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May 30, 2008

Meet the Pioneers

Walking into the session while hearing "Weird Science" playing meant WSF aimed to attract a younger crowd. Which was certainly the case with "Pioneers in Science" where a group of teens in the audience giggled while admitting they belonged to the Robotics Team, and high-schoolers got to ask the pros about neutrinos and artificial intelligence. It was all moderated by MTV's (and now Planet Green's) SuChin Pak, who yelled, "Hello, Rock Stars!" as the panel took the stage.

Up first was Leon Lederman -- not quite a rock star, though cell phone cameras lit up as he took his seat. Lederman won a Nobel Prize in 1988 for his work with neutrinos, which he defined in lay terms as "very, very small." He spoke passionately on his love of physics, which he believes should be taught as early as the 9th grade, as it forms the building blocks of other branches in science. "If you ask a question about chemistry, you have to turn to physics -- how atoms work -- it all goes back to physics."
I can see his point to a degree, though I must confess I am relieved Leon Lederman did not develop my high school curriculum. But he added, "It's not easy to teach science. It's not about relaying facts and dates, but it's the understanding of why things happen. It can be fascinating."

Lederman was undaunted while addressing the crowd of youngsters: "The rewards of science are so great. You have knowledge no one else does." But it was a question from a woman in the audience that left him briefly rattled. Regarding his book The God Particle, she asked, "What is your idea of God?" "I don't have an idea," he finally answered. "All I can say is science is based on proof, measurement and observation, and leave it at that."

Next was Cynthia Breazeal, a roboticist from MIT. "I was like a lot of girls in that I originally wanted to be a vet or a doctor," she began, which was a statement I liked to hear. Breazeal continued that she thought of being an astronaut, but it was robotics which captured her imagination.

A student asked, "What breakthroughs do we need to have a C... C-3 ..." Breazeal added the PO and affirmed, "We need a lot of breakthroughs. We need robots that have a social structure. How will they be able to react to entities that can change their minds? How do they make inferences? They need social common sense." She added, "It will require advancements on many fronts, but to be a scientist or an engineer is to be an optimist."

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