Why We're Failing in Math and Science

Norman Mailer’s brilliant novel Why Are We in Vietnam? doesn’t talk explicitly about the Vietnam war; it tells a story about American culture and the American psyche, thereby producing a devastating critique of the war with the title and last line alone.

In a similar way, it may be easier to understand why America is falling behind at math and science with a few simple stories.

Last week, Robert Bruce Thompson, author of An Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, wrote a guest blog post on makezine.com, Home Science Under Attack, which told the sad story of how a retired chemist was arrested and his lab confiscated because he was doing experiments:

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports that Victor Deeb, a retired chemist who lives in Marlboro, has finally been allowed to return to his Fremont Street home, after Massachusetts authorities spent three days ransacking his basement lab and making off with its contents.
Deeb is not accused of making methamphetamine or other illegal drugs. He’s not accused of aiding terrorists, synthesizing explosives, nor even of making illegal fireworks. Deeb fell afoul of the Massachusetts authorities for … doing experiments.

Authorities concede that the chemicals found in Deeb’s basement lab were no more hazardous than typical household cleaning products. Despite that, authorities confiscated “all potentially hazardous chemicals” (which is to say the chemicals in Deeb’s lab) from his home, and called in a hazardous waste cleanup company to test the chemicals and clean up the lab.

Pamela Wilderman, the code enforcement officer for Marlboro, stated, “I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation.”

Allow me to translate Ms. Wilderman’s words into plain English: “Mr. Deeb hasn’t actually violated any law or regulation that I can find, but I don’t like what he’s doing because I’m ignorant and irrationally afraid of chemicals…”

I forwarded this message to Dave Farber’s IP list (which is now searchable via markmail, the amazing mailing list search engine!), and got back some great stories that I wanted to share.

Armando Stettner wrote one story that illustrates just how much our culture has changed. His story also involves the cops, but here, they understand and support science. Too bad that was 40+ years ago:

When I was about 13 or so, I also had a chemistry set in my
basement. I was living on Long Island – Freeport, to be exact. I
also remember the hobby shop with ALL sorts of glassware and little
labeled bottles of chemicals. I had some really neat stuff: all
sorts of chemicals – I seem to remember potassium ferrocyanide with
which I did some chemoluminescence (I think that’s one of the
ingredients), sodium in liquid form, various acids, a few rolls of
magnesium – not to mention all the paraphernalia: lots of pyrex
stuff, triple beam balances, etc. All the chemicals were neatly
arranged in this cabinet.

One day, I had mixed a concoction and was carrying it (premixed!) in
a tin coffee can. Myself and a friend were carrying the stuff to
the train tracks to test it out (light it) where it was relatively
safe. The stuff started getting warm but I thought it was the sun
heading the can up. Then it started getting REALLY warm. As it got
hot, I dropped it in the middle of the street. The stuff flashed
over. It was VERY cool.

But, I decided I didn’t want to stay around any more and left.

Unfortunately for me, this all occurred in front of the house of
someone who knew me (she was a ‘friend’ of my parents). She called
the cops.

The Freeport police came to my house questioned me and my parents,
joined in a little while by some county detectives. They were very
polite. We took them down to the basement where I showed them all
the stuff. The uniformed police left and the detectives continued
to look at all the stuff and ask questions. They called somebody to
ask some advice. It turns out they called the county labs. The guy
got off the phone and asked ‘you’re not making any drugs down here
are you?” I said no!! He smiled – he winked at my parents. Then
he said the most unexpected thing: he said the gang at the labs
offered to give me a tour of the labs anytime I wanted.

Then they left asking me to be careful. For me, it was actually a
positive experience.

Today, I’m sure I’d face a visit from the Hazmat teams and the DHS.
And, because of the triple beam balance, my house (or my parents’)
would be confiscated under the forfeiture rules.

At Maker Faire earlier this year, Robert Bruce Thompson gave a talk (video unfortunately truncated at both ends) that highlighted how attitudes towards chemistry have changed since he was a kid, starting with a tour of the powerful chemistry sets available in 1964 (courtesy of the Sears Catalog), and tracing the dumbing down and rising fear of liability that doomed them, until, as Kevin Kelly noted in a recent review of Robert’s book, we reached “the so-called chemistry sets today which boldly (and insanely) advertise they contain ‘No Chemicals!'” (Review sent out in Cool Tools email, up on the Cool Tools site soon.)

Why are we failing at math and science? Because it isn’t fun any more. When you put safety on the highest altar, what do you give up? When fear of lawsuits — not to mention fear of technology — drives product design, marketing, and public policy, you eliminate science at its roots, in the natural experimentation of kids who want to know how the world works.

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  • I don’t think it’s the theoretical Average American who is afraid of science and chemicals like these, but their elected officials. Nobody wants to get dinged by DHS and disgraced in office.

