The Interview with Nobel Laureate Dr. Noyori about Tang Prize

  • Tang Prize Foundation Chairman, Dr. Samuel Yin, together with the foundation’s CEO, Dr. Jenn-Chuan Chern, board member Y.T. Du and the famous Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, paid a visit to RIKEN, the largest academic institute in Japan. 
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This past February 21, Tang Prize Foundation Chairman, Dr. Samuel Yin, together with the foundation’s CEO, Dr. Jenn-Chuan Chern, board member Y.T. Du and the famous Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, paid a visit to RIKEN, the largest academic institute in Japan. RIKEN is located in Saitama. Founded in 1917, the institute boasts of being home to many Nobel laureates, including Dr. Ryoji Noyori, the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He garnered the prize for his acclaimed work on chirally catalyzed hydrogenation reactions. Born in 1938, in Japan’s sixth largest city of Kobe, Dr. Noyori received his Ph.D. from Kyoto University and subsequently taught at Nagoya University. In addition to his outstanding work in the field of chemistry, Dr. Noyori has been tireless in his support of academic science and educational reform. It is that zeal which led him to become the chair of the Education Rebuilding Council. In addition to the many other positions of distinction he has held, Dr. Noyori is also the chair for the Science and Technology Council, under the Japanese government’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). It was with a view to hearing the renowned chemist’s views on the Tang Prize that Dr. Yin and company traveled to the institute.

During their conversation on the subject of the prize, Dr. Chern related how, spurred on by his deep concern for the well being of the human race, Dr. Yin decided to create a prize global in scope. Keeping in line with the global theme, the Tang Prize will be awarded to those who have made innovative breakthroughs and unique contributions in various fields of research. The establishment of the Tang Prize can be seen as a testament to the lasting impact of the Tang Dynasty. During that era, there were deeper cultural ties between East and West, and because of this multiculturalism and openness to diversity, it was a time of unprecedented political and economic prosperity.

Dr. Chern further explained the origin of the name “Tang Prize.” He stated that the legacy of the Tang Dynasty is one worthy of respect and admiration. The people of that era had a firm belief in themselves and brimmed with optimism when faced with the world. It was a truly cosmopolitan era, one in which various cultures and religions were able to coexist and thrive. As its namesake implies, it is in the hopes of recreating such a world that Dr. Yin created the Tang Prize.

Dr. Noyori said that in the past, people in professional fields simply worked on their own area of expertise, doing research exclusively related to their field, and with the desire that their work could be turned into a feasible enterprise. Back then one’s own domain was considered as most important. Yet what we need today is to take these disparate fields and combine them into something greater, which will also lead to the betterment of society. Now into the 21st century, sustainable development is absolutely crucial to the continued survival of the human species. Whether one talks of climate change, resource scarcity, or the spread of infectious diseases, all of these are massive threats. The new challenges that have arisen over the past thirty years of development have become increasingly complex. In order to meet these new challenges, the traditional distinctions between professionalized fields must be done away with. We require whole new fields, and a merging of the old ones, in order to ensure the survival of the human race.

The prize-winning chemist related how the damage left by modern disasters is often irreversible. The ramifications of climate change could set off an unimaginable chain of horrific disasters. Yet trying to explain potential calamities in scientific terms to the average person can be difficult; the average person of course only has limited knowledge of science. But if we are able to break the old barriers between sciences and create new disciplines, then there can be many new forms of thinking which could be beneficial. Given the new perspectives that would come about, phenomena could be seen in their complex totality. People need to think big – and they need to have big goals. Everyone must be concerned about how people a century from now are going to live, and the youth of today must have a greater sense of responsibility for the youth of tomorrow.

In Dr. Noyori’s view, Western education has placed undue emphasis on individuality, and places far too much value on competition. He believes that the greatest emphasis should be placed on the education of young people, cooperation, and the creation of a better society for all. The looming issue of human survival clearly has an impact on all. In order to ensure the survival of the human race, interdisciplinary work will be absolutely essential. People from different fields must cooperate together and share ideas freely. Since what is at stake is the entire human race, all peoples, from all countries, all ethnicities and races must work in tandem. Cooperation needs to be on all levels, the most obvious being economic, educational and cultural. Countries cannot continue squabbling over resources as they have in the past. If we are unable to create a new relationship towards resources, and do not use them responsibly, then all of humanity will have dark days ahead.

When the conversation turned to the most difficult challenges, Dr. Noyori stated that the most pressing, and most difficult task ahead of us will be in educating our youth. He believes that far too many Japanese rely on schools for the education of youth, but education should start with the family and society. Entrance into top-level Japanese universities is extremely difficult, and this whole situation has led to one in which there is good education for the elites only. In such an environment, youth rarely pay attention to the needs of society and the world. In closing, Dr. Noyori stated that being able to teach young people to actively contribute to society is not an easy task. Yet he earnestly hopes that the Tang Prize can become widely recognized and serve as motivation for young students and researchers. He believes students should make full use of the cultural inheritance of the East, and by this he means its rich intellectual and philosophical traditions. If students can use these intellectual tools, finely attuned to the harmony and oneness of the world, and combine them with the intellectual tools provided by the West, such as scientific knowledge, then this productive merging of East and West could potentially provide the needed solutions to the world’s current problems. He hopes that the Tang Prize can serve to stoke the ambition of the youth of today to work towards solving those problems.