The Value of the Widely Cast Net

Nivaldo J. Tro


Professor of Chemistry

Westmont College

January 2016

The great recession of 2007 and the increasing cost of college may contribute to increasing scrutiny of liberal arts education by politicians and the media. Sparse times can intensify utilitarian thinking, raising the question, “What is the utility of a costly college education?" The answer resonates loudly and clearly: An education is only as good as the salary you earn after graduation. For example, the Obama administration and the Department of Education recently launched a website, College Scorecard (collegescorecard.ed.gov), that rates colleges primarily on one criteria: the salaries of its graduates.

Most students today equate a college education with a good job and a higher income. Results of a 2014 yearly study of American freshman by the American Council on Education and the University of California, Los Angeles, reveal that 86.1 percent of American freshman cite “getting a good job” as a “very important reason” for going to college. Nearly 80 percent identify “to get training for a specific career” as another very important reason.

You’ve probably seen articles that rank college majors and programs based solely on immediate employability. For example, U.S News & World Report featured an article, “Discover 11 Hot College Major that Lead to Jobs,” that listed computer game design, biometrics, cybersecurity and data science. These majors are important, and students who complete them likely land good jobs after graduating. But learning to cast a narrow net rather than a wide one doesn’t represent the best strategy for a lifetime of fishing, even if it yields more fish in the short run.

As a chemist, I know that many significant breakthroughs happen not by thinking more narrowly about a subject or problem but by thinking more broadly. Two examples come to mind.

Steve Jobs transformed entire industries: computers through the Mac; movies with his work at Pixar; music, thanks to the iPod and iTunes; mobile phones with the iPhone; and publishing through the iPad. How did it all start? In part, it began at a liberal arts college. Even though Jobs never earned a degree, he took a calligraphy class at Reed College that launched his first major breakthrough.

“I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, and about what makes great typography great,” Jobs said. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in ways that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”

Focusing only on job utility at graduation fails to recognize the value of such insight and connection between fields.

Andre Geim won the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. Like most successful modern scientists, he worked in a narrow, highly specialized field of study—but not all the time. Geim often ventured into what he calls lateral ideas, explorations into fields far from his immediate area of expertise. These investigations became known as Friday night experiments even though they took much longer than one night.

Most Friday night experiments failed completely, but some succeeded. In one, Geim suspended an entire frog in a magnetic field. In another, he developed a new kind of tape by mimicking the toes of a Gecko. His greatest success came when he discovered a new material called graphene, the thinnest material ever known at only one atom thick. But it’s also the strongest. It conducts heat and electricity, it’s transparent, and it’s completely impermeable to all substances, including helium. With many possible applications still unrealized, graphene may be one day make faster computers, foldable touch screens, ultrathin light panels, and super-strong plastics to construct satellites, airplanes, ships and cars.

Geim discovered graphene by wandering into fields far from his expertise. A piece of scotch tape with remnants of graphite adhering to it, not a sophisticated, highly specialized instrument, led to his finding. When Geim examined the graphite flakes under a microscope, he noted their surprisingly thinness, some just one layer thick. In 2004, Geim and his colleagues published their results—the discovery of atomically thin carbon—in the journal Nature.

Ironically, graphene had been right under our noses. Every time we write with a pencil, layers of graphite flake onto the paper, leaving the familiar gray trail that contains flakes of graphene too small to see. Geim noticed what others had missed, partly because he cast a broad net. As a result, he discovered an amazing new material that won him the Nobel Prize.

NIVA TRO is professor of chemistry at Westmont College.



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