    Our fear is pathetic, and it will eventually cost America dearly, especially in the areas of the sciences, in which we are already falling grimly behind other industrialized nations. Safety at the cost of prosperity. Safety at the cost of knowledge. Sad.

  • Nice. See also the Gever Tulley TED talk “5 dangerous things you should let your kids do.”


  • Colin

    It is truly sad. I was Homeschooled and I hope to Homeschool my own children to give the opportunity to experiment with nature, but it seems we are regulating innovation out of the hands of the hobbyist.
    Not only are chemicals and test equipment subject to seizure by the government, but they are increasingly hard to get your hands on in the first place. It’s to the point that many chemical supply companies won’t sell glass ware and chemicals to individuals for fear of loosing their licenses.
    Computers continue to be sold to hobbyists even though the potential for wrong doing is present.
    If not all programmers are hackers, why are all chemists bomb makers?

  • > When fear of lawsuits — not to mention fear of technology — drives product design, marketing, and public policy, you eliminate science at its roots

    It’s a terrible tragedy, to be sure. But companies are shielding themselves in this way because in the past, people sued, and won.

    We are all to blame, as we are in so many things, because our sense of fault and acceptable risk has been mutated in the past several decades from something that serves us to something that rules us.

  • Curtis

    I call BS on this one. I’ve seen too many smart and engaged students grow up to become luddites as their religious brainwashing takes hold.

    The reasons the US is failing at math and science have nothing to do with “fun” and everything to do with superstition. Most ‘Merkins believe in a non-existent-invisible-sky-fairy that will punish any who dares to actually think.

  • Patrick

    Great story…

    Don’t base your beliefs on Massachusetts alone, they’re all completely insane there and have lost their way – I’m serious. Great people, maybe this scientist excluded, are fleeing Massachusetts due to its incestuous level of corruption. Bright citizens can’t take it anymore and are moving to the borders to do business across state lines… etc, digressing here…

    “No Chemicals!” What a load of crap… it’s as if the companies want not only to discourage one from experimenting, but they’re actually saying *don’t do chemistry because we think chemistry is wrong*…

    This story appears as if it has Turing roots… I’m sure you know his tribulations – tortured scientist for who he was, and absolutely critical to the field computer science.


  • Yes, and it extends to most aspects of our lives. We allocate resources very ineffectively all over the place – both with respect to our treasures and our risk aversion.

    In most cases where “safety” is an issue, we unreasonably focus our money and attention towards the “interesting/provocative” threats and ignore many cheap fixes.

  • Richie

    This one is withe the FEDs. Here is the link: http://www.caedefensefund.org/.

  • lr

    I feel that another reason America is failing in math and the sciences is the simple fact that the U.S. clings to the idiotic English system of measurement.

    Children are rational beings, i.e., they always want to know why something is the way it is. With the English system, no one can really explain why there are 12 inches in a foot, and 36 inches in a yard, and 5280 feet in a mile, and how many “fluid ounces” are in a cup, or how many cups in a gallon, etc., etc.

    When kids start to deal with this stuff most of them get immediately turned off. Why? Because there is no system or formula for learning it, you just have to memorize it. Kids then think it is completely stupid, and they are correct!

  • Clif Brown

    Unfortunately, it isn’t the world it was back then. We are far less unified in thought than we were. This is good as far as racial prejudice and homophobia go but bad in that we don’t trust our fellow citizens. In addition we are far more world aware than we were then. Both local and international news have blossomed. People are very aware now of the dangers of chemicals, both from a general environmental standpoint and because we’ve heard of people out there, including teens, who just might try to blow something up. Slaughters in schools? Mailing bombs? That would have been beyond imagination in the early 60’s.

    We’ve become both more civilized and less at the same time.

    As for science and math, they are still as fascinating as ever but there are many other attractive options competing with them. Kids back then often faced boredom that drove them to experiment just to find something to do. Heck, one might even pick up a book and read on a dull day. Now boredom has vanished and there are 20 ways to entertain yourself at any moment.

  • Falling behind in math and science is a common statement made nowadays. The bigger question is whether or not Americans are falling behind in our analytical abilities. There is no arguing that many great innovations come from math and science, but the restrictions on experimentation cannot possibly be the only thing to blame. Don’t blame authorities for thinking a chemistry lab is a meth lab, blame drug dealers.


