Many years ago, on a crisp winter’s night, I stood in my family's Northern Virginia driveway. Though I was 5 years old, I remember the moment with startling clarity. At my father’s urging, I walked up to a telescope, a cheap department store affair with a small lens and wobbly legs. I leaned over, scrinched one eye closed, and looked through the eyepiece.
And it is no exaggeration, no hyperbole, to say that what I saw changed my life forever.
It was Saturn. By the naked eye, it was just another yellowish star hanging over our neighbor's trees. But that small telescope transformed it into a fantastic jewel, a tiny disk surrounded by a perfect and heartbreakingly beautiful ring, edges so sharp and crisp it was as if it had been carved out of ice.
And literally, from that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I'll admit dinosaurs and astronomy were neck-and-neck for a few years, but the stars finally won. I've had a deep and abiding love for studying the universe ever since.
Every astronomer—every scientist—I've talked to has had a similar "Saturn moment." Whether it was looking through a microscope, going on a school field trip to a museum, or understanding some small but pure fact for the first time, they've all had that one moment of clarity when they knew science was for them. Former NIH scientist Paul Plotz describes a similar moment in Slate—for him, it was nearly blowing up his parents’ basement with a chemistry experiment.
In the United States right now, science is under attack. In government, in schools, from religions. A large fraction of the American public is rejecting it. But what if we tried to make a Saturn moment happen for everyone? Of course, I don't mean that all we need to do to create nation of science lovers is to provide such an epiphany. Not everyone will become instantly entranced as I did, and finding that one thing that brings science to life is no simple task.
On the other hand, unfortunately, it is very easy to make sure a child does not love science.
For that, any number of things will do: parents who don't encourage their children to be curious or teachers who aren’t prepared to teach it. The best way to turn a kid off to science forever is to make her sit through endless lectures, forcing her to memorize fact, dates, numbers, and equations. That would squeeze the love out of anyone, replacing it with ennui at best and an active dislike at worst.