Every year after the Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine are announced, the media in China ask when a Chinese will get such an award. The Nobel prizes may be authoritative, but they cannot be used as yardsticks to measure China's scientific research.
I have been collaborating with educational institutions in Beijing for the past 10 years. Sometimes my Chinese colleagues ask me in bewilderment why none of their countrymen had won the Nobel Prize in physics or chemistry. Their voice drifts away when they talk about Chinese Nobel laureates in the United States or Europe perhaps to make the point that Chinese, too, are very intelligent.
There are problems in the Chinese education and research systems, because they lack and do not honor true creativity.
Once, I told my colleague at Tsinghua University in Beijing that if Albert Einstein was in a Chinese university today, he would probably be a gardener, for he would fail to conform to the existing norms. Before he could respond I cited from my personal experience. To demonstrate ratios, I had asked how many students were left-handed, ready to say something like six out of 31 is about 19 percent. I stopped dead in my tracks when not one hand was lifted. The hammer had hit the nail on the head. Perhaps natural left-handed children get knocked out early.
Yet reflection on the question leads to answers of other kinds, which in turn may augur well for China in the future and encourage a new quantum leap to better and insightful research.
First, the Nobel Prize in physics or chemistry is awarded typically a decade or so later after a pioneering research is completed. It was only in the 1980s that China began creating an environment conducive to international-level research. Second, the first waves of research in the 1980s and 1990s were more of a catch-up process, emanating from a low base. Thus it is unlikely that whatever original research was been carried out would be on the radar of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prize.
The deepest concern was raised by the heroic Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman, who in 1965 said the building blocks of physics and chemistry, from atoms and protons to quarks, had already been discovered.
Any new work worthy of a Nobel Prize would necessarily be complicated, drawn out and time-consuming. This is manifest in the typical age of a Nobel laureate in recent times. The ages of this year's Nobel Prize winners in chemistry are 80, 79 and 75. The two physicists who won this year's Nobel may have been young at 52 and 36, but the 2009 winners ages were 86, 80, and 77.
Chinese scientists should look to the future with optimism. This year's Nobel laureates in physics have pioneered the way forward for commercial production of a flexible skin made of a single layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal patterned lattice. Its strength is hundreds of times greater than steel. This shows the way forward is to work on pragmatic applications rather than abstract theories.
In today's China, new technologies are being encouraged, pursued and nurtured by governments and entrepreneurs in hundreds of labs across the country. "Renegades" like Einstein may no longer be able to make breakthroughs. Instead, teams - a complex but integrated network of scientists, engineers and administrators - have put China's second moon rocket in place.
The successful launching of Chang'e 2 satellite shows how far China has traveled in outer space research. Perhaps the scientists engaged in research are not outstanding individually. But they really climb the scientific summit as a team.
The New York Times' influential columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote that China had four moon shots going, explaining that a "moon shot" was a 25-year horizon, multi-billion dollar game-changing research, development and implementation project. Friedman talked about new airports, bullet trains, electric cars (including recharging infrastructure). Most significantly, he was impressed by China's visionary investment in bioscience, and the purchase of 128 DNA sequencers from the US.
It may not matter to the Chinese economy and society whether individuals or teams of two or three win the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or medicine because the cohesion in China's scientific push today is unprecedented in history.
The author is an Australian research scholar collaborating with academic and commercial institutions in China.
(China Daily 10/15/2010 page9)