  • claymeadow

    ok, not much of a macro-man but will give this one a shot and take one piece of the linked page that was of interest, paraphrasing, “in the States, achievement was affected the most adversely than in other countries if a student was poor.” from personal experience, as a parent at urban school district in Upstate NY. currently, the area is suffering greatly economically from the influx of poor people from NYC who can no longer afford to live in the city due to the re-planning and development of $1M condos in once affordable nyc neighborhoods.

    anyways, despite most of students being in the States less than ten years they perform very well (quite often top % in class) in school; english, math, science, sports, and etc. many students are multilingual (translate for parents and such), so it can’t be easy but they do well. What eventually happens though is, whether it’s at the elementary, middle, or high school level, it does not matter, the student will miss a large portion of school. Maybe the student misses 4, 6, 8 weeks or even more, like half school year, for instance. Almost invariably it will be due to health. Maybe the student is sick or maybe the parents are sick. Sometimes it’s due to not going to the doctor soon enough, or mis-diagnosis/mistreatment due to language barriers for instance. It’s this loss of time that sets the student back greatly, even if they are very good, and is hard to regain. I am not sure if there are programs to help students get up to speed, possibly tutoring but that would require a visit from a tutor to some fairly dubious locations. Broadband tutoring is another option but that would require a complete program to outfit student with pc and broadband at location. As I write, this is probably, just guessing though, why high school graduation now takes 5, 6, and 7 years instead of the traditional 4 years. So, I would look into why good students miss large blocks of school and how to get them back up to speed when they return. Also, on another note, I would take the most needy (so needy they have no expectations at work and become expensive employees), and send them to a place like GE Research & Development for a day a month to clean glass in labs or xerox paperwork so they can absorb work context experience and gain the self-confidence benefits of working at a young age.

  • Words from this feed like ‘dumb down’, fear and superstition seem to all point to one thing – elements of control.

    Slowly are rights are being taken away. Our freedoms are being limited and our creativity being stunted. All for what? All to diminish, decrease and destroy the potential for greatness in man.

    Who is to blame? I believe it’s the institutions that are in power (namely one that starts with the letter “G” and ends with the letter “T”.

    There are even University programs whose system have built in limitations for the expansion of research and in particular knowledge.

    It’s truly sad. It really is. If we are aware that there has been a change in attitude that’s limiting our growth not just as a people or a nation but as a species in general, then what are we as free citizens (I just snickered) going to do about it? What CAN we do about it?

  • Jo

    I think the problem goes deeper. We seem to celebrate idiocy.

    I am all for, actually rather committed to encouraging ‘multiple voices’ but bringing in more voices shouldn’t mean crowding out others.

    We need to be sufficiently patient to listen both to people who get it and people who don’t.

    Good post.

  • claymeadow

    interesting thread to me so i have to respond twice… btw, why go into math, sci, doctor, or lawyer if you can make that type of money working on the web. look at the mac rumors website owner. he gave up being a doctor to run his profitable website. Why be a university professor when you run a profitable ecommerce webiste? etc. Possibly this is one of the many disrupting factors of the Internet, not only old-world-media would be affected (a la’ craigslist) but the very math, sci, and techs would be disrupted in some form too.

  • That’s a good story, and one would like to point to paranoia on the part of government and industry as culprits in the dumbing down of America, but the issue is not as simple as not being able to experience, first hand, with blowing off our own eyebrows.

    How much time would a kid have to work on an at home chemistry set when they’re too busy playing video games, updating their MySpace blog, and texting each other?

    I think we’ll find a combination of factors, including lack of discipline in both school and home to be responsible for much of our failing ability. Lack of discipline, lack of adequate funding for public schools, and wasting school time on matters best left to churches.

  • Wakeup Call

    While this story has nothing to do with math, it does point out a greater lesson:

    When our society becomes more or less tolerant, the biggest losers are those who have no voice in the political process.

    As a result, it’s not much fun being a kid anymore. Because we tolerate child molesters in our neighborhoods, it’s not adults that loose their freedom, its children. They can’t even ride their bikes or walk to school alone anymore. They are steadily being forced into their rooms where they can safely play their video games, neither being bothered, nor bothering anyone else.

    What a sad, sick state of affairs for American children. We have done them a great disservice by eliminating what precious little liberties they once had.

  • Tammy Fields

    Wear a helmet. No bb-guns. No fireworks. Do this, don’t do that, everwhere a sign.

    Any wonder why kids don’t want to do their algebra? Have adults set any example? No. The biggest apparent idiots of all are the self-absorbed, sports fanatic, sex-crazed parents and marketers in America. We are the laughing stock of the civilized world. Americans from the top down have an enormous lack of will power and intelligence. 40% of the country is obese, driving around in their cars and commutes, wasting time on their stupid cellphones.

    If I was a kid today, I would say “screw you” with a capital “F” to all the idiot adults who try to tell me what’s right, including most of the posters above.

    Algebra. Right. Now there’s a high priority for kids.

  • Angie Dregus

    What came first, the stupid kid or the stupid parent.

  • Jes

    The simple fact about child molesters and kidnappers is that the FBI’s own statistics show that things weren’t any better and possibly slightly worse *during the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s* in terms of per capita crime risks to children.

    The paranoia of child rearing is just that: during the “good old days” it wasn’t really safer yet today those who lived “at risk” by todays standards turned out fine. But it’s not clear that the next generation will. You can’t learn anything without risk and failure being reality – that is how our biology and neurology is defined.

