Speech by Mrs Fanny Law, GBS, JP
Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower
at the Opening Ceremony of the
C. S. Wu – C. L. Yuan Science Camp
on Tuesday, 26 July 2005
Prof. Chu, Mr Hsu, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is my great pleasure to join outstanding scholars at the opening of the C. S. Wu – C. L. Yuan Science Camp and to meet with talented young physicists from the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong .
This Science Camp is named after the late Professor Wu Chien-shiung and her husband, Professor Luke Yuan. Professor Wu, as you all know, is an eminent Chinese-American physicist whose work on radioactivity has earned her the reputation of being “The Madame Curie of China ”.
This year, the Science Camp has special significance as the United Nations has officially declared 2005 as the International Year of Physics to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Albert Einstein’s three groundbreaking papers in 1905 when he developed the theory of special relativity and the famous equation: E = mc2.
I have been reading lately about the work of Professor Wu and some of the distinguished scientists of the 20th century, such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Marie Curie and Max Bon. The life and words of these great scientists are inspirational. Today, I would like to share with you some reflections on science education, women in science, and science in Chinese culture.
Science, technology and innovation are critical levers of social development in the 21st century. Science is the creation of structure for our world; technology is the use of structure. Mathematics is the common language of structure; and philosophy provides the conceptual framework for science.
Being a scientist is more than an occupation. It represents a manner of living that carries with it a distinctive mindset and attitude. As Albert Einstein said, “A scientist cannot proceed without considering critically a much more difficult problem, the problem of analysing the nature of everyday thinking”.
Einstein is a genius and the most renowned scientist of the 20th century. Yet, his experience of formal education was unpleasant, so much so that he defined education as “what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school”. He condemned the way knowledge was crammed into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not, and confessed that after he had passed the final examination, he found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful for an entire year.
Stifling as it may be, the examination culture prevails in many education systems, in particular among Asian countries. This is beginning to change with educational reforms that place more emphasis on learning to learn and all-round development. However, given intense competition for limited higher education opportunities, selective examinations are a necessary evil that will remain for a considerable time to come. How to use assessment to improve learning and design public examinations in a way that will encourage critical thinking and minimise rote learning is what we are striving for.
In Hong Kong , science education is one of the eight Key Learning Areas of the school curriculum. The new basic education curriculum, which was introduced in the year 2000, emphasised an inquiry approach to learning science beginning in primary education. The aim is to engage students in scientific investigations, and help them discover and build knowledge of scientific principles through observations and experiences.
We wish to inculcate in students an understanding of the cultural significance of scientific and technological developments. We also encourage students to reach beyond the confines of the classroom and the textbook, so as to broaden their knowledge base. Four years from now, we shall introduce a new core subject at the senior secondary level, Liberal Studies, which provides opportunities for students to connect knowledge among different disciplines and examine issues from multi-perspectives. “Science, Technology and the Environment” is one of the three core areas of study. The other two areas are “Self and Personal Development”, and “Society and Culture”.
Students will learn to critically evaluate information, sharpen their analytical powers and improve their communication skills. More importantly, students are encouraged to question, use their imagination, and make informed judgement. In Einstein’s words, “to raise questions and new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle require creative imagination and mark real advance in science”. Thus, true intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.
Talented students are exposed to international competitions where they can benchmark their performance against their peers. Our first foray to the International Physics Olympiad in 2004 fetched one gold, one silver, and one bronze medal, an honourable mention and the President’s Award for best performance by a new competitor. Earlier this month, our students again won a gold, a silver and 2 bronze medals, as well as an honourable mention in the 2005 competitions in Spain. The results are encouraging and prove the ability of Hong Kong students.
It is noteworthy that on both occasions, the Hong Kong team was made up entirely of boys. This raises the question: does gender matter in science achievements? And, if so, is it a matter of nature or nurture?
As an experimental physicist who put theories to the test, Professor Wu overthrew the 30-year old principle of conservation of parity in 1957. However, it was her contemporaries Lee Tsung Dao and Yang Chen Ning, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957, for their theoretical work on the subject of “non-conservation of parity in weak interactions”.
Ironically, back in 1944, the German chemist Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his experimental work on nuclear fission. The Austrian physicist Lisa Meitner, who was the official leader of Hahn’s team and who worked out the theoretical explanation of how a uranium atom could break into smaller atoms, was not even mentioned in the Nobel Prize announcement.
One could reasonably deduce from the differential treatment in these two cases that gender had a part to play in the Noble Committee’s decision. Throughout the history of the Nobel Prize, only one woman, Marie Curie, was honoured with the highest award in Physics, and that was in 1903. The society of Nobel physics laureates is largely a boys club.
Nonetheless, the playwright Clare Boothe Luce had this pertinent observation, “when Dr Wu knocked out the principle of parity, she established the principle of parity between men and women”.
