Basic Scientific Research and the Quality of Life
Kurt Wüthrich, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2002)
Professor Kurt Wüthrich kicked off the first plenary lecture of the day with the bold declaration: “The reason I chose this title [of my talk] has much to do with present-day science policies, where short-term gains are more important for many politicians than new knowledge that may bear fruit only sometime later in the future.”
To illustrate how scientific research and discovery is often more a marathon than a sprint, Professor Wüthrich then proceeded to trace the history of his field, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), as an example. What started as an observation by Dutch scientist Pieter Zeeman in 1896 of the polarisation of light in the presence of a strong magnetic field, NMR has now developed into “the most widely used technique to study molecules in organic and inorganic chemistry,” alongside other widespread applications such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
NMR’s beginnings also carries an important message for emerging scientists, said Professor Wüthrich. When Zeeman first made his discovery, he was a 31-year-old graduate student who went against the advice of his professor to conduct experiments. Zeeman obtained his PhD but lost his job thanks to an unhappy supervisor. However, he went on to win the Nobel Prize seven years later. “Don’t always believe your professors” was Professor Wüthrich’s advice to the crowd. “You are the new generation and you have to do better than your professors. We can advise you, but you are the ones who have to make the breakthroughs.”
The Joy of Discovery
Ben Feringa, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2016)
Professor Ben Feringa remembers the day that changed the course of his career, one that would later win him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It was 5pm in the afternoon and his students excitedly called for him to come into the lab. A molecule they had embedded in a liquid-crystalline film was doing strange things to the tiny glass rod placed on top of it — when light was applied, the molecule changed shape, stretching and bending the film and even altering its colour. In turn the rod moved, and thus the world’s first molecular motor was discovered.
“It was a eureka moment when I could not speak for five minutes,” recalled Professor Feringa in his plenary lecture. “Serendipity is really important in science.” Making new discoveries is about looking for the unexpected, and imagining the unimaginable, he said. But more important than that in our “adventure into the unknown” is the question mark, or “the question we are going to ask.”
Our job as scientists, Professor Feringa elaborated, is captured neatly by American computer scientist Alan Kay, who said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” His parting advice to the up-and-coming scientists in the audience was: Discover your talent, know your passions and limitations, be confident and follow your dreams.
Neutrino Oscillations and Small Neutrino Masses
Takaaki Kajita, Nobel Prize in Physics (2015)
In his plenary talk, Professor Takaaki Kajita shared the scientific journey that led him and his colleagues to the historic discovery that neutrinos oscillate, thus proving they have mass and forcing a revision in the Standard Model.
Professor Kajita traced the development of the Kamiokande and Super-Kamiokande detectors in Japan, which led to the discoveries of proton decay and neutrino oscillations respectively. Livening up the talk, he shared pictures of the team sporting “fashionable” boots and hard hats, as well as breathtaking pictures of the detectors’ cavernous interiors (Kamiokande is a 3,000-tonne water tank, while its successor is roughly 20 times larger), and how they used rubber dinghies to place sensors along the walls.
Neutrinos are fascinating because “we think they might be the key to understanding the big mysteries of the universe,” said Professor Kajita. This includes understanding why there is more matter than antimatter. “Now we would like to study if neutrinos are related to the origin of the universe,” he said. But present-day detectors are not powerful enough to make the observations needed for such analyses, and so “bigger and stronger detectors, five to ten times larger than Super-K, are being built.”
He surmised: “If we work hard and if we are lucky, Nature kindly tells us her secrets.”
On Mean Field Games and Applications
Pierre-Louis Lions, Fields Medal (1994)
“Mathematicians are like French people,” declared Professor Pierre-Louis Lions in the fourth and final plenary session of the day. “Whenever you tell them something, they immediately translate it into their own language and you can never understand anything.”
To the laughing audience, he then continued: “I am a French mathematician.” But Professor Lions certainly didn’t live up to the abstract and obscure caricature painted in his opening statement. Throughout his talk, he peppered his mathematical theories and studies by applying them to real-world problems and examples.
To discuss his work on Mean Field Theory, Professor Lions told the audience to imagine the following scenario: “We are going to the beach and we have to decide where to put our towel.” Mean Field is a new class of mathematical models that seek to examine the average (mean field) behaviour of numerous agents or players. “It has become quite fashionable,” said Professor Lions, with applications in fields ranging from finance and economics to telecommunications. It has also been used to study how crowds move and the way in which social networks work, and even to analyse strategies in Olympic sailing (an application he says is a bit far-fetched).
Mean Field Theory is a step beyond classical game theory because you can do so much more with it. There’s a lot that can’t be explained with classical game theory “because as soon as you have more players, you cannot track them,” he said. Mean Field Theory, on the other hand, can be applied to a much larger set of players.
Moderator Sir David Lane, Chief Scientist of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, opened Day One’s panel discussion by highlighting three key challenges we face in today’s healthcare: treating diseases better; preventing more diseases; and populations with increasing numbers of elderly people. “The big challenge of the future is healthy ageing and how to afford healthcare,” Sir David said.
We need to move away from the idea of “increasing lifespans” and instead focus on “increasing health-spans,” said panellist Professor Kurt Wüthrich. “I believe that exercising and watching your nutrition is the least expensive way of doing that.” Those are low-hanging fruits, agreed Professor Michael Levitt, and so is getting periodic check-ups. People need to take personal responsibility for their own health and monitor themselves with smartphones, smart watches, and other gadgets, he said. “Everyone has to think about healthcare because we’re people, and we all get sick.”
In addition to healthy ageing, the other big challenge of the future will be tackling antibiotic resistance, said Professor Ada Yonath. “Bacteria is cleverer than us to survive” but pharmaceutical companies have stopped developing new antibiotics due to low profit margins, implying that one day superbugs will see people dying from infected wounds, diarrhoea, and other currently preventable conditions.
It’s a difficult topic of ethics versus profits, said Sir David. “If you’re just trying to improve Netflix, you’re trying to make something people want and to make it better. But with drug discovery, you’re dealing with something much more complicated in society.”
“Pharmaceutical companies don’t care...and that disturbs me a lot,” said Professor Yonath. “So I want to invite all of you to come work with us to develop the next generation of antibiotics.”
Silvio Micali, Turing Award (2012)
Blockchain and distributed ledger technologies are still evolving and have the potential to revolutionise how people, institutions and organisations create agreements and trade with one another, said panellists at the first public lecture of GYSS. Specialised versions of these technologies are also likely to emerge to serve specific applications or industries such as the financial sector, they added.
Professor Silvio Micali asserted that the value of blockchain and distributed ledgers is their ability to create trust between complete strangers making transactions over the internet. While people have long relied on third parties to vet agreements and ensure that these are not tampered with, blockchain and distributed ledgers can perform such functions at a fraction of the cost and time. Professor Micali said: “Blockchains are not only databases governed by consensus, and databases where nobody can change the content. They are engines of trust.”