    Even if some US kids manage to become interested in and excel in science and engineering, the numbers to maintain a critical mass to assure a US position as technology leader are almost certainly not there. Especially when one considers the population of places like India or China are ~10x of the US *and* their share of science and engineering grads are far higher as a national percentage than the US.

    What apparently is not understood by enough people, politicians and business leaders is that the US economy is predominately based on technology – compared to places like India we are labor poor so technology is the leverage substitute of raw labor.

    However technology creation is not itself a mechanistic process. It requires both a social and a technological infrastructure to form a “culture medium” to growth new technologies. This culture medium in the US has been largely eliminated. Without out there will be innovation “somewhere else” but not in the US. And it is that act of creating innovation “somewhere else” that enriches the culture medium in that “somewhere else” rather than here, which in turn increases the odds that a multiplicity of successive innovations will occur there rather than here.

    That might sound OK – isn’t it just an economic balancing of “factors of production”? Not exactly. Innovation is a discontinuity in time that does not resemble the equilibrium simplicity of mature product economics on which such a “balancing” based. It is also the only place in time and space where high growth and high profits are possible.

    If you choose not to manufacture, then you choose not to be a technology nation. If you choose not to be a technology nation you choose not to be on that discontinuity of innovation. And if you choose not to be there you choose to be 1) eternally poor, and 2) not in control of your destiny.

    I have no problem with other nations rejecting these end points and wanting to become technology leaders but I find it abhorrent that the US chooses to abandon that position (by ignorance and/or self delusion), simply on basic principles and nationalism but more as it is in direct practical contradiction to any “imperial” rhetoric or goal that has been recently been advanced by some, like the Neocons. The embrace of the contradiction is treasonous itself.

  • Someone In Pittsburgh

    @wake up call

    Violence has actualy been on the decline for the most part of the past 30 years. The 70’s were far more violent for most of the US than today. The FBI has released extensive amounts of research as to why this is happening. There are many theories, very few have to do with the penal system and law enforcement it’s self though.

    Violence towards children and acceptance of child abuse socialy is at an all time low. The reason you think these days were better on these fronts is either A. you werent around then and have little hard facts on the subject, or b. you were young and naive then, most people will remeber thier youth as being better, safer, wealthier than it actually was and will often find themselves wishing for those days, but never realising that those times never existed as you think they did.

    You just like to follow the ever darker news venues fighting for ratings that are fueld by violence and shock. While the actualy amount of violent crime per capita has dropped significantly in reality, in the media world it’s reported on several fold as often, and several times the amount of the “news hour” is spent telling you about it while shunning other things that used to be a vital part of news like scientific activities and local reflection.

  • jesus

    we chiefly lack inquisitive patience. patience, and therefore discipline.

    kids are retards these days: no analytic skills, lackluster critical thinking, fragmented memory, and blind art appreciation. i know, i am a kid. i have peers. they largely suck.

    to see an acute, patient, and creative generation would be to see a revived america.

    art is a great tool. recently we have failed miserably with it.

    our parents are not by any means all too superior however.

  • Daniel

    I don’t think a lot of this is true. My daughter’s science experience in the public schools is much richer than mine ever was. Her classes have been taking twice yearly field trips to the planetarium at the high school since kindergarten. They have done biology experiments at the nearby nature center. In fifth grade the initial month long Science lab was based around a CSI style puzzle to unravel. We don’t have a chemistry set at home but we have electric circuits.

    There are reasons we’re behind in science but it is not just the “it’s not fun” reasons you give. Testing, funding, teacher education and curriculum design and adoption come to mind.

    As to why we are behind in math — that’s a completely different story. I spent some time last year looking at some Japanese elementary textbooks — the difference isn’t just that their books were more attractive and animated — they required deeper thinking on the part of the students and their teachers and parents.

  • shamel

    Why are we failing in math and science?. May be because they are not needed anymore by the average person. Today we have computers and calculators to do the calculations for us.
    This is not an excuse. But it is not easy to convince people if they have all the technology to do the job form them.
    Now we have scripting languages. I think we will have the same problem in programming.

  • Full disclosure: I work in biology. In a lab, in fact, that’s subject to safety standards.

    I find Deeb’s actions in this unethical and I disagree that this story has anything to do with a decline in math and science ability in America. In fact, Deeb stands as an example of the decline of the importance of ethics in this country.

    For the record as well, I’ve lived all over the US and I’ve never seen local government more committed to facilitating research and to science education than I have since arriving in Massachusetts.

    I’ve written more on the Deeb situation at Hyphoid Logic.

