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The Dayside : Small-town physicists

By: Charles Day
11 July 2014

I grew up in Conwy, a small market town on the coast of North Wales. Although the surrounding region is rich in natural beauty and historic monuments, it's economically poor compared with the rest of the UK.

Still, thanks to the dedication of my teachers and to county school system that emphasized academic rigor, the education I received at the town's schools was a good one. When I went to Imperial College London to begin my bachelor's in physics, I discovered that my Conwy education had prepared me well. Indeed, some of my fellow students from richer parts of the country had not studied as much physics and math in high school as I had.

Conwy (or Conway in English) was founded in the 13th century by Edward I as a fortified market town. The town's castle was completed in 1289.

Conwy (or Conway in English) was founded in the 13th century by Edward I as a fortified market town. The town's castle was completed in 1289.

Given my small-town background, I was dismayed to read a recent column in Nature that decried a widening gap in achievement and opportunity between rural and urban students in China. The column's author, Qiang Wang of the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography in Urumqi, points out that

about two-thirds of the students who took the school leaving exam were from the countryside in 2010. But in the same year, less than one in five of new students at Tsinghua University in Beijing—a member of China’s elite C9 league of universities—were from rural areas. And the proportion of rural students at another C9 institution, Peking University in Beijing, has decreased from roughly 30% to 10% in the past decade.

If China's elite universities are bursting with talented students, should the country's leaders worry that most of those students are from Beijing, Shanghai, and other rich cities? Yes, says Wang. Under the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping and his successors, China's cities have grown richer at a faster rate than have its rural towns and villages. Wang ends his column with a warning.

So far, the Chinese people seem willing to accept wide inequality in income as the price of economic growth. Inequality in education is less palatable and could trigger social unrest. It should be tackled.

In his column Wang touches on, but doesn't develop, the idea that favoring urban students over rural ones is akin to gender discrimination and, by implication, reduces diversity. New ideas seem more likely to spring from teams whose members have different backgrounds than they are from teams whose members have similar backgrounds.

This photo, which was taken in April 2014, shows newly recruited tax inspectors being "afforded the opportunity to experience the hardships in rural areas," as the original caption put it. China's supreme leader Deng Xiaoping grew up in the same region of Sichuan Province. CREDIT: Xinhua/Qiu Haiying

This photo, which was taken in April 2014, shows newly recruited tax inspectors being "afforded the opportunity to experience the hardships in rural areas," as the original caption put it. China's supreme leader Deng Xiaoping grew up in the same region of Sichuan Province. CREDIT: Xinhua/Qiu Haiying

Proving that assertion is difficult. I can say, however, that several Nobel laureates in physics have hailed from rural regions, among them Robert Laughlin and Carl Wieman, whose biography for the Nobel Foundation describes a childhood spent in the "woods of Oregon where lumber was the sole industry." Willard Boyle, who, with George E. Smith, invented the CCD, also grew up in a logging community—in Northern Quebec. His mother schooled him at home.

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