Why Do Nobel Laureate Oppose Scientific Research of a Single Discipline? Take a Look at How the World’s Top Scientists Have Crossed Disciplinary Boundaries
Date: 2020-11-02
Source: Shanghai Observer
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Abstract: Steven Chou, Vice Chairman of World Laureates Association, Nobel Laureate in Physics, has diversified and wide-ranging interests.

As a Nobel laureate in chemistry, Michael Levitt has not only become a “scientific activist” in his circle, but also established an data model for the pandemic. The vice president of World Laureates Association frequently appeared at the 3rd World Laureates Forum. On November 1, he said to the international counterparts in various disciplines that his real “hobby” was mathematics and computer.

A reporter from Jiefang Daily·Shanghai Observer found that top scientists like Michael prefer interdisciplinary research integrating mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc., instead of being stuck in their professional fields. Some Nobel laureates even clearly aired their opposition on the scientific research of independent disciplines, because one single discipline can no longer support major scientific research activities now.

[Natural integration based on the shared nature]

“The data in Hubei hasn’t shown exponential growth.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, despite being far away from the the epicenter, Professor Michael Levitt used mathematical calculation to share his observation with the world, and conducted forward-looking calculations with the number of cases, deaths and cured patients. The doctor in biophysics from the University of Cambridge employed a numerical model to prove that the claim that COVID-19 may cause 500,000 deaths in Britain was false. He said, “I’m not an epidemiologist. I only focus on the simplicity of numbers.” He believed in himself rather than scary rumors.

“High performance computing provides a third way for scientific discovery apart from experimentation and theoretical research.” In fact, Levitt has made remarkable achievements in developing multiscale computing methods, making simulations of complex chemical and biological systems, and exploring the fine structure of biological macromolecules. He revealed that he had learned mathematics and programming in university, and he has always been asking questions, doing things, and trying to tell people scientific facts.

Steven Chou, Vice Chairman of World Laureates Association and Nobel Laureate in Physics, also has diversified and wide-ranging interests. He has recently studied biology on the basis of physics. He is also very interested in imaging, especially medical images such as ultrasound images. He thinks that traditional ultrasound images are not clear, and new technologies can them clearer, thus showing the difference between normal tissues and tumor tissues.

In Steven Chou’s eyes, microwave and ultrasonic technologies are being studied by two groups of people without much communication between them. His team and other teams are conducting battery research at Stanford University, aiming to develop a more environmental-friendly battery technology with faster charging and lower cost, which is obviously not limited to physics.

Science knows no boarders. The Japanese scientist Ryoji Noyori is also a Nobel laureate in Chemistry. The chemistry in his eyes is based on materials from all over the world. It’s about using existing substances to invent desired things, which is called “central science”. However, he is not satisfied with the existing division of disciplines and opposed to single discipline research. He believes that science based on the shared nature is inherently integrated. “Chemistry is enabled by mathematics and information. Any innovative research relies on the combination with different disciplines.”

[Crossing disciplinary boundaries has not yet achieved deep integration]

Nobel laureates are not the only group that love interdisciplinary research, and many top scientists have gone further in crossing the boundaries of disciplines.

Harris Lewin mainly engaged in biological research is the recipient of the 2011 Wolf Prize in Agriculture. He now mostly focuses on AI, but not AI and brain science, but AI intervention in gene sequencing. As the person chiefly in charge of the “Earth Bio-Genome Project”, he admitted that the project encountered many obstacles, especially the lack of high-quality DNA sequences. In about 6,000 sets of DNA sequences that have been obtained, less than 0.4% or fewer than 500 sets have high-quality characteristics.

The application of AI will not only increase the scope and efficiency, analyze a larger umber of genetic data, but also figure out genetic interactions. “Understanding all gene functions can help protect and even rebuild the ecosystem, and learn about the evolution potential of people and everything in the future.”

Graham Farquhar, the winner of Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, is actually a botanist, but he focuses on the whole earth. He believes that plants are also related to global climate change at both the macro level and micro level.

Therefore, Farquhar studies subtle changes of plant leaves that absorb longwave radiation and reflect shortwave radiation, making people as well as birds and insects feel the radiant heat. The heat makes water evaporate from the surface of leaves. In addition, the green leaf photosynthesis seems to be a relatively inefficient energy conversion process that can be neglected. However, it can be integrated with energy change on the earth’s surface for new research.

Perhaps, we haven’t reached a new stage of deep integration in crossing disciplinary boundaries. Bao Chau Ngo, the recipient of 2010 Fields Medal, engaged in algebraic geometry, took the Riemann hypothesis as an example. This famous hypothesis proposed in the middle of 19th century caused a great sensation at the time. It remains the most difficult mystery to be solved in mathematics, and scientists have made little progress in this aspect. “These theories are directly related to understanding nature. The biggest breakthrough may come from the intersection of different fields, such as the combination of statistics, mathematics and physics.” Bao Chau Ngo hopes to see new ideas out of this.

[Integration crossing disciplinary boundaries becomes the norm]

Same with the interrelation among different disciplines, basic research and applied research cannot be completely separated or isolated from each other.

“Today’s science and technology are far from sufficient for the prevention and control of diseases, especially for the fight against viral diseases,” said David Baulcombe, the winner of Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (Lasker Awards is known as the wind indicator of Nobel Prize). He talked about the sense of responsibility, which means the responsibility of “transforming science into technology”.

In Baulcombe’s view, the difference between basic science and applied science is unduly magnified and emphasized in today’s world. “The difference between basic and applied science is too huge. Some scientists even position themselves as basic scientists or applied sciences, which shows their acquiescence of the difference.”

Since the inception of the laboratory, he has received continuous funding for more than 20 years. He always remembered what the sponsors had told him and his colleagues, “I hope you will conduct important research, be it basic research or applied research.” Baulcombe said that those involved in basic research need to think how the results can be applied, and that those engaged in applied research need to think about how to follow up the research, not only by themselves, but by others with the ability. In the pharmaceutical field, some drugs can cure diseases and save people even though they can not make a profit. “Such research, be it in basic field or applied field, cannot make a large sum of money, but can bring real benefits to people.”

The 3rd World Laureates Forum held in Shanghai once again this year, was just wrapped up, but its influence will last for a long time. More than a hundred top scientists from different fields, and a “new wave” of young scientists, had exchanges under the same roof, triggering sparks of inspiration and flames of thoughts in different fields. As the academician Steven Chou says, it is hoped that such exchanges will become the new normal in the global scientific community, and will never even end.