Diverse culture, free environment keys for Nobel prizes: Nobel winner (Focus Taiwan)

  • Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ryoji Noyori
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Taipei, May 9 (CNA) Taiwan has the potential to produce more Nobel Prize laureates, and the keys lie in exposing more young people to a free environment and diverse culture, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ryoji Noyori has suggested.

"Let young people be free and expose them to different cultural environments," Noyori told CNA April 28 when asked to give suggestions on how Taiwan can produce more Nobel Prize winners.

Taiwan has had no native-born Nobel prizewinner since Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲) in 1986. Lee was the first and only Taiwanese Nobel Prize laureate, who, along with the Hungarian-Canadian John C. Polanyi and American Dudley R. Herschbach, won the prize in chemistry "for their contributions to the dynamics of chemical elementary processes."

Describing Lee as a respected friend, Noyori, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry, said that one of the main reasons Lee won the honor is because he was exposed to American culture following his education in Taiwan.

"I do believe that Taiwan has enough potential to produce in the near future a second and third Lee," he said.

Be patient, generous to the young

He also said that society must be more patient and generous to the younger generation in order for them to flourish in the field of academia.

The environment in Taiwan and many other countries imposes restrictions toward their youth, hampering their creative activities, according to Noyori. "The situation is not healthy."

He specifically pointed out the "unsuitable evaluation system" in academia that focuses more on the numeric -- the number of publications and citations in international journals -- which he said makes it difficult for young researchers to be unique.

"What we see now in academia is the production of similar standardized scientific publications and also scientists," he said.

Research activity is driven by deep-seated belief or curiosity among individuals, Noyori said.

He expressed belief that the evaluation of such human endeavor, the scientific area included, is subjective rather than objective.

He proposed that the evaluation system in academia around the world should be more flexible.

Asked about what inspired him to pursue chemistry, the 79-year-old chemist told CNA that his father, a gifted chemical engineer, strongly influenced him.

Although he grew up in a poor family, the chemist said his home was always full of his father's chemistry books and journals. In 1949 when he was a fifth grader, he and his own nation witnessed a historic moment that ultimately opened the door to science for him: Hideki Yukawa becoming the first Japanese Nobel laureate when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Two years later he attended an industrial conference during which the lecturer stated that "chemistry is so powerful that it can create high value from almost nothing," a statement that guided him to be a chemist.

All scientific disciplines are based on materials or substances and connected by information. Chemistry links entire scientific fields, he said.

Although having retired from research 15 years ago and being no longer involved in scientific discovery, Noyori said the discoveries he has made have contributed to the efficient synthesis of many pharmaceutical drugs and other bioactive compounds.

He believes the future of chemistry lies in so-called green or sustainable chemistry that uses safe starting materials, renewable resources such as biomass and safe solvents in the chemical production.

Keep stupid, keep crazy

To aspiring young people who want a career in science, he advised: "Keep stupid, keep crazy."

"Knowledge begins with wonder. Success as a scientist is based on keen curiosity. If one wants to enjoy academic life, I would recommend him or her to be different," he said.

Now a member of the Tang Prize international advisory board, Noyori said that although the prize was born only six years ago, it is now rapidly increasing its visibility worldwide thanks to the sustained efforts of the Tang Prize Foundation.

The Tang Prize (唐獎), established by Samuel Yin (尹衍樑), chairman of the Ruentex Financial Group, is a set of biennial international awards bestowed in four fields, namely sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology, and rule of law.

Nomination and selection are conducted by an independent selection committee, with input from Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top research institution.

Noyori said the prize is unique as it clearly stands on Chinese culture or values.

"Many other famous prizes recognize the achievements of disciplined-based activities. On the other hand, the Tang Prize Foundation acknowledges wider, more interdisciplinary accomplishments," he said.

"The prize provides an opportunity to announce worldwide what you Taiwanese consider most important for developing the society of the 21st century."

He expressed hope that the prize will continue a "glorious tradition" in the Asia-Pacific region and encourage the next generation pursuing important research areas to sustain society. 

(By Joseph Yeh)