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laurent lafforgue

Concepts, Theories and Results in Mathematics - The Example of Grothendieck Toposes
Laurent Lafforgue, Fields Medal (2002)

In today’s opening plenary lecture, Professor Laurent Lafforgue declared: “I want to give you the importance of simple things in mathematics.” Using a whiteboard, he illustrated the mathematical concepts of categories and groups, and explained what symmetry is using the example of an equilateral triangle. He also highlighted the equivalence between conservation laws and symmetries. Mathematics can sometimes seem baffling and unnecessarily complicated, he admitted, but “the most important thing is simple ideas...what we are looking for is understanding.”

It’s also crucial to remain open-minded in the pursuit of knowledge, said Professor Lafforgue. “In mathematics, there are a few inspired people. When someone you know who is inspired proposes a new idea, even if you don’t understand it, take it seriously and do not reject the idea.”

tuomo suntola

Science and Technology Serve People
Tuomo Suntola, Millennium Technology Prize (2018)

In his plenary lecture, Dr Tuomo Suntola led the audience on a journey of how he invented Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD) and how its applications have evolved over time. It’s a story that demonstrates “how to come from theory and ideas to practical applications,” he said in his opening statement.

It all began in 1974 with the question of “How do we produce material layers with ultra-high dielectric strength?” Dr Suntola recalled. More than forty years later, ALD is used to make a wide range of devices, including solar panels, lithium batteries, LED lights, medical implants and even telescope mirrors. “Ambition and aspiration comes from [having] a meaningful target,” said Dr Suntola. It’s about taking small steps towards a big goal. “Each step is an accepted task that brings the experience of success...and the joy and delight of work."

ada yonath

Ribosomes: A Connection between the Far Past and the Near Future
Ada Yonath, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2009)

In a talk peppered with clear and engaging videos, Professor Ada Yonath explained what ribosomes are, how they function, and why they are so important in our bodies — helping to make proteins that allow us to breathe properly, fight off a cold, and other critical cellular functions.

Ribosomes are so important that they are the key to how antibiotics work. “The trick is that they bind to the functional sites of ribosomes” and thus prevent them from working, said Professor Yonath. Her lab has spent the past few years studying the structure of bacterial ribosomes to identify novel binding sites.

“The new insights obtained from these high-resolution structures...can lead us to have specific antibiotics for specific diseases,” she said. It’s especially important work given that antibiotic resistance is “a very serious problem” we face today, with the World Bank estimating that nearly 4% of the world’s economy will be lost by 2050 because of antibiotic resistance.

barry barish

Gravitational Waves
Barry Barish, Nobel Prize in Physics (2017)

Professor Barry Barish’s talk on gravitational waves was a highly anticipated one, and he didn’t fail to deliver. An engaging speaker and a compelling storyteller, Professor Barish began his plenary lecture by taking us back 1.3 billion years ago, to when “two black holes coalesced and merged, releasing a gravitational wave” that finally struck Earth in 2015.

The detection of that wave, by the LIGO interferometers in the US, was groundbreaking for many reasons. For one, it provided further evidence that Einstein’s theory of general relativity is indeed correct. The theory, first proposed in 1915 and which Einstein spent 10 years developing, suggests how “space and time are unified.”

Crucially, Einstein's theory built upon Newton’s Theory of Gravity, which Professor Barish says was “the most successful theory in physics until today.” While Newton’s theory, developed in the late 1600s, “wasn’t wrong, it was just incomplete.”

“Einstein’s theory explains why the apple fell to the earth, which is something Newton’s theory never did,” said Professor Barish. “It also explains that gravity takes time to travel. But it had one prediction that had not been proven — that gravity, like electricity, comes in waves.” That is, until 2015, when his team were the first to detect gravitational waves.

VJC public lecture

Public Lecture: Students' Dialogue with Eminent Scientists
Barry Barish, Nobel Prize in Physics (2017)
Efim Zelmanov, Fields Medal (1994)
Michael Grätzel, Millennium Technology Prize (2010)

Hundreds of teenage students filled an auditorium at Victoria Junior College this afternoon, eager for the chance to interact with Professors Barry Barish, Efim Zelmanov, and Michael Grätzel. The students asked the eminent researchers questions ranging from their opinion on private companies financing research, to what they believe are the greatest threats facing society today.

The students were particularly curious to find out what life is like in the sciences. “It’s a combination of being fascinated with what you do, and it being tremendously fun,” said Professor Barish. Yet it’s hard work of course, the speakers cautioned. “Research is complicated and you’ve got to be passionate about what you do,” said Professor Grätzel. “Because there will be moments when you are in despair...but there will also be moments that are rewarding if you are persistent and follow your path.”

“You are never bored as a scientist,” he added — a sentiment that Professor Zelmanov echoed. “It’s a wonderful life,” said. “I have intellectual freedom. I think about problems that I want to think about.”

NLB public lecture

Public Lecture: My Life as a Scientist
Kurt Wüthrich, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2002)

A dual love of sports and science led Professor Kurt Wüthrich to the groundbreaking work that earned him a Nobel Prize, he said in a public lecture, which was organised by Science Centre and held at National Library Building, recounting his scientific career to date. “I was very interested in finding out how to improve my athletic performance, and one of the ways to do that is to increase the uptake of oxygen in the blood, so I decided to study my own haemoglobin,” he said. 

At the time, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) was used to study molecules’ structures, but it worked best on small ones, as the atomic nuclei in large ones such as proteins generated an indecipherable mess of signals. Professor Wüthrich said that he worked through many public holidays to arrive at his solution, called sequential assignment, which has enabled scientists to use NMR to determine large molecules’ three-dimensional structures. He said of his life as a scientist: “Do something that excites you, and that you love, and you can’t go wrong.”

NUS public lecture
Public Lecture: Impact of Basic Science on Modern Society
Aaron Ciechanover, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2004)
Sir Fraser Stoddart, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2016)
Michael Levitt, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2013)

Basic research is fundamental to science and supplies the fount of knowledge from which great inventions and applications spring, three Nobel Laureates stressed at a panel discussion on the impact of such research on society. “Translational or applied research are the buzzwords now, but if you don’t have the basic research, you will have nothing to translate or apply,” Professor Aaron Ciechanover said.

All three Laureates pointed to their own basic research that later found practical uses. Professor Michael Levitt, for instance, was curious if antibodies in mice could be modified to be more human-like. His computer exercises led to a way to create anti-cancer antibodies for humans and created an industry worth billions of dollars. Sir Fraser Stoddart said: “I would urge scientists to be curiosity-driven and governments to fund people rather than projects. Support good scientists and let them make discoveries that will lead to innovations.”