Donna Strickland was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on ultra-short, high-intensity laser pulses. We spoke to her about the challenge of learning physics – and why she thinks it’s so important to maintain an element of wonder when doing science. See her speak more on learning and education at this year’s Nobel Week Dialogue, taking place on 9 December 2020.
Could you tell us your position and your current area of research?
“I’m a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo and my area of research is ultrafast lasers and non-linear optics.”
When you were younger, was there a particular teacher that interested you in physics or led you down the career path you are in now?
“I don’t remember anyone in particular. I liked most of my teachers, I’m sure there was the odd teacher I didn’t like too but I won’t talk about them!
I will mention my grade 11 physics teacher. It was one of those times when computers were still new, and they didn’t work very well. So we were given a blank report card to take to each teacher to fill out. He wrote on my report card: ‘This is the beginning of a physics career.’ And I said, ‘I hope not.’ Because I just thought it seemed so nerdy. Now I know of course, that nerdy can be cool.
Also my grade 13 physics teacher was the homeroom teacher. I don’t know that he necessarily encouraged me, it’s more… I did a poor job on a project. And he just really got mad at me, he said: ‘Donna I expect so much more from you. Do not be wasting your talent.’
So, one sort of teacher really tried to encourage me and the other did too, but by letting me know that more was expected of me.”
Are there any lessons that you’ve learned from past teachers or mentors that you try to impart on your own students?
“I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. And what I’ve come to realise is that there’s always this big disconnect, when students come to grad school and start doing science. And I felt scared then too, because it’s this whole new world.
We have to learn so much in science. And we’re so busy trying to get all of our science students to understand the science that has come before them. But what we have lost is the sense of wonder, and the idea that behind science – from social sciences to physics – it’s about the questions, it’s not about the answers. You’re wondering why something works the way it does.
Right now the only thing I’m really involved with in teaching is changing the first year labs – to get away from them trying to just do the lab to get the answer that they expect to get. Let’s just let them play in the lab and say, ‘Is this a good result?’ And if it’s not a good result then, ‘Why can’t we count on this result and how can we change the experiments?’ Because that’s what experimentalists have to learn to do eventually. It’s all about the questions of why and what the assumptions are and learning to turn it around and say: ‘We don’t have the answer, we have to have the right questions.’”
Do you think play has an important part to play in learning?
“I think so. Trying to get back into that sort of elementary school idea. I think we have to keep it all the way along that learning is fun. It’s not drudgery, it’s not something you have to do.
I also want them, in first year, to keep the wonder of it all. To just see things and not explain the physics behind it. But see something really happen.
I talked about this in my Nobel Prize banquet speech – with short optical pulses, one colour goes in and it makes all the colours of the rainbow. It took scientists almost ten years and many of us working around the world to figure out what was happening. You can’t do it in a three hour lab. But it’s still an amazing thing to see. And then you have to go, ‘Why? How can that be happening? Why is that happening?’ And ask yourself, ‘What could I test to see what would make a change?’
That’s all I want the students to figure out. And just get back to the idea that science is about wondering why, not about knowing all the answers.”
Donna Strickland will be taking part in the 2020 Nobel Week Dialogue on the Challenge of Learning.
First published November 2020