Words from the Director

In a recent lecture at the IAS, Sheldon Lee Glashow, a Nobel Laureate, emphasized the role serendipity plays in scientific discovery. While many important discoveries and developments have resulted from well-planned and highly directed research, at least as many have come about in fully unexpected fashion: Becquerel's discovery of spontaneous radiation; Rutherford's discovery of the atomic nucleus; and the more recent discovery of graphene, just to name a few. A marvelously strong, flexible material made of an atomic layer of carbon atoms, graphene was first produced by essentially removing an atomically thin layer from a chunk of graphite (the stuff used in pencils) using sticky tape. 

Progress in science requires creativity and open-mindedness, particularly the ability to recognize an important result even when it disagrees with pre-conceived notions of what an experiment is supposed to show, or when it is not even remotely related to the original purpose of the experiment. How do we generate and maintain this creative and open spirit among the young men and women of Hong Kong? We often bemoan the lack of interest in science and STEM-related pursuits among Hong Kong's young people, as evidenced by university admissions and employment figures. But I believe that we, the adults, are largely to blame for the problem.

As the father of a curious six-year-old, I spend a fair amount of time associating with children under the age of 10. One hundred percent of these children exhibit the greatest curiosity, and I am constantly bombarded by questions about the natural world: Why is the sky blue? How does the Sun work? How come the slime we play with is so sticky? When I interact with youngesters in high school, this percentage is notably less, perhaps half as much. And undergraduates at university? Outside a science and technology focused institution like my own, I would be surprised to find the fraction greater than one-quarter. And in the post-university graduate population, we are certainly talking about single digits.

People are born with the most inquisitive minds. Asking how we can get youngsters interested in creative pursuits is clearly the wrong question; rather, we should ask how to prevent them from losing this interest. Our society has the luxury of being able to provide a safe and well-resourced environment to pursue creative activities, especially in STEM, but instead our educational system emphasizes rote learning, standardization, memorization, and massive amounts of homework. All of these have a place in the learning process, but we must not lose sight of the true function of education: to encourage and train young members of society to realize their creative potential, to become not just productive adults, but to thrive in their pursuits and truly contribute to our world.

At the IAS, we think about how to show young people the benefits, both to themselves and their societies, of maintaining the creative and imaginative spirits throughout their lives. Many of the most important technological developments that have transformed our world over the past decades have been byproducts of this creative impulse: the Internet, micro-electronics, and antibiotics are just a few examples.

Societies thrive where research and creative activities are well supported. As we explore the future of this city we call home, we should be midful of both the usefulness and the profound joy that follows from those serendipitous moments when we try to answer questions that begin "I wonder what happens if..."

Andrew G Cohen
Director and Lam Woo Foundation Professor
HKUST Jockey Club Institute for Advanced Study