Science Fair

The official source for information about Google's Science Fair

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Curiosity driven science

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Editor’s note: We’ve invited guest blogger Rolf Heuer, Director General of CERN, the European Centre for Particle Physics - and one of the Google Science Fair finalist judges - to talk about how his passion for Science developed. To learn more about CERN’s big experiments check out our interview with physicist Tara Shears.

Google asked me to write a few lines about why I became a judge for the Google Science Fair, and they asked that I talk about what inspired me to go into science. When I was young I remember being passionate about two things. One was my local football team, VfB Stuttgart, and the other was a desire to know what things are made of at the smallest scales.

I’m not the first to ask that question, far from it. The idea of atomism – that there’s a smallest possible piece of any given substance – goes back to Leucippus and Democritus in ancient Greece. That people have been asking such questions for so long makes me think that this kind of curiosity is not just the preserve of scientists, but is part of what makes us all human.

My intuition is backed up by evidence: whenever we ask people what they think of us at CERN, they always say that while our science is sometimes hard to follow, our mission to understand the fundamental nature of the universe is an important one. People support curiosity-driven science.

When I was young, I never thought of myself as a junior scientist, I was just curious. The ‘research tools’ I chose to satisfy my curiosity were construction sets like LEGO. I would spend hours experimenting with them. Most of the time, I’d fail to produce what I was aiming for at the first attempt, but with perseverance I usually got there. Again, I have the impression that I was not alone. For others, chemistry sets or microscopes took the place of my construction sets, but it seems to me that most of the children I grew up with were behaving scientifically one way or another. I think that all children are natural scientists, but as we grow up, many of us seem to disengage. That’s one good reason why I’m judging the science fair: I think it’s a great way to promote and sustain interest in science at a crucial age.

The thing that inspires me about the Google Science Fair is that it’s all about encouraging young people around the world not to forget how to think and behave scientifically. It’s about science bringing people together, and it’s about encouraging young people to design a scientific procedure and follow it through from start to finish. As a judge, I’ll be looking out for projects that push the limits. If there are setbacks along the way, I might well consider that to be a plus, because just as I discovered with my construction sets as a child, it’s through such experience that we progress.

One of my greatest dreams is for science to play a much bigger role in society. Of course it already does in terms of the gadgets we use and the things we all take for granted, but I also want people to talk about science the way they talk about football. If I walk down the street and ask people what inspires them it would be great to get the answer ‘soccer teams and science fairs’ on equal footing. Science deserves to be up there at the top of the popular agenda. Am I dreaming? Maybe, but I think that initiatives like the Google Science Fair can do much to make this dream a reality.

Posted by Rolf Heuer, Director General of CERN