science smarts

Nobel Prize winner Dr. Joe Taylor inspires high school science students

Nobel Prize winner Dr. Joe Taylor inspires high school science students

Austin Photo Set: News_Leila_Joseph Taylor_nobel prize_jan 2012

Dr. Joe Taylor, recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics, came to the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) at LBJ High School last week as part of a new distinguished speaker series. He spoke to a group of 400 students about what it was like to win the prize and attend the awards celebration in Stockholm, and also offered words of wisdom to inspire them in their own upcoming careers.

Taylor won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for work conducted in 1974. He and his colaureate, Russell Hulse, discovered a pulsar orbiting around another star, which enabled them to measure the mass of the object and conduct tests of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Taylor, a retired Princeton professor, began his day at LASA by participating in the annual student/faculty quiz bowl on the faculty team. The LASA students who participated are all qualified to go to the national quiz bowl championship (their team is currently ranked 13th in the nation) — though, comfortingly, the teacher team won.

 In a time when public schools are increasingly pressured to teach to standardized tests, visits from distinguished guests may be all the more influential in getting students to think outside their high school years.

Following the quiz bowl, Taylor began his speech by pulling out his Nobel Prize medal to show the audience,, passing it around the room for students to hold (he did some quick math and said that each student had six seconds).

“Student Facebook photos were being updated at the speed of light,” LASA teacher and organizer of the event Ronny Risinger later said.

Taylor then talked about what it was like to learn that he had won the Nobel Prize and to attend Nobel Prize week in Stockholm. He first learned that he had won the prize, he said, when the phone rang at 7 in the morning (2 p.m. in Stockholm, where the announcement was being made), and his wife, who answered, told him: “There’s a reporter on the phone who says you’ve won the Nobel Prize.”

After that, he said, the phone rang off the hook.

Taylor went on to say that he attended Nobel Prize week with several family members. The awards ceremony always takes place on Dec. 10, Alfred Nobel’s birthday, and Taylor told stories of extravagant dinners with the Swedish royal family.

Taylor encouraged students to seek out a career they enjoy. “The more you like it, the more you’ll work at it,” he said. “If it feels too hard and you’re not having fun, don’t be afraid to make a shift. My wish for each of you is that you can find a niche where you wake up in the morning excited to get to work.”

In a time when public schools are increasingly pressured to teach to standardized tests, visits from distinguished guests may be all the more influential in getting students to think outside their high school years.

The distinguished speaker series at LASA is a collaboration of LASA teachers Ronny Risinger and Sarah Harrelson. Risinger says that he’s had the idea of bringing in distinguished speakers for several years, and but had never acted on it. When Harrelson, a calculus teacher at the school, began inviting math professors from The University of Texas and other mathematicians from the community to come speak to her students, Risinger spoke with her about his idea to bring in a wide range of respected speakers.

“In keeping with Mrs. Harrelson’s original concept, I invited Dr. Taylor, a gentleman that I had met through our common interest in amateur radio,” Risinger says. “Ultimately, we will expand the speakers to include other areas of interest.”

Risinger is currently looking into getting former President George W. Bush to speak at the school. One of the parents knows Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, so he is also hoping for a visit from her.

“Ultimately, the sky is the limit when you combine the networking potential of the citizens of Austin,” Risinger says. “Students should be able to have inspirational speakers visit them in high school, and we will do our best to deliver.”