Prior to the 20th century, women did not have access to institutions of higher learning. This denied their participation in scientific discovery. Judged by the achievements of women scientists in the 20th century, there is every reason to believe that the minds of women are equally able as the minds of men to study the physical world around us. But why are so few girls in this room and so few female academics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology?
Could it be the image of Einstein, the crazy-looking genius with weird hair that put women off? Could parental and gender expectations have played a part?
Before Richard Feynman was born, his father said, “If this is a boy, he will be a scientist”. Feynman was taught fundamental physical phenomena from a few years old, an example of parental expectations shaping a child’s future.
Gender stereotype also has a part to play. A study in the United States showed that several factors appeared to encourage women to go into physics. They either have a parent in science, or they go to an all-girl school, or come from a family of girls. Whereas, images of women being teachers, nurses, air hostesses and supermodels tend to lure women away from a career in science.
Sociologists may care to conduct a similar study in Chinese communities and assess the leakage of women talents as one goes up the academic ladder.
Apart from the glaring absence of women among Nobel physics laureates, the rarity of Chinese physicists is also highly noticeable. Only five Chinese physicists have received the highest accolade, two of whom, Samuel Ting and Steven Chu, were born and brought up in the United States. Yang Chen Ning and Lee Tsung Dao completed their university education in China and went into research in the United States where they made their groundbreaking discoveries. Tsui Chee is from Hong Kong.
Research culture and funding are two direct factors, but a more fundamental question is: why did modern science originate in Europe even though ancient and mediaeval China had seen remarkable achievements in science? For example, gunpowder, paper, compass and printing are four great inventions of ancient China with sociological significance.
Joseph Needham, the world’s pre-eminent authority on Chinese science, analysed the different approaches to science in China and Europe. He observed that the Chinese were a fundamentally practical people, inclined to distrust theories. This did not imply an easily satisfied mind because careful experimentation was practised in classical Chinese culture. However, the secrecy with which details of new discoveries were guarded had inhibited the transmission of knowledge on which to build further development. As a result, scientific and technological progress in China was overtaken by the exponential rise in the West after the birth of modern science during the Renaissance.
The fundamental bases of modern science are the application of mathematical hypotheses to Nature, full understanding and use of experimental methods, and a critical and inquiring mind. It has been said that these three factors represent the most effective method of discovery, leading to exponential growth in scientific achievements in the West.
The situation is changing in the Mainland as science and technology are recognised as the engine for economic development, accompanied by a rapid expansion of tertiary education and huge investment in research. Over the past ten years, universities in Hong Kong have also stepped up research work with a substantial injection of research funding. These trends, we hope, will attract more accomplished overseas Chinese scientists to return to work in Hong Kong or the Mainland.
Physics is one of the most significant fundamental sciences that impacts on every aspect of our life. It helps us understand the basic operation of our universe and explores the properties and interactions of matter and energy.
Over the years, exciting new discoveries have significantly improved the quality of life of mankind, and opened up new possibilities that were once unimaginable. The internet, for example, has shortened the distances between people and turned the world into a global village. Nano-medical technologies have substantially reduced the trauma of operations. Advances in space sciences have led astronauts to explore Mars after walking on the Moon.
As we move into the 21st century, we will continue to look to science to resolve many of the socio-economic challenges. Visionaries in the medical field talk about microscale robots that might identify and destroy bacteria, parasites or cancerous cells in the body. Improved solar panels, better fuel cell technology and more efficient means to tapping tidal and wave energy hold promises of meeting the increasing demand for energy. Hydrogen technologies offer the potential of zero-pollution transport. Super-computers could handle more complex data analyses and modelling to provide better understanding of complex phenomena ranging from the genome to global climate change.
We need scientists, more specifically physicists, to solve the puzzle of Nature and contribute to the development of China. The dialogue with academic masters over the next few days, I hope, will inspire and invoke commitment to a career in physics for the well-being of the human race and the future of the world.
Participants in this Science Camp are the top students of the top universities in China and Taiwan. Hence, I would like to conclude with a puzzle for you to mull over.
The great scientists of the 20th century decide to play hide-n-seek in heaven. Einstein is the one who has the den. He has to count up to 100 and then starts searching. Everyone except Newton find a hiding place. Newton just draws a square of one metre and stands in it, right in front of Einstein. By the time Einstein counts up to 100, he opens his eyes and finds Newton standing right in front. Einstein says, “Newton’s out.” Newton denies and says, “I am not out.” He claims that he is not Newton. The other scientists agree with him, why? [Answer: newton per meter square equals Pascal.]
I wish all participants a most stimulating and productive time in the Camp. For those of you who are in Hong Kong for the first time, I hope you will take time out to explore this dynamic city. Experience the distinctive blend of the East and West, enjoy the amazing skyline and gourmet cuisine, and take advantage of the summer promotion to bring home best buys.