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Exposing the young: Noble ideas from Nobel winners

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 26 September 2013 00:00

Mark Twain, who is a famous humorist and writer, said that a person who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them. Twain’s era has changed radically since he passed away in 1910. While the basic truth of his quote remained valid, you need to expand that comment to good reading as well as disciplined and selective surfing! The damage done with the latter may be little too much than just with a bad book! We perhaps can remember the dubious statistic that Google bestowed on us Sri Lankan on matters of web searching! Yet it is important to expose the young minds to worthy thoughts and open their eyes to responsible deeds. Who takes a lead in doing that may decide the future direction – whether it is by cheaper advertising or by responsible leadership.   Malaysian example In this regard it is interesting to note what the Malaysian Academy of Sciences does in extending science to young minds of course with the full backing of the Government. That is exposing them to the top of the science adventure at an early age. They have presentations from Nobel Laureates and also support working and meeting with them over a short period. The experience gained should be immense and some definitely would discover their passion for science. Reading some of these presentations – the Academy Sains Malaysia publishes them as booklets – provides one with glimpses of the life and purpose of a Nobel laureate. Of course one always hears that none of them ever set out with the prize in view. The message that comes out from them is ‘try to do your best in an area of interest and pursue interests with passion’. That is the key message. Engage in an area that is useful and provides excitement. The Nobel Prize may be just there for you! In fact Dr. Richard Roberts who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1993 states that he had never received any prizes at school or at university; never getting any prizes prior to the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize had been the first prize that he had won in his entire life. That should be some food for thought for those who go after cabinets full of trophies. The National Nobel Laureate Program has been a program initiated by the Government of Malaysia as part of the Malaysia Plan. It is implemented by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. The aim of the program had been to catalyse the achievement of excellence in science, technology and innovation in Malaysia for national competitiveness and international recognition. I am repeating their objectives here as it is important to get the concept in their own words! The program provides a platform for the Malaysian scientific community, academics, researchers, postgraduates and students to be mentored by and learn from renowned scientists particularly Nobel Laureates and globally recognised centres of excellence to obtain inspiration, ideas, linkages towards achieving excellence in STI, as well as to benchmark their capabilities against the world’s best, towards producing high calibre scientists capable of winning international awards including the Nobel Prize. Germany, a country which had a high number of Nobel Prize winners, has the Annual Lindau Meeting of Nobel winners with young scientists. The 2014 Lindau event would be the 64th such meeting which originally started as a means to push German science forward after the crushing impacts of WWII. Malaysia sends a select group to this event and so does many other countries including Pakistan. Expenditure on these events cannot be justified on the typical ROI mindset and if one thinks like that you are seeding grounds of failure. Many Nobel Laureates have visited and have addressed students and the rest of the community in Malaysia. It is extremely interesting to read their stories. I am sure the audience in each situation would have been inspired as receiving a Nobel Prize in sciences is no easy affair and the recipient surely must have special talent which should evoke some special effect.   Valuing basic research One message had been the importance of valuing basic research. Prof. Roger Kornberg in his address brings home this message. Many developing nations now think otherwise and keep on discussing the value of applied research, targeted research on current issues, etc. He had given several examples from his own area, x-rays, antibiotics and genetic engineering to magnetic resonance imaging in biomedical sciences. These exemplify that talented individuals in their unfettered pursuit of knowledge create situations by understanding nature whereas another taking the cue from such discoveries moves towards applications with defined technologies, creating industries and transforming society. The likes of Roentgen, Fleming and Watson were in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, with no mental fixation of any grand application. However, their findings did lead to major advances. The argument against basic research by a developing economy can be destroyed with many other examples. It is tempting to win support by crying out to research on what evidently has an immediate application. That is short-termism in thinking. The system may indeed fix some priorities as a matter of political and social necessity but one must not place barriers for the talented to engage in discovery. These discoveries can change an economy. Consider the examples given and think. How many industries have come up around these basic discoveries and how much have we added to the planetary quality of life thanks to those who have ventured on their own? Prof. Roger had titled his presentation ‘The Basic Science, the Hope of Progress’. A strong stance indeed.   Universality of science Prof. Gerardus’t Hooft (Nobel Laureate in Physics 1999) had the message on universality of science. He stated that Science and technology as the most essential pivots for development and by embracing the most modern findings, nations can manoeuvre themselves in a position to join the industrialisation process and associated wealth. He meant wealth in the broadest term possible rather than the possession of exorbitant amounts of currency. His definition of wealth to the young audience was living a healthy life in a clean environment and a stable and just social system. He opined that countries of today counted among the poorest of the underdeveloped regions can change tomorrow if we understand the universality of science. An important lesson to us in Sri Lanka in that little gem of a statement.   Interesting points Coming back to Dr. Robert, he had some interesting points to his young audience. On money and rewards he was clear. Having never done anything simply because it pays well, his message was to do things that one enjoys. In that context he said of course science is nice because it can give you tremendous rewards. The joy of actually making a discovery or the joy of suddenly figuring out how something works is better than any drug that one can take. The same will be when you do a program for a computer and when that works! An interesting comment he made was that his recommendation that all politicians should take math and science because politicians in general anywhere appears to be incapable of reasoning logic. While scientists agree on climate change, it is evident in global politics that politicians do not and their decisions are what rule the day and consequently ruin the planet. The passion for working is best summarised by Prof. Dean Osheroff (Nobel Laureate 1996) who mentioned about his writing on the lab book at 2.40 in the morning (!) with the first witnessing of the super fluid behaviour of Helium-3 while working with MRI technique; the observation and identification for which he won his Nobel Prize. There are more from these Nobel seminars and we should revisit them. We too need this type of stimulation. Last week we were fortunate to have the visit of a Nobel Laureate Prof. Yuan Lea from Taiwan to Sri Lanka on a COSTI program. He is currently the President of International Union of Science (ICSU) and is spearheading the Future Earth program. He probably was the second Nobel Laureate in Science to visit Sri Lanka officially, the first being Prof Abdus Salam from Pakistan. I will touch on this in more detail in my next column. Malaysia’s idea needs to be embraced by Sri Lanka. As we read SMSs from small screens instead of books, listen to news that is negative and useless to a large degree, ignoring news on modern developments, culture and science, and yet have big ideas for our little island, to spur us on in the right path we need some exceptional addresses by exceptional people, and who are better than Nobel Laureates?   [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]

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