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Sean Carroll Talks School Science and Time Travel

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The world of science has two Sean Carrolls. One is an evolutionary biologist. The other is a cosmologist and theoretical physicist, an expert on time and the early moments of the universe. As it happened, the physicist stopped by the offices of The New York Times on a recent March morning. Dr. Carroll, a 43-year-old research professor at the California Institute of Technology, had come to New York for an appearance on "The Colbert Report." He was in town promoting his meditation on the physics of time, a trade book with the clever title "From Eternity to Here."

Q. When you go to a cocktail party, do you tell people that you are a physicist? Some physicists won’t..

A. I do! But I know what you’re talking about. Whenever you say you’re a physicist, there’s a certain fraction of people who immediately go, “Oh, I hated physics in high school.” That’s because of the terrible influence of high school physics. Because of it, most people think physics is all about inclined planes and force-vector diagrams. One of the tragedies of our educational system is that we’ve taken this incredibly interesting subject — how the universe works — and made it boring.

Q. Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize physicist, has proposed that we reform high school science by requiring physics in the sophomore and not the senior year. Will that help — or is it rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

A. I don’t think it’s the right solution. What we need to do is find a new way to teach the spirit of physics. What we do now is water down what professional physicists do and make it into this dry puzzle-solving thing with little pictures of pulleys and things like that. We ought to teach kids more about the Big Bang and entropy and particles. Every high school graduate should know that everything in the universe is made of a handful of particles. That’s not a hard thing to know. But that’s not what’s emphasized.

Yes, there is a quantitative aspect to science that should not be denied, but it can be in the service of interesting rather than boring problems. Ten years after high school, most students are not going to solve a problem with pulleys and levers. But they still might want to know about the expansion of the universe and about cool things in atomic physics and lasers — which they’ll find interesting and fun.
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