Javier Santaolalla

PhD in Physics

“The best way to motivate while learning is to let the person answer their own questions.”

See the full video here.

The real physics is the physics that is devoted to solving mysteries, to learning about the universe, to answering the most unsettling questions about who we are, where we come from, what we are, where we're going. It's a physics dedicated to solving a mystery, to solving enigmas. And this is something that drove me mad, realizing that physics is actually about having a better understanding of who we are, what we are made of, what the meaning of all of this is. After seeing this side of physics, I knew that I truly wanted to become a physicist. At the time I was studying engineering without passion. And a whole new world revealed itself before my eyes. The universe of understanding that a physicist is able to unravel, to solve mysteries about the cosmos. And this is very interesting because at the time I said to myself: “This is what I want to be”. Someday, I would like to feel that, in my life, I have worked on solving a mystery, that I have contributed something to the world. That I am doing something that is transcendent, that goes beyond what I am doing in my day-to-day life. Something that can be used to broaden the human mind because it transforms the world. Transforming someone's mind and the way people see their own lives and the life of the universe. Behind every big transformation of human thought, there is a scientific idea.

I decided to become a science communicator because it's a very nice way to touch lives, through the magic of the power that science has, this power to discover who we are. Because it is a power that is within us and that many times we don't know. And often I start to think about why science has this power that other things do not. Because it shares that lasting capacity to touch someone and transform their life, much like music or art. Because physics has that power to create this contact, this connection between people. Because physics is here, in our body, running through our veins.

"We will lose our essence the day we stop wondering who we are and where the Universe is headed".

Many people are born with this curiosity. Not many, everybody. With this curiosity to try, to discover things, that is what a child does. If you watch a baby closely, you are following a scientific method. Let me remind you that behind this mysterious name, there is nothing more than asking questions, testing, experimenting, making hypotheses, and extracting patterns that allow you to predict what will happen when you do this again. If you throw something, you see how it falls, how it breaks. The child realizes this and tests what happens to the environment as they manipulate it. It is strange that we are born with this curiosity. It is also strange that this curiosity can reappear when we are around eight or nine years old. My reawakening to curiosity occurred precisely when I stepped away from the path where my studies were leading me and embarked on new experiences. Scientific experiences guided by my own curiosity. When I let go of the reins, I stopped leaving my life in the hands of another and took it in my own two hands. This is why, when someone asks me something along the lines of: “What can I do for a child to be interested in science?” I usually respond with a paradoxical reply which piques people's curiosity and also casts doubts. Many people expect a manual with 20,000 bullet points; first section… No, don't do anything. In other words, do nothing. Let them experiment. Let them ask themselves questions, and guide them to answer them, simply helping them to pose new questions. The best way to motivate someone in science or general knowledge is by letting that person be their own guide to learning, that whatever they ask themselves becomes a stepping stone to posing new questions through curiosity. The greatest enemy of education is enforcement.

Science is a significant element that contributes these values to society. The values of science are values such as work, discipline, sharing, cooperating, collaborating, humility, passion. These values have also emerged from the scientific mentality. In the end, when they wondered what the Earth was and they realized that it was not the center of the universe, there was an amazing transformation of thought. Science has shaped the way we understand the world and, therefore, the way we understand ourselves. By using science to understand the universe we are understanding what we are and, therefore, are shaping our values, our principles and the way we live. It is vital that, by answering questions that do not seem to make sense, at the same time we are responding to the most fundamental questions about what our role is in the universe.

The work of teachers in Spain is very underrated, at least it may not be at the level that they deserve. Teachers work under very hard conditions when planning their lessons; overcrowded classrooms, little time, small budgets, little social recognition, it is too easy to criticize the work of a teacher… I believe that good things are being done and, therefore, I want to share them. I want to lend my voice to all those teachers whom I have worked with for more than five years that do amazing things, that give their all and that have values that they try to transmit: regarding work, dedication, passion… And a terrible vocation. The work of these heroes and heroines is given very little value. People that get up every day with the hope of creating generations that are better that us, of creating people and professionals that are going to take the plunge and create something different and improve the place where we live. But this doesn't take away from the fact that things need to be improved and that it is good and positive to have a critical attitude. During the last three years I have been working on educational innovation processes at a European level, on a project called the Creations project. This project is funded by the European Commission including 16 members, laboratories, institutes, universities from all over Europe and where we try to see where we are failing and how we can improve. I would end up in a bad mood when I went to class and the teacher gave the solution to a problem that I never had, that I had never considered and that I didn't understand. They were giving me the answer to a question that I hadn't asked myself. Teachers stand in front of their students and explain things to them that they have never even considered. In my opinion, this was putting the cart before the horse. And something that is being done is completely breaking with the way in which we learn. When a teacher starts a lesson and begins to solve questions by using equations, they are going to the end of the learning process, because as we have said, we learn by following the scientific method.

With a PhD in Particle Physics, Javier Santaolalla is a telecommunications engineer who has worked for several years for CERN. He is also the creator, together with other colleagues, of the project 'Mad about science', an education program intended for young people and teachers that aims to awaken scientific vocations.