The visit of Prof. Yuan-Tseh Lee Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1986) last month to Sri Lanka was quite important for some of us. It is indeed a pity that such a visit was not important to most of us! There were some who were visibly upset that they were not able to make it to the public seminar he gave at the SLIDA auditorium organised by the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science.
The inner excitement of course of listening to a Nobel Laureate comes from an existing inner set of values and these cannot be feigned. I am not sure that there is momentarily excitement of a participation to be seen in the company of such an eminent person just to take a photo and to be uploaded to Facebook. Such thinking is of no value.
Last week when I wrote that his visit was the second such visit of a Nobel Laureate to our country, I had a pleasant surprise with an email from the Scientific Advisor to the President, Prof. Wimal Epasinghe. His correction to my facts was most valued and the fact that the article is read at such rarefied heights too was an important to a rookie writer who is also keen on influencing decision making!
The correction is that this visit becomes the third of such visits as it appears Prof. Donald Glaser (a Nobel Laureate in Physics) had visited Sri Lanka and had addressed students at University of Colombo. Young Prof. Epasinghe then had been a Probationary Assistant Lecturer, having just joined the departmental staff. His take home point from the seminar had been Prof. Glaser’s assertion that a very simple discovery with far-reaching consequences can lead one to the prize that matters.
Prof. Glaser had received his Nobel Prize for his invention of the bubble chamber which had led to many discoveries as an important tool of subatomic particle physics. Prof. Epasinghe also had a recollection of another Nobel Laureate, Prof. Dirac, who had passed Sri Lanka but he had just waited on ship when it docked in Sri Lanka in 1954. Some staff of the university had visited him but he had not set foot on our soil.
Still three visits and a few lectures from individuals from such an elite club is not a number to boast about when we talked about creating a knowledge hub. During his visit Prof. Lee gave three lectures and he did so with a free spirit and this is much valued when we hear in our land that we may have speakers who charge nearly a significant fraction of a million for an hour of talk time with much less substance.
Life as a scientist
Prof. Lee in his SLIDA address discussed his life as a scientist. The story was enthralling, taking the audience – both young and old – through hard times and hard science. Due to war conditions his childhood had been interrupted though he had made the best use of his displacement by interacting with nature and learning much from it. Then at one point he had decided to be his own master an important strengthening of his mind.
His journey to the land of opportunity and how he had created his own place through a combination of smart and hard work was revealing. He mentioned how his studies in the USA benefitted from the availability of solid funding to laboratories which enabled him to pursue developments limited only by his capacity.
An interesting contribution was his demonstrated excellence in creating his own tools and equipment. His progress he himself had carved out by design and development of new techniques and tools. It is interesting to note the similarity to some extent here with Prof Glaser too who too had demonstrated the same talent and interest. Perhaps that is the way with pioneers. They do not have any one to show them the way forward; they
themselves are the creators of their destiny.
Prof. Lee also spoke of many long hours spent in his lab and a rude awakening one day when his own daughter thanked him for coming to her home and playing with her, thinking that he is a visitor. The daughter had to be educated gently by the mother that indeed he is the father and this is the home that he belongs to! Well, scientists do sacrifice a lot in their quest for serving the mankind through the discovery of new knowledge.
Transformation is key
Prof. Lee excelled in reaction dynamics developing tools enabling such visualisations. He originated from Taiwan and he returned back to his country from USA in 1994. He knew he was going home without much of the infrastructure and finances that he was used to in USA but he did return. He took up the position of the President of the National Academy of Sciences and over a period of 12 years led the Academy in Taipei to a position of pre-eminence, leading it to become a world class research centre, enabling those who had departed to come back and serve.
This work had in turn transformed Taiwan too. Prof. Lee had been instrumental in getting the Government to direct 2-3% of GDP to S&T. The transformation he was practicing and leading then is different from the transformation that he is preaching today. His statement today is that, if we are to avoid catastrophe and ensure humanity’s continuation in the planet, the key word for the next few decades will be transformation. The end point of this transformation is not a world class institute but a sustainable society.
Prof. Lee is currently the President of ICSU and he is spearheading the research agenda termed Future Earth. Future Earth is a 10-year international research drive with an express mandate of searching for some answers to the path that this dynamic planet is taking as a result of our own activities and thirst for consumption. The progress of the program is expected to develop the knowledge for responding effectively to the risks and opportunities introduced through global environmental change.
Societies are still seeking ways to realise sustainability which is a dominant theme since the Rio conference. Supporting transformation towards global sustainability too is a goal and what one can achieve in a 10-year time horizon would be seen as times move on. Prof. Lee is a strong believer in integrated research and in searching for the solutions of tomorrow’s problems does involve different people with different skills sets coming together for one purpose.
We had one leader from Africa who once claimed that elephants must pay for their room and board with their ivory. Notwithstanding such statements, there is significant number who had identified with the emerging need to research on this climate scenario understanding well society’s precipitous decline due to changes brought in as a result of climatic change. Internal decision making thus requires much more knowledge on environmental metrics.
ICSU has links to major UN organisations i.e. UNEP where it had teamed up to execute this mandate. This is about a global research partnership studying collectively on the future of the only planet that we have entwined with the social standards. This program is unique as it considers significance of social sciences and reaches out for collaboration. In fact in the Colombo workshop the absence of social scientists was critically noted by Prof. Heinz Gutscher from Univ of Zurich and ICSU Director Prof. Nordin Hasan when addressing how the Future Earth program is expected to unravel.
The program may not allow climate scientists just to engage in climate science as a favourite hobby horse and that is significant. One needs to address social issues using data arising out of hard sciences. Intended transformation happen when data meets policy and policy drives change.
Prof. Lee was speaking mostly to a converted audience. He liked his visit to the hill country and his address at University of Peradeniya. He liked what he heard in Colombo when some participants passionately talked about organic agriculture and sustainable living practices.
He said Sri Lanka can be a model economy if one were to pursue some of these ideas within a middle income country with a lower carbon footprint. However, he was unequivocal over the need to pump in money for research and development and stated that is primarily a State responsibility. We are about to embark on this program and hopefully working collaboratively a Future Earth that we would like to be in would be coming soon.
[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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]