  • Mike O’Risal –

    Thanks for the link to your contrary view on the Deeb situation. You make some sense. And it’s certainly worth knowing the bit left out of Thompson’s article, namely that this all was discovered as the result of a fire. Even though I still agree with Thompson that the dumbing down of chemistry sets (and virtually every other “risky” toy that I grew up with) is wrong, the Deeb situation seems less like a good example than once it did.

    That being said, my original point stands. We’ve all experienced the growing power of the nanny state.

    It isn’t just chemistry. Tort lawyers (and greedy plaintiffs) have a lot to answer for, in creating an atmosphere of fear.

    I remember one small personal experience from about 20 years ago, on Prince Edward Island in Canada. I was outside a ranger station with my daughter, then 10, who was climbing high up in a tree. The ranger popped out, and I prepared to be scolded. But he just had a bit more information from our earlier query, and looked on my daughter’s behavior with a smile. It made me realize how much I’d been conditioned to expect the “don’t do that” response from anyone in authority, anyone on whose property I might be. At least at that time, Canada hadn’t yet adopted our culture of fear.

  • Tim,

    As a biologist myself, I’ve certainly noticed that there are times when the government inappropriately interferes with research. A personal example is in my own field work. I research the evolutionary history of fungi and a particular family of beetles about which relatively little is known, making to necessary for me to collect specimens. This, in turn, entailed going through a permitting process that took over four months to complete. That was four months essentially lost during which I could have progressed substantially.

    So far be it from me to disagree that the government can hinder progress due to good intentions and overzealous execution. The Deeb incident, though, isn’t a good example of this for any number of reasons. As I wrote in my blog entry, Deeb’s choice to ignore pre-existing zoning ordinances meant to insure the property and civil rights of his neighbors speaks to a lack of ethical rectitude that, as a fellow scientist, frankly gives me the willies. It gives a measure of evidence, albeit an improper one, to self-appointed “culture warriors” who like to paint we scientists as amoral and uncaring about the well-being of those outside of our own small circle. It’s the last thing we need these days.

  • Bee

    You’re falling behind in science because you’re focusing on the wrong values, it’s a simple as that. Science isn’t about career, fame, or producing applications, it’s about understanding. That’s what your children need to learn. You can’t fake that and there’s no shortcuts to it. Science isn’t a profession, it’s a world view. Learning is hard work, and you can’t sit around waiting for the apple to drop on your head hoping the ingenious idea will follow, you can’t expect children to think critically if they’ve never been taught how to, you can’t expect them to know how to learn if they’ve been spoonfed with constantly shrinking bits and pieces of information without any coherent picture. They will only get lost in a vast sea of information, desperately clinging to easy answers.

    Unless our societies come to value something as old fashioned as wisdom again, the only thing we’ll be producing are games of vanity and fads, cheap entertainment but no progress. Steward Brand said very aptly “Science is the only news” (though I’d want to include arts into that). Science is an endeavor as essential as fragile and needs protection from the sociological quirks we’re subject too.

  • I stand by what I wrote.

    Articles later than the one I responded to have made much of Mr. Deeb having “unlabeled” chemicals in his basement lab stored “unsafely”, but I think it’s significant that no images of these supposed safety violations have been published. Or, if they have been, I certainly haven’t seen them. Nor have we been given any details of these supposed safety violations.

    Acetone? Yes, it’s very flammable. So what? Home Depot sells it in gallon cans, and millions of American homes have cans of it in the basement, sitting right next to paint thinner, turpentine, and other flammable liquids. Not to mention insecticides and other toxic materials. And, in many of those homes, that stuff sits “right next to the furnace”. You’ll note that even such truly unsafe storage very, very seldom causes any problems.

    The articles that defend the Massachusetts authorities invariably talk about zoning violations, which as far as I’ve seen haven’t been estabished. And anyway, the usual response to a zoning violation is a letter, not a warrantless home invasion and confiscation.

    Mr. Deeb (Dr. Deeb?) is a chemist of long experience. Sure, even experienced chemists can do dumb things, and it’s possible that happened here. Possible, but by no means certain. And again, even if he did, that does not justify the Massachusetts authorities invading his home, exiling him for three days, and confiscating his property, all of that without a warrant or due process. In particular, what possible reason did they have for confiscating his lab notes?

    Nothing I have read so far leads me to change my opinion. The Massachusetts authorities panicked when faced with something they did not understand. Simply put, chemicals scared them. If they had followed proper procedures, gotten a warrant, and charged Mr. Deeb with something, I wouldn’t have said a word. But what they did is tyranny by the dictionary definition:

    “Arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.”

  • Tim,

    I spent the last few minutes poking around reviews of Robert Bruce Thompson’s book (not in our local library, unfortunately, or I’d’ve trucked on down to browse it myself), and those reviews raise a question for me:

    Why don’t you republish great out-of-print books on science for the young? In the issue of Make in which Thompson’s book was first mentioned, there was a sidebar about the wonderful chemistry book I first found in second grade, which now sells for hundreds of dollars. (My first copy is gone, my second copy might turn up someday.) That was a wonderful book that explained chemistry (not just chemistry experiments) and helped you set up a safe enough home lab on the cheap.

