Holton: Scientists need it; so do laypersons


Des Moines Register


The dramatic plans for the Iowa Environmental/Education Project at Coralville are not only a paradigmatic innovation in terms of environmentally sound architecture, but also are appealing to scientists, future scientists and the layperson.

Nowhere else in the world will visitors be able to walk safely through acres of canopies of trees harboring exotic wildlife, and see at close range the fascinating interaction between the two. The project is bound to raise the reasoning consciousness of visitors, in an "I have really seen it" way.

While farmers and scientists alike have long been environmentalists in their way, environmentalism is one of the fast-growing popular movements of our time, analogous in many ways to the civil-rights movement of the last century. I look at the Iowa Environmental/Education Project as a brilliant statement, an opportunity that taps into this popular consciousness, gives it an iconic place and informs and tames it.

The plans go beyond the educational experience of the visit itself, though that experience is bound to stay long in the minds of visitors, especially young ones. The plans include laboratory and classroom facilities, exhibits and excellent information-technology devices.. All this appears to me thoroughly thought-through. Having been a member of the Corporation of the Boston Museum of Science, and a speaker at many other natural history museums including Toronto, Chicago, and New York, I am envious of the Iowa plans. It is a typical, bright idea of the design team to include exhibits and plantings that refer specifically to the various habitats of Iowa.

This nation has been gradually losing native scientific power. In many science departments of graduate schools, including in my department at Harvard, about half of the graduate students now are from abroad, and most head back home. As I was also aware during my period of serving as chair of the advisory committee of the National Science Foundation's Division on Education and Human Resources, it is through informal encounters with nature and science (such as natural history museum visits) as much as in formal ones that awaken an interest or commitment to a scientific career. I have high hopes that the unique environmental and education rain forest project will play a part in producing such results when there is a national need for it.

There also is the long-term economic benefit from this project to Iowa, and to all states that learn from it. The fact of an additional annual income from in-state and out-of-state visitors to a such a destination is widely known.

One example is Bilbao in Spain. It was off the beaten path, then the great Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry was built. According to the official Bilbao information, it produced a "Guggenheim effect" of a cultural attraction leading to an area's regeneration. Visitors from the October 1998 opening to December 1999 numbered 2,625,000. New jobs in the region total 9,000. Recovery of initial investment: three years.

I do not want to imply that a similarly astonishing effect for the Iowa rain forest project is bound to take place. But this and similar examples allow one to have great, long-term economic hopes as a result of this otherwise fully embraceable and worthy initiative.
Dr. Gerald Holton is a Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.