Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Second Quantum Revolution
Duncan Haldane, Nobel Prize in Physics (2016)


The world is in the early stages of a second quantum revolution, Professor Duncan Haldane declared in today’s opening plenary lecture. Outlining the history of quantum mechanics, quantum entanglement and topological materials in his talk, he noted that scientists are racing one another to create powerful quantum computers, while a team in China recently sent intertwined quantum particles from a satellite to ground stations over a distance of 1,200 kilometres, setting the stage for ultra-secure communication networks and even, eventually, a space-based quantum Internet. 

He said: “We’re learning to get very precise and exquisite control of quantum states. Instead of hammering something with a hammer and watching it go to pieces, we can gradually poke and nudge quantum states in a manner that doesn’t degrade them, and measure them, and perhaps even manipulate quantum information. I think it is very likely that in the next 10 to 20 years a whole lot of new things will emerge.”

A Window in Biology: How Cells Export Proteins
Randy Schekman, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2013)


Human cells have about 23,000 genes that code for at least that many different protein molecules, and although the molecules are made inside the cells, 30 per cent of them escape the cells through a process called secretion. “The proteins end up traveling around our body to help fight infection and convey information between organs in our body,” elaborated Professor Randy Schekman in his talk, which traced his journey from playing with a toy microscope in his childhood to becoming a Nobel Laureate.  

Outlining the work of his scientific predecessors as well as his research with yeast cells that had uncovered genes required for tiny structures called vesicles to transport molecules, he shared that biotechnology companies now harness yeast as a factory for the secretion of useful human proteins. “A third of the world’s supply of recombinant insulin is made through secretion in yeast, and all Hepatitis B vaccines are manufactured in yeast cells,” he said.  

Robustness in Cell Development
Martin Chalfie, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2008)


Scientists should make their research papers available for free online even before these are published in journals, said Professor Martin Chalfie during the first half of his plenary lecture. “I’m very excited about ‘preprint archives’ because they can really help to speed up science by making research instantly and universally available. The larger audience would help to improve manuscripts, and you wouldn’t need to be rich to get access to the material too,” he pointed out.  

During the second half of his talk, Professor Chalfie focused on his and other scientists’ work in sensory biology. He said: “The robustness of biological processes is remarkable, considering the stochastic nature of the underlying chemical reactions. Cells and organisms can compensate for this natural variability by using redundancy, but redundant systems are difficult to change. We discovered that an alternative means of ensuring development could be genes that act as guarantor transcription factors.”

Public Lecture: Solar Cells Inspired by Green Leaves
Michael Grätzel, Millennium Technology Prize (2010)

SUDT talk

At today’s public lecture, held at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, Professor Michael Grätzel discussed an invention of his that has transformed the world of solar energy: dye-sensitised cells (DSCs). Special light-sensitive dyes in DSCs capture and convert light photons, exciting electrons and thus generating electric charge. The inspiration: green plants capturing the sun’s energy via photosynthesis.

“Photosynthesis shows us the way,” said Professor Grätzel. “Many groups have embarked on this exciting voyage of mimicking the plant which has a system that has worked for over 2,000 years.” DSCs give us high efficiency at low cost, and the dye they contain can be adjusted to produce an array of different colours, resulting in solar panels that are both aesthetic and eco-friendly.

Public Lecture: Science Needs to be Substantiated by Peer Reviews, not Science Journals
Efim Zelmanov, Fields Medal (1984)
Sir Fraser Stoddart, Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry in 2013
Randy Schekman,  Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2013)


At the GYSS public lecture this evening, held at the National Library, called Exposed: Distinguishing Real from Fake Science, Professor Randy Schekman said there is no substitute for the peer review for substantiation of scientific claims. “There is a lot of pressure for researchers to publish in journals. They capture only a small number of papers, and are largely commercial. Editors are in the business of selling magazines. And as scientists, we need to be vigilant,” said Professor Schekman. “There is no substitute for peer reviews by active scholars, not so much professional editors who want to sell magazines,” he emphasised.

Professor Efim Zelmanov said scientists do make mistakes in their claims, but fraud is rarely committed. “People make mistakes, but it’s always an honest mistake. Although, in the applications of mathematics, the standards are different, and sometimes it can be quite a disaster,” he added. 

Sir Fraser Stoddart said it takes more experienced and more influential scientists to encourage an overhaul of the metrics used to substantiate claims, particularly by scientific literature.  “Until we form some kind of unit, some kind of body to really challenge it, it is not going away. It takes scientists who have some years on them to change things,” he said.