Mary PW Chin 穷孩子





To my mind, Germans are the true scientists (and musicians). I visited PTB (Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt), which is the German equivalent of Britain's NPL (National Physics Laboratory), and Malaysia's MINT (Malaysian Institute for Nuclear Technology). These are the laboratories where primary standards (e.g. how long is one meter, how heavy is one gram) are defined, i.e. where physics instruments across the country get calibrated against. The facilities in PTB were absolutely impressive.

The way a PhD student should be

At PTB, I was being introduced to a PhD student, seated at one corner of the beamline, as the person who knew the application software more than anybody else. He was t-h-e expert. He impressed upon me a lasting idea about the way a PhD student ought to be: one who sits in front of his/her toy with never-ending fervour, forgets him/herself, and c-r-a-c-ks it left and right, front and back, through and through, from the inside out and outside in. You've got to know your stuff. You've got to be solid. It's about cultivating m-e-a-t-y substance.

There are many PhD students who aren't like this though. They only want instant recipes to get a PhD the shortest way possible. Everything is dictated by convenience. Everything is structured on quick fixes. No sense of wonder; no sense of dedication; no sense of inquiry. I often wonder what for they do a PhD? In wealthy countries, people don't need degrees to dish themselves out of poverty. If it's neither for interest nor for a decent life, so what's all these reluctant students here for? Mere greed? Or psychological insecurity seeking superficial affirmation?

Someone said she signed up for a PhD knowing that she would still be young after finishing. I thought: my dear you've got it wrong, a PhD should be exactly what you would devote your youth for!

I'm not talking about being clever or not, I'm talking about the willingness to learn. Teach without categorising -- Confucius preaches so. I always take that saying as a decree, referring to students of varying aptitudes. Exclusion is wrong. Indeed I do not believe in second-ordering less-able students. Bright or not, that's part of Creation - despise only if you can lift a finger to revert so. If the person is bright, he/she got it not by his/her own accord but got it freely from Creation. When a student is weak, the teacher just needs to spend more effort that's all.

Many find it absolutely astounding that I actually have "a brain". While it is true that cerebral palsy is usually packaged with mental disability, I find their disbelief blasphemous: if God can create you with any level of intelligence, hasn't He the same freedom to create me as He wishes with any level of intelligence? I would be equally worthless (and equally worthy) whether or not on top of my physically disability I am mentally retarded.

Degrees vs scholarship

Using degrees to overpower others is unquestionably wrong. Having degrees and being a scholar are quite different matters. Claims to be noble by this and that qualifications are quite different from true scholarship where the spirit of study continues lifelong. Don't brag of what you've attained in the past, show it in your daily way of life here and now. There are people who say they could have done a PhD, just short of money or short of this that. I would say: oh well if you could have done a PhD, you should first live a life of scholarship before saying "I could have". If you have lived a life of scholarship, it then becomes a secondary matter whether or not you do a PhD.

Salzkotten Salzkotten is a peaceful little town near Paderborn. It was so clean, so healthy, so environmentally friendly. At the park they have a wall of tree trunks filtering down-flowing water. It seems it is healthy just standing there breathing in the vapour.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- meeting with 44 Nobel prize winners and 700+ young researchers. A lucky devil I was, to be selected for this meeting of superlatives. Very, very timely it was -- a week after I passed my PhD -- just as I discovered that my journey in learning science had only just begun. I looked forward to this baptism of science.

The best chair i've ever seen

Anders Bárány is not a laureate. He's the secretary of the Nobel Committee -- which means he contributes towards the selection of Nobel prize winners. He chaired the first round-table discussion and a few other sessions. His skills as chairman was absolutely impressive -- spontaneous and creative but no salesman style. Never over-articulate.

It struck me that perhaps he knew more than any single laureate present. He seemed to have in-depth and all-rounded knowledge but never tried to impressed. This elevated my respect for the decision-making in the selection process of Nobel prize winners (some say the Nobel prize is a jackpot).

Two persons I found most edifying

My favourite Q&A

Question from the floor: when can biology go beyond story-telling?

Günter Blobel (Physiology/medicine laureate 1999) answers: who says physics goes beyond story-telling anyway?

Grand unification or not

Martinus Veltman (Physics 1999 laureate, the Higgs boson guy) didn't think that there would be a grand unification. On this, however, there was an unchallenged consensus -- that whether there'll be a grand unification or not, we can never explain why we were gathered there, in Lindau. Grand unification will never be able to explain human will.

Exam question in 25 years' time

Given genome, draw organism's shape. (By David Gross -- Physics 2004 laureate)

Two contrasting presentation styles

When Harold Kroto finished his lecture, the hall was bursting with applause which went on and on even after he came off stage. He was certainly the most popular laureate in the event. His presentation and slideshow was as flashy as technology allowed -- in sharp contrast to Prof. Nüsslein-Volhard's style. Flashy business aside, I am grateful for his repeated stress on the importance of a scientist's heart (rather than just the head).

Two campaigns

Harold Kroto took the chance to put the Vega Science Trust into the spotlight, while Richard Roberts campaigned for open-access journals. The message was that with non-open-access journals 1) never submit your papers; and 2) always refuse to referee.

Something I can't agree with

A laureate asserted that poor nations shouldn't expect to share the wealth of rich nations; that poor nations must generate their own wealth instead. My views are:

40% of the world's population live in poor countries and they get only 3% of the world's income; 15% of the world's population live in rich countries and they get 80% of the world's income. Come on.
Some critical notes

I think the emphasis of the whole event should be on learning: to be there to learn. Not to worship idols, not to collect signatures or to be in the same photos with laureates, not to find out the secrets to winning a Nobel prize. Scientists should do science motivated by science, not by the Nobel prize.

A worrying behavioural pattern persisted throughout the event: we were asked to commit ourselves to which afternoon session we wanted to attend. Due to limited spaces per session, each participant was to take a session-specific ticket on a first-come-first-serve basis. What happened? Instead of taking a ticket, to avoid committing themselves people took the full array of tickets. That broke the system and the order completely. Even a professor leading his nation's contingent was doing that. Participants failed the trust endowed upon them by the organisers. How does that reflect on the ethics among scientists?