    The dearth of good science books for the young are one cause of the decline in interest we face. I’d thought of Thompson’s book for my daughter, who starts kindergarten Monday, in her near future. It’s not that book. Where are the books I hope for?

  • John A –

    We’ve certainly been inspired by some of those old books and magazines in developing Make:, and have looked at republishing some of them. However, in some of our other businesses, we’ve found it better to hit the subject afresh. (E.g. at Travelers’ Tales, our classics series just didn’t do well, despite carrying some absolutely amazing titles.) But do feel free to suggest specific books we should look at.

    And yes, Thompson’s book is definitely not for a kindergardener.

    Meanwhile, speaking of science and engineering books for kids, I have to recommend my son-in-law Saul Griffith’s book with spiderman cartoonist Nick Dragotta, Howtoons. And of course, you can view the cartoons online at howtoons.com.

    You can also get a flavor of the book by watching Saul’s Ignite talk at ETech last March. This isn’t for a kindergardener either, but it’s definitely for a younger age than Thompson!

  • I also think that this story is not really related to the “Why we’re failing in maths and science”.

    Other countries with more authoritarian governments, like the ex-USSR and current day China do well in producing good science and maths graduates. So I doubt access to stuff at home is the real problem.

    When I was in school in the UK back in the 1960’s, certainly it was easier to have home chemistry sets, buy or order chemicals to make rockets. But I think that having things to experiment with was more a result of wanting them because we were science orientated, rather than using them and changing our attitudes. Had chemicals not been available, we would have found other things to experiment with.

    I think it was, and still is, a culture issue. Part of it was the times – the space race – and part of it was that science was a viable occupation that commanded respect. Both those factors have largely disappeared today. Certainly both my US born and educated children, now in their teens, have, like most of their peers, never expressed any interest in science. They have never, to my knowledge, ever picked up one of the very many popular science books in my home library, and expressed almost no curiosity at doing a school science fair project. I would characterize it as a “science is uncool” attitude.
    How we change that in our culture is too big a topic to cover in a blog comemnt.

    As to the “unreasoning fear” by authorities, I tend to agree that the US, as well as others, has become more risk averse, certainly more authoritarian. We’ve seen that in spades since 9/11 with ridiculous responses to objects that ‘might have been weapon’. Our daily exposure to airport security screening theater is evidence of that fear. Much as I would encourage experimentation, I am not sure that I necessarily condone all home brew experiments. The rocket experiments I did as a teenager could have been quite dangerous to the neighborhood, and a chemistry schoolmaster I had blew of part of a finger and was fired after his end of term rocketry experiment went wrong in the school play yard. I would also question if I would want kids doing gene splicing experiments in their basements in the next couple of decades. Commercial biotech companies are zoned and regulated, so why should that be evaded by home brew experiments?

  • Sonali

    I think its the “Good Job” syndrome. Kids are praised endlessly- whether they deserve it or not (as the mother of an 8 year old, I see this all-pervasive praising in school and sports). As a result, kids do not put in the extra effort and focus needed to excel.

  • I watched the Robert Thompson video and I would make these comments.

    Was Edison’s lab in a tightly packed neighborhood where an accident could have harmed his neighbors or their property? Or was it in a more isolated property?

    The shelves in Mr Thompson’s kitchen lab appear to have no restraints – in California they would spill the contents onto the floor in the event of an earthquake. (I assume he lives elsewhere).

    I think he does make a very good point about the dumbing down of the contents of the chemistry sets. We certainly haven’t done that with most equipment in a typical garage workshop, of which various power tools are far more dangerous to the individual than these chemistry sets, and it is true that the chemicals we can buy today in stores are far more varied and even potentially dangerous than those available 40 years ago.

  • Tim,

    Possibly it needs an update, but this one was one of those books which made me who I am today.

    Check out the beautiful cover (to say nothing of its alleged copyright status).

    I have my doubts the book was ever banned. Next time I’m back home in Oklahoma, I’ll collect a data point at the school library where I first saw it. It may have been innocently deaccessioned over the years due to being somewhat fragile (which is why I owned two copies.) However, the story would be good for sales, and a look into the question of whether it was ever banned or not might be an interesting story peg for publicizing the reissue. Now all you have to do is put the thing out.

  • I have no idea how Mr. Edison’s lab was situated relative to neighbors, but it really doesn’t matter. The implicit assumption here is that a home lab presents terrible dangers, when in fact the number of serious injuries suffered by people in their own home labs over the entire history of home labs is trivially small compared to the number of high-school football injuries that occur every autumn. And the number of incidents that injured neighbors or damaged their property is so small that I’ve never heard of even one. And that includes a lot of pretty serious home labs. Obviously fewer nowadays, but many more in the past. (And, no, I’m not including meth labs. Those folks are maniacs, not chemists.)

