Materials have been so important to human life that ages have been named after them, such as the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. Now, a new generation of two-dimensional materials and their composites are opening up new possibilities for people, said Sir Konstantin Novoselov in his opening plenary lecture for the Global Young Scientists Summit 2020. 

He noted that since he and fellow scientist Sir Andre Geim isolated graphene – a wonder material made up of a single layer of carbon atoms – and mapped its properties in 2004, researchers have been racing to develop other two-dimensional materials, mix and match them to achieve specific properties, and create applications for them.

“In general, we have tended to bet on only a few materials, such as silicon in electronics, steel in construction engineering and aluminium in aircraft. This has limited our invention. Now, we can create new materials atom by atom or layer by layer, and assign properties and functions to the materials and layers. We can design new materials to achieve specific applications,” said Sir Konstantin. He urged scientists to think out of the box and make use of the expanding toolbox of materials: “We can create novel applications not possible before.”

ben feringa

Within 50 years, doctors will be able to inject nanorobots into patients to repair wounds and deliver drugs to precise locations in the human body, all because of molecular motors that are being invented and developed today, predicted Professor Ben Feringa in his plenary lecture. “Once you know how to make molecular machines move, and how to control their motion, you can think of many applications,” he said.

He added that scientists are already hard at work on futuristic nanotechnologies driven by molecular motors. These include self-cleaning windows and solar panels, and self-repairing materials. “With such responsive surfaces, if you scratch your car, you won’t have to go to the garage because the material will repair itself,” he said. Researchers are also delving deep into ways to activate the tiny motors, such as by using light, electrical signals or even sugar water.

While such groundbreaking research may be difficult, scientists should persevere, he said, sharing that it took his research group eight years to successfully create a nanocar. He further advised young scientists: “Think about which scientific question in your discipline you want to tackle. Follow your intuition. Work on an important problem that will make a difference, and, most importantly, be adventurous." 

Randomness and Stability 
Wendelin Werner, Fields Medal (2006)

In some complex systems, changing the input of a few pivotal factors can lead to completely different outcomes. This could have implications for some emerging technologies such as quantum computers, said Professor Wendelin Werner in his plenary lecture. 

He gave the example of a pool of voters asked to choose between black and white. The voters are then divided into groups of three, and the majority choice of each group is used for the final vote. In a close vote, changing a single person’s vote could change his or her group’s vote and alter the ultimate decision. “If one wants to modify the outcome, one can just find and target these pivotal individuals,” said Professor Werner. He added that this is a key theoretical issue in quantum computing, where errors in the process can affect its outcome. 

Professor Werner said that he is motivated to study such phenomena because of the “beautiful mathematical structures” involved in them. He recommended that young scientists pursue their interests: “I’m doing abstract mathematics, but you can recognise the themes that I’m interested in through my mathematics. You have to build on your own identity and ask your own questions. Think about what makes you different from others.”


Science and society are a couple that has to communicate and accommodate each other’s interests, said the four scientists in Day One’s panel discussion moderated by Professor Gerhard Schmitt, Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre. 

Professor Michael Grätzel called for more curiosity-driven and high-quality fundamental research, saying: “Very often, such curiosity leads to something that you don’t expect, that benefits society.” Professor John Hopcroft agreed, adding: “If you work only on applied research, you may move the field a bit, but in basic research, people may go in all different kinds of directions. Some may not have an impact on society, but some may lead to a discovery that creates a million jobs and a billion-dollar industry.”

Scientists, for their part, need to be accountable to the public and be open about their research. They should also do more to encourage public interest in science, including by using social media to communicate their findings. “It’s important for societies to cultivate a scientific culture. An engineer who has a scientific education is more likely to be a better engineer. The rigour of science also promotes independent thinking. The laws of aerodynamics do not change depending on who is in power,” said Professor Efim Zelmanov. 

Professor Schmitt noted that societies have become more sophisticated, and scientific research has blossomed into many complex fields. “With the world’s population at a level never experienced before in humankind’s history, we need to think more about how science can contribute to society,” he said. Professor Kees Immink summarised: “I think we have seen a great improvement of society through science, and science itself is becoming more diverse and complex. I believe both can continue to become better.”

public lecture
Public Lecture: Our New International System of Units
Klaus von Klitzing, Nobel Prize in Physics (1985)

The historical quest for universal standards of measurement marked a new milestone in 2019, when the base units for the International System of Units (SI units) were redefined, said Professor Klaus von Klitzing at a public lecture held at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. 

The introduction of the metric system in 1790 set in motion an international standard, but its benchmarks were not perfect. Up till 2019, the official copy of the international prototype for the kilogram in Paris required careful cleaning using a method created by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. With Professor von Klitzing’s discovery of the quantum Hall effect, all the base SI units could now be expressed in terms of universal constants, rather than material yardsticks. 

Ending off the public lecture was a question-and-answer session, where one student asked about the qualities of a good scientist. “Have more questions than answers and be open-minded to understand nature. Quantum physics is just about understanding nature,” he advised.