Wish to improve STEM? Then, improve your heroes.

Ever heard of Eli Yablonovitch? The Newton Medal?

Right, nor had I.

London’s Institute of Physics has named Professor Yablonovitch of UC Berkeley as this year’s winner of theNewton Medal, which alongside the Nobel Prize, is the most prestigious award in the field of physics. His achievement has been the creation of photonic crystals, which essentially manipulate light like the semiconductor redirects electricity.

The announcement of the winner of this award should be the news of the week, and Yablonovitch should be a household name. Sadly, but predictably, neither is true.

Much is made of the vicious cycle of media, advertisers, and public desire perpetuating the imbalanced and misplaced values of society. We are a society whose household names are athletes, celebrities, and CEOs. And then, as if shocking, America moans about lagging in the STEM fields, how our students languish, how our parents and teachers fail.

As often as jarring and upsetting items like war and violence take the headlines, in general people are in turn soothed by the opiates of celebrity and professional sport, held in awe by money and power. Not that it’s bad to have Lebron James or Tom Brady as your role models, but for the kids in 3rd grade science class, becoming a physics professor is more of an attainable goal than being voted into the Hall of Fame.

The other household names we have in the States are the captains of industry. While it can be noble to aspire toward being a top-notch entrepreneur or business leader, our elders might guide our youth toward the proper discrimination of which business leaders and politicians have done it the right way.

The cult of Steve Jobs is astonishing; even four years after his passing, he seems as alive and vibrant as Elvis. Yet, a glance at his biography will make it clear that he was not the role model for how to treat people. He was a leader of men as long as you were aligned with his singular vision. Yet, if you like Apple products, he is your deity.

vivekstemblog.jpg

Any teacher through secondary education will readily concur about how hard it is to make science sexy, and that it’s rather easier for a student to exalt Beckham over Yablonovitch, and gravitate toward a soccer ball than an abstract confusing cube full of symmetrical holes.

Which means it’s all the more impressive the deceptively effortless manner in which Bill Nye and Neil Tyson have brought science into the popular conscience. One can only hope that they have proved that making science accessible and digestible to a mass audience can be as lucrative as it is fulfilling.

Lest I risk hypocrisy, I must admit that I couldn’t name any scientists who came after James Watson. I can mention Higgs-Boson in passing, but my knowledge of it is scarcely beyond “the god particle.” And I fancy myself as having an above average awareness of current events. So where does this leave the people who have nothing more than television and sporting events as background noise?