BEN BOVA: March 20, 2011 . Of the 40 high school student finalists in this year’s Intel Science Talent Search, 24 are of Asian descent

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I ran across a curious fact the other day: of the 40 high school student finalists in this year’s Intel Science Talent Search, 24 are of Asian descent.

More than half of the nation’s brightest science high schoolers belong to families that originally came to the United States from China, India or other parts of Southeast Asia.

Why is that?

The Intel Science Talent Search offers a prize of $100,000 to the ultimate winner. Altogether, a total of $630,000 in awards is given to the students.

The 40 high school science, engineering and math students selected to be finalists were culled out of 300 semifinalists, who in turn were picked from a total of 1,744 entrants.

Over the years, the Intel competition has produced seven Nobel Prize laureates and four winners of the National Medal of Science. Harvard physicist and Nobel winner Sheldon Glashow – with whom I collaborated on his book, Interactions – was an Intel winner in 1950. Actress Natalie Portman was a semifinalist in 1999.

This year, for the first time California produced more finalists than New York.

Is there a trend here?

A generation ago, New Yorkers from Jewish families dominated the Intel Science Talent Search. This shift – west, in terms of geography, but east, in terms of ethnicity – goes farther than high school students. Increasingly, the research studies that I see reported in the scientific journals are authored by people with Asian names.

The United States is, of course, a nation of immigrants. Even the Native Americans came here from Asia, albeit more than 10,000 years ago.

From its beginnings as a set of British colonies, the land that became the United States depended on immigration to fill its ever-growing demands for labor. Some of those immigrants did not come here willingly: they were black Africans, brought to these shores as slaves.

But English, Dutch, German, French, Jewish, Italian, Slavic and other ethnic groups came to America looking for better lives for themselves and their children. By their sweat, their brains, their initiative the United States of America became the wealthiest and freest nation in the history of the world.

Now we see a different set of immigrants moving into a key section of our nation’s prosperity: scientific research. In today’s high-tech society, scientific research is the source of new knowledge, new breakthroughs, new industries, new wealth.

Some of these Asian families have been here for many generations. Their forebears were the labor gangs that built the transcontinental railroads.

Some of these families are relative newcomers, refugees from war and oppression in their native lands.

Why are they doing so well in science? Because, I believe, their family and ethnic backgrounds honor knowledge and education. Where other minority groups – as well as our long-established European-descended population – have come to feel that science is too difficult to tackle, too demanding of study and concentration, these Asian families encourage their children to excel in school.

Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. Science isn’t as difficult as many people believe. You have to be able to handle mathematics, true enough, if you want a career in scientific research. But the basic ideas of science are reasonably simple. And delightfully beautiful.

I’m not a scientist, I’m a writer. But if I can understand the fundamentals of science, you can too. It’s not arcane; you don’t need a stratospheric IQ.

Maybe more of us should be encouraging our children, and grandchildren, to look into science. Even if they don’t go on to careers in scientific research, an understanding of science’s basics will be helpful to them as citizens.

After all, many of the decisions they will have to make as voters hinge on scientific claims and counterclaims. It would be helpful if they understood how to sort out the facts from the opinions.

In the meantime, young Asian-descended Americans are dominating high school science competitions. I’m glad that somebody’s paying attention to this important part of our national well-being.

(Ben Bova is the author of LEVIATHANS OF JUPITER, his latest futuristic novel. His web site address is www.benbova.com.)

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