    My shelves are quite secure. They’re 4″ wide, and contain bottles that are mostly about 2″ in diameter. Each shelf can support more than my weight, and I weigh about 240 pounds. We’re in Triad, North Carolina, where a magnitude 3.5 quake is a huge one.

    Even if we did have a quake large enough to knock every bottle off the shelves, and even if every bottle broke, it wouldn’t be much more than a huge mess. Those bottles typically contain 100 mL or less of dilute bench solutions.

  • Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    The implicit assumption here is that a home lab presents terrible dangers, when in fact the number of serious injuries suffered by people in their own home labs over the entire history of home labs is trivially small compared to the number of high-school football injuries that occur every autumn.

    An interesting but meaningless statistic. Would you normalize it for the number of people participating in each activity? Also, note that football injuries do not endanger the neighbors.

  • I certainly don’t want to exaggerate the dangers of home chemistry sets, which is why I mentioned garage workbenches. I would also note that we are quite cavalier in storing gasoline and other inflammable liquids and gases in a garage, plus chemicals and plastics that can give of noxious gases when heated. However, I would note that we did use fume cupboards for quite a few experiments at school, so not having one would require the experimenter knowing what chemicals not to mix, unless the amounts really were very small and the gases could be released to the outside air with a window and fan, and assuming we are not talking about things like nerve gases.

    [As for what can be made – well a UC Merced PhD candidate was arrested recently for stealing lab equipment and chemicals to make a new “super meth”].

    I think it is fair to say that the risks of chemistry experiment accidents are probably overblown, compared to other dangers we face. Arguably the risks of cooking, especially frying over gas, are far more dangerous than the vast majority of chemistry experiments.

  • I don’t necessarily see any one factor contributing to the decline in math and science education. Rather, there are a number of interrelated factors:

    * Education in the US in particular has been held hostage to the twin forces of Texas and California, which mean that grade school and high school curricula in particular have been severely compromised by a fundamentalist agenda. Most textbooks today are poorly written in order to reach the widest possible audience, and these textbooks in turn heavily influence the curricula.

    * Ever higher tuition costs have meant that at the college level, the post-secondary educational system has once again reverted to a process whereby only the wealthiest can get a competitive education. This has frequently translated into a larger number of foreign students who could generally afford to pay these rates, many of whom in turn would take the skills learned back to their country of origin.

    It also means that those people who do go on to earn research degrees have to put themselves into greater debt to do so, and as a consequence, they have to spend more of their life paying that debt off, which is harder to do as a poorly paid researcher.

    * The percentage of women at the university level exceeded 50% in the late 1990s, and is now approaching 60%. However, cultural and sociological factors have subtly discouraged most such women from going into physics, mathematics or engineering.

    * Young men in the late 1990s and early 2000s were often attracted to jobs in the computer field even before graduating from college (and in some cases before graduating from high school), and this pool of talent was in many cases the same ones that would be going into other fields of engineering.

    * Colleges generally apportioned funds to departments increasingly on the basis of attracting private corporate grants, which were usually awarded on the basis of what would return the quickest return on investment. This meant that in general, if you were interested in a field that had little immediate financial payoff (such as high energy physics) the changes that you would be able to get grants for studying in that field were limited.

    * Most states have been forced to deal with crumbling infrastructures, bad debts originating from poor investments, skyrocketing energy costs, and so forth, and typically this has reduced the amount of state funding for the sciences to a trickle. At the federal level of course, unless such research could be immediately capitalized into weapons spending, the level of funding for nearly ANY research was all but eliminated.

    * Low teacher wages at all levels (from elementary to post-graduate) mean in general that those people who train to become teachers are often poorly qualified as scientists or mathematicians, and those who come back into the field can only do so by taking significant financial cuts to their standard of living. (I was fortunate to have a teacher who was a former NASA engineer in high school, who taught me the rudiments of Tensor Calculus as a freshman, and who kindled a lifelong interest in mathematics as a result) – that same person would far more likely have remained in industry in this day and age.

    * Forty years of entrepreneurial boosterism has had the unfortunate side effect of making research for the sake of understanding almost a perversion. The pure academic researcher has practically disappeared; most researchers are at least funded (in many cases directly as employees) by large corporations that were less concerned with advancing science and more concerned with making money. This meant that as a researcher you often have to choose between being ethical and underfunded or being unethical and well-rewarded. When your role models in the field are cynical, its hard for a young person to feel excited about going into the field in the first place.

    * Finally, on the subject of role models, politics plays a big factor. The late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was growing up, represented the zenith of NASA and space exploration in general. The computer revolution of the 1980s and early 1990s was perhaps similar in focus in terms of bringing people into the field. Biotech was highly discouraged in the US after the computer tech nuclear winter, in great part because it ran afoul of too many supposedly ethical issues among the religious right, and energy technology continued to be stymied by those heavily invested in the status quo.

