As staff scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Dr. Don Lincoln “seeks to understand the deepest and most fundamental rules that govern the universe.” If you’re looking for someone who understands how the universe was formed, and in fact, how we can recreate it, Lincoln is your man (check out his interesting and fun TED talk on this very subject). He helped an international team discover the Higgs boson particle, which has been searched for since the turn of the 20th century, when scientists were trying to understand atoms.
When it comes to sharing the world of physics, Lincoln is also at the forefront. Whether it’s writing books [Understanding the Universe (2004, revised 2012), The Quantum Frontier (2009) and Alien Universe (2013) as well as co-authoring more than 500 scientific publications], giving TED talks, creating videos for the Fermi YouTube channel, delivering lectures, or blogging for NOVA, Lincoln goes to great lengths to help everyday people learn about and understand the importance of physics in our day-to-day world. In fact, his YouTube video on the Higgs boson is internationally the most viewed video on the subject and was hosted on the U.S. Department of Education Office of Science web page. It has also been translated into several languages.
As for teaching, Lincoln describes his focus as “untraditional,” yet he has a pretty great track record there as well. In fact, he once taught a five-day enrichment class for honors students at the Oklahoma Scholar-Leadership Enrichment Program (OSLEP). After the class, one of the students changed their major from law to astrophysics.
It’s my pleasure to share today’s Daily Edventure with Dr. Don Lincoln.
What drew you to your field? Why is it important to you?
What brought me to science was my insatiable curiosity. I am simply one of those people who can’t leave a mystery unsolved. That’s what made me a scientist. What drives me to communicate science is that when I was a kid, this was no less true. However, I came from a non-academic family. For instance, my Dad never finished high school. My Mom (who did) tells me that by about junior high, she was finding it hard to answer my questions. And the town I lived in was rural and poor. The teachers knew more than my parents, but it didn’t take long for me to start pushing them beyond what they had learned.
So I turned to scientists who had written popularizations: Carl Sagan, James Burke, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, etc. It is because of people like that that I eventually became a scientist. So I’m paying a debt. Somewhere, there is some kid in some isolated town, with nobody around them who can answer their questions who might find in my writings something that will open an entire new world to them.
Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?
I’ve been lucky over the years to have lots of good and caring teachers. None of them stand out uniquely. Perhaps my favorite teacher was Robin Tulloch, my high school English teacher. He had a well-honed knack at taking cocky students down a notch or two, but not by belittling them, but by challenging them to be as good as they thought they were.
Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education. What has changed as a result of your work?
I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything to advance innovation in education, at least not in the traditional sense. I have tried to employ modern technology, both the WWW and Web-2, to educate the public about particle physics.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
I apply technology in many innovative ways to support my research. Particle physics research requires that we use the fastest electronics and crunch a ridiculous amount of data.
What is your country doing well currently to support education?
The US has an admirable goal of trying to educate all students to grade level. Unfortunately, as mentioned below, this is also the prime problem of US education policy.
How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?
Sadly, my country is following an ill-conceived path. As an American scientist who is fond of critical thinking and informed inquiry, the legislation No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been something of a disaster. There is no question that an ideal world would have an electorate who had a mastery of basic English and mathematics. However, this is an unachievable goal. Some students are not native English speakers. Some suffer from significant developmental disabilities. Some live in profoundly poor conditions. To require schools to overcome these conditions guarantees that a larger fraction of funding is provided to a smaller number of students. The tragedy of this fact is that the needs of these students are often different than what NCLB requires that they learn. In addition, because the teachers are required by law to get every student to grade level, it is natural that they focus on the ones who need the most help to achieve that goal. It is therefore unsurprising that they must skimp on the other students. Thus, critical thinking and informed inquiry are less and less important in modern curricula.
It would be better if American education policy accepted the fact that different students have different needs. The “one size fits all” policy guarantees that we will inefficiently spend our resources. Some students need advanced academic training. Some need technical skills. And some just need life skills. We must remember that thriving in the 21st century means different things for different people.
About Don Lincoln
- Birthplace: New York City, New York
- Current residence: Chicago, Illinois
- Education: Ph.D.
- Website I check every day: http://news.sciencemag.org/
- Person who inspires me most: Carl Sagan for communication and Enrico Fermi for thinking/science
- Favorite childhood memory: Countless hours reading all manners of things.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Geneva, Switzerland.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? Every day, talking to my son, who is a genuinely funny kid.
- Favorite book: That’s hard. Mostly I read history or science popularizations. Any book that teaches me something or makes me think is my favorite at the time.
- Favorite music: Baroque chamber music. More modern music would be Jethro Tull.
- What is the best advice you have ever received? Do what you love.
- Your favorite quote or motto: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt