I read a poll of Russians taken approximately a year ago that said one-third of Russians believe the sun revolves around the Earth. Now, it’s difficult to draw any substantial conclusions from that poll for several reasons, not the least of which is that many of them may have been–cliché alert–trying to pull the leg of the pollster, but it does tend to make a scientist like me take notice and try to make something of it. Such a widespread belief (Russia has about 142 million people, so one-third would be about 47 million) may be due to poor education in science or to staunch religious beliefs or to some such other situation. After all, Russia is the home of the first artificial satellite (Sputnik) and the first human to orbit the earth and return alive (Yuri Gagarin). After all those space successes, wouldn’t you think the population would be more astronomically literate? If the same poll were taken in the USA, I like to think the results would indicate that less than one percent would make such an unusual declaration, though I could be surprised here. There are people in the USA who still believe the world is flat, but it may be they don’t really believe it, it’s just something to do to pass the time. If the Earth were really flat, gravity wouldn’t work the way it does and a satellite couldn’t go into orbit around it.
How much of the Russian belief of an Earth-centered universe is due to poor science education? Russians don’t win many Nobel prizes. When I was an active scientist, most of the papers I read in my field–and, hence, the discoveries–were from US or western European scientists, and later from Japan. That’s where the majority of Nobel prizes have gone over the last fifty years or so too, except for the Literature award. We would do well to note that US scientists have garnered more than their share of Nobel awards, a fact that can be traced directly to science education in this country. Science education has been under attack for a long time because US students don’t do as well as other countries, especially the Western Pacific rim countries, in science competitions and in general science studies and critics bemoan the fact that Europe has the Large Hadron Collider and most of the Nobel awards that come from it will involve European scientists. Some say we should be leading the world in science. Yet we (the USA) make many of the important discoveries that have changed our lives recently: the Internet, the Hubble telescope, the Space Shuttle, most of the electronic devices such as the iPad, and so on. The transistor was developed in the USA and that has made such a tremendous difference in all our lives–small, easily portable computers arose directly from it.
So, don’t knock US science education. It leads the way. At least it isn’t living in the past.