Rocket Girls are Voracious Readers
"In the book section, there were always these coupons you could clip to join various book clubs and you would send it in and you would get, immediately, your choice of five free books or three unbelievable sets of books, and in return all you had to do was buy three books from the club in the first year or some such. I remember I just sent the coupons off without asking my parents about it, ordered up these sets and then left them holding the bag for the other books. I remember, at a ridiculously young age, reading the entirety of Winston Churchill's six-volume set on the Second World War and Carl Sandberg's four-volume set biography of Lincoln.”
Robert Lefkowitz, 2012 Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Speaking to me about why he became a scientist, Pete Theisinger, Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Project Manager, MER Spacecraft Mission Director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory attributed most of it to reading:
"If you talk to most people in my position who've had my kind of success, [you’ll discover that] they were early readers and voracious readers. Sometimes science fiction, sometimes other things, but the ability to self-educate yourself, your ability to read whatever's available to you and to be interested in doing that, is student skills numbers one, two, and three, and almost nothing else matters. Particularly, nowadays, when you have such tremendous access to material on the web and when you can take the entire MIT catalog and see the classwork on the web for free. That's just an incredible opportunity for kids and for anybody to take advantage of that.
“You've got to be able to read and you've got to find that as a useful tool, and you've got to be committed to that as a tool. I think that to instill that in a student at an early age is really job one. My dad was very big on helping me read. He used to read with me every night. By the time I was in junior high I was going through two, three, four science fiction books a week. That I think is the biggest advice I can give anybody."
Technology, according to Moore’s Law, doubles in capability approximately every 18 months to two years. This means that the graduating scientist cannot possibly leave university knowing all she will need to know over the course of her career. Her strength resides then, not in what she knows today, but rather, in what she can learn tomorrow. Entrepreneur and president of the wireless charging technological company Powermat Dan Schreiber posed the following question to me: “What skills can we instill in our students that are immune to changes in technology?” Surely the first, last and every skill in-between is to be a self-learner.
Robert Lefkowitz who, along with Brian Koblika, earned the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in identifying the G-coupled receptors embedded in cell membranes that are now the means by which many life-saving medications enter cells, would play hooky from school so that he could “stay home and read all day”:
"I was a very precocious reader. I loved reading books about physicians, fiction, novels, Arrowsmith. That's not even fiction because I remember I loved a book called Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. I loved reading books about doctors, especially ones where there was a doctor who was like the hero figure. I read a lot of that. Then I just read very generally. My parents had a lot of books. I remember well feigning illness when I was in public school and to a lesser extent, junior high, so that I could stay home and read all day.”
My teacher and 1981 Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry Roald Hoffmann relates how, as a World War II German-Jewish refugee, two books in particular peaked his interest in science.
"In 1948 or so, when I was around 10, 11, there were some books in German. They were actually put out by the American Occupation Forces, and they were two translations of books about science. And the first was a book that is very well known, and that is, a translation of Eve Curie's biography of her mother, Marie Curie. And many people have pointed to that book. It was a hagiography. It ignored many things in Marie Curie's life that were complicated in some way but it was a wonderful book and it influenced me.”
The other one was much less predictable and interesting in a way, and that was a biography of George Washington Carver, the American black agricultural chemist. I have the author written down somewhere. But that was fascinating. It was a story of this guy who was making things from soybeans and yams and part of the things that was fascinating to me, I had never seen either a sweet potato or a soybean in my life, or a peanut. That's what he was talking about. Peanuts and sweet potatoes. So that was fascinating and it caught my attention."
Learning takes many forms besides reading – classes, lectures, television, film, YouTube®, online MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). We are at a remarkable time when anyone can learn anything.
What do you want to know? It’s out there. Go and learn.