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Lost Among the HDTs and VIPs

Guest Column Scott Malcolmson

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury once said, "Touch a scientist and you touch a child." In saying this, he was indicating that a scientist needs a child's sense of wonderment and exploration in order to be successful in his or her scientific endeavors. Children are natural born explorers; give them an inch, they'll explore a mile. Scientists need to be the same way.

Thus, scientists are forever indebted to children vis--vis their own child within, and they should never lose sight of that valuable indebtedness. But it seems the scientists did exactly that at "Launch Day: 1998" at the Museum of Science. The kids seemed to be squeezed out; they couldn't even inch their way in, try as they would. This is because all of the adult "VIPs" at the event wouldn't give up a precious inch; they wanted it all for themselves.

As such, the experiment that was "Launch Day: 1998" failed in what should have been its prime directive: To instill a sense of awe and wonderment in the hearts of all the children in attendance about the space shuttle mission and John Glenn's return to space. But the kids couldn't see the forest (the space shuttle) for all of the tall VIP trees.

It was not the fault of the museum's staff, who only lent the space for the event; The Museum of Science is and always will be a great place for kids.

The fault lay squarely in the hands of the organizers of the event, Harris Corporation, Hearst-Argyle Stations, Inc., and Panasonic Consumer Electronics. These corporate monoliths were there to hype high definition television, their new multi-billion dollar baby to be. And hype it they did. HDT at times overshadowed the space launch. Listening to some of these VIPs talk would have made you think that HDT was the second coming of Christ; to many of them, I think it was.

The high definition televisions were positioned so that only those in a very small seating area could see them; and those seats were reserved for VIPs only. After their speeches about the glories of HDT, the VIPs retired to a third-floor auditorium reserved for them where they could bask in their glory and watch the launch on large format HDT screens set up for their benefit in the VIP lounge.

The general public was left in the main lobby of the museum to fend for themselves. Only those standing in the front row could view the HDTs. All others could watch the launch on an overhead screen with very poor picture quality because of all the sunlight in the lobby.

With the exception of the ten-second countdown to launch, and the first two minutes of shuttle flight, John Q. Public was relegated to the role of a lab rat lost in a scientific maze; one where the food pellets were being held back by the experimenters.

I felt sorry for the kids in attendance. They were really lost in the shuffle. They missed out on a great learning experience about the grandeur of space exploration. In its place, the VIPs substituted a very bad lesson plan; and a very bad lesson was learned by the children under the VIPs' tutelage.

Einstein once said, "Concern for Man and his fate must always be the chief interest of all technical endeavors." But the VIPs at "Launch Day: 1998" did exactly the opposite: they got lost in all of their diagrams and equations: the ones related to the expected values of their HDTs. And the children could plainly see this; children are not dummies.

Taking it a step further, James Baldwin once said, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." At "Launch Day: 1998," the lesson was that reaching for The almighty dollar is more important than reaching out toward the almighty through exploration. That's the lesson kids will take from the experience. After all, it's lab rat see, lab rat do.

I would hope that when MIT sponsors such events in the future that children will not be lost in the shuffle. For it is the children who should have the auditorium reserved for them so that they may watch science in action in awe and wonder. After all, it is the children who are the real VIPs. They are our future.

Let's make sure that it always remains, "Touch a scientist and you touch a child" and not "Lab rat see, lab rat do." Because if it's the latter, our future is dormant and inert, and we are forever relegated to the maze, searching for those tiny food pellets.

Not much nourishment there. Certainly no future.

Scott Malcolmson is a member of the medical staff at MIT.