    Couple that with the risk tax (due primarily to the ever-increasing presence of the “risk industry” (the insurance industry) in just about every facet of life) and what you end up with is a culture that has sought to hide risk whenever possible rather than accepting that innovation and risk are inseparable.

  • Hey Tim, don’t you know that it has become trend and fact since 1980’s all experiments like this should be carried out by big labs controlled by big cooperates by the name of public safety and security?

    These hobbyists in science had been becoming witches because they potentially ignore public safety: put public in risk, put their family in risk, and put themselves in risk. Our dear government officers needed to show great care of public safety to give the public some peace in mind in order to win public favor.

    After 9/11, yes, these hobbyists became more dangerous. Because even if they are patriots, their homes could potentially be broken in by terrorists who would took away their wonders of scientific research. Only labs controlled by big cooperates could safeguard the researches. (I don’t want a neighbor who does chemistry experiments except cooking not spicy.)

    Who care whether American is good or bad in science and math? Who care whether the jobs in science and engineering had been taken by foreigners or migrants? At least the big cooperates do not care, as long as they can offer to hire, as long as they have regulated internal security control over the activities of employees, who can blame these big cooperates?

    As mentioned by many commentators above, fear, terror, money and politic played some parts in such trend.

  • Remember the hierarchy of discussion? Ideas, events, people. Kurt Cagle is speaking wisdom.

  • Deeb recently posted his side of the story to as a comment to the Make blog.

    He clarifies one thing I was curious about, the unlabeled containers (variously reported as 1500 unlabeled/improperly stored containers and as 1500 containers, many unlabeled): “…(Labeled) samples, all over, on shelves, on tables and some on the floor, some Jars, quart cans and vials, marked but not labeled, that I carried my experiments in…”

    It’s an interesting read; he’s got a lot of details in there about what work he was doing in the lab.

    – Brian

  • E McElroy

    I’m amused by some of the commentary from people who imagine they know a great deal about the 50s. One individual conveniently divided the population for us into two categories: (1) those who never experienced the 50s and (2) those who were too young to arrive at the same conclusions as the author.

    Another individual thinks that child abuse was more tolerated in the 50s. Not where I was and I spent my youth in several different neighborhoods in Boston and Cambridge, not all of them middle class by any means. Schools were stricter (they still used “the stick” in Boston in the 50s) but there was, nevertheless, the usual mayhem with rowdy kids (among them myself). However, there was no doubt what the behavior standards were and little patience when they were violated. Kids acted up, took the risk, and didn’t whine and run to lawyers when they were punished.

    I haven’t personally examined the FBI crime statistics but if the crime rate is going down that’s understandable. Being reasonably intelligent, most people act to minimize risk. Over the years that’s meant moving families to the suburbs, turning houses into fortresses with high-tech burglar alarms, avoiding high-crime neighborhoods, and even drugging potentially troublesome kids into quiet submission.

    Eight years ago, I spent several days in the “Fort Apache” section of the Bronx speaking with neighborhood people. Many of them told me that residents in the area barricade themselves in their apartments after 6:00 PM for safety. Well, that will certainly lower the FBI’s crime statistics but does that mean life is better than it was in the 50s when people felt safe leaving their homes after 6:00 PM?

    In the 60s, I took a course in Oriental Religion at Boston University with a Chinese professor who lived in the city’s Chinatown district. One day he mentioned that he never locked the door of his home because everyone knew that he had only books in his house and villainous types aren’t interested in books. Do you think he’d lock his door today?

    I could go on but you get the point. Some years back, there was a book called “A Mathematician Reads The Newspapers” about misleading numbers and statistics and the tendency of people to jump to the wrong conclusion. I see where O’Reilly is about to publish a similar book called “Lies, Damned Lies, and Science.” I’m eagerly looking forward to its publication.

    The point is, don’t always leap at the obvious when looking at numbers and statistics. Whether one era is “better” than another strikes me as a question not likely to be answered by a simple perusal of statistics tables – and, of course, what’s “better” for one person might not be for another. For me, the 50s were better.

  • ragtopcaddy

    As I was standing on the train platform this morning, a train whizzed by, a foot away from my nose, at approximately 60mph.

    I thought to myself, “I wonder what the odds are that someone could, at this point in time, get this idea of commuter trains, weighing 100s of tons, passing within inches of dumb citizens, at 60mph, past the wise bureaucrats who are our self-proclaimed protectors?” Then, I thought, “I hope I wasn’t thinking out loud. They’ll probably shut this down!”

    Come to think of it. Disregard this comment, and don’t breathe a word of it to anyone!

  • Ah, the joy of childhood discovery, the joy of play. Sentimental, I know, but play is where genius forms.