science to break things apart, blow things up, and generally explore things that are not commonplace. Like adding toilet cleaner to aluminium foil.
Scientists are a rare breed, still regarded with an element of distrust by the majority non-scientists. We appear to speak english but we have a very strange vocabulary, as impenetrable as secret code to outsiders. Yet society is totally dependent upon science. Fear and distrust of the unusual, combined with dependence, make for reactionary behaviours by politicians and their public employees. Kiera’s unjust punishment leaves the impression that science is still regarded as magic in Florida.
If America allows this politically instigated madness to persist it will find its future scientific efforts severely compromised. USA needs to nurture its young scientists as never before in its history. Research in USA has been desperately short of home grown talent for decades. Those of us with internation research experience are familar with visiting USA labs that have a dozen or more scientists recruited from across the planet, with just one USA-national, usually the fund-raiser. That will change. The USA, like the UK, is now a long, long way down the peck order in teaching outcomes in science and math education. Asia and Europe leave us behind. As the Asian and BRIC economies race ahead with growing their own science, they will offer their own scientists attractive opportunities. Recruitment by USA from overseas will suffer. So America needs it Kieras, all of them.
So here’s a message to Kiera: science is international and the world wants you, and young people like you. As many as we can get. Even if your home country does it very best to put obstacles in your path, don’t whatever you do give up on your ambition to become a scientist-engineer. Its a passport to freedom. And to be honest, a lifetime of satisfying your curiosity.
Worryingly, the quality of the students attending Universities in the west has sunk both in terms of knowledge and in terms of imagination. The learning processes that encourage imagination and innovation are imossible to teach. Rather, they need to develop through curiosity and experiment, in our youth. Kill that inherent desire to ‘find out what happens’ and you kill a scientist. Kiera Wilmot is exactly the type of student we dearly wish to have at our Universities, instead we try to squash her natural curiosity, imagination and brilliance. What we find most galling is that she was banned from learning and knowledge by her school. The denial of knowledge is a horrible thing.
No, we have not learned anything from that faithful day when the tongue-tied Giordano Bruno burned at the stake. Shame on us, shame for the world.
CARL REHNBERG, PhD, Assistant Professor
PETER H COBBOLD, PhD, Emeritus Professor