Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Serendipity of Science and Why Dreamers are Important - Nobel Laureate Sheldon Glashow at UMass Amherst

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Sheldon Glashow, a Nobel laureate in physics speak on "A Parable of the Pure and the Practical," at UMass Amherst.

When I saw the announcement for his talk, which was quite provocative and which is reposted below, I knew that the talk would be great:

Politicians and opinion makers argue stridently that governments and universities should invest only in such areas of research that are likely to result in immediate and specific benefits, through wealth enhancement or job creation. They find undirected curiositydriven research in basic science to be useless and unaffordable luxuries that consume resources rather than promoting economic growth and human welfare. 

This talk will show how wrong they are.

Dr. Glashow was inspiring, entertaining, and very energetic and he spoke to a standing room only crowd. He mentioned that this was only the second time he was giving this lecture - the first being in China.

He quoted from Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind," and demonstrated the role that serendipity plays in scientific discoveries. Researchers are trying to do something but find something else from saccharine to velcro, to teflon, to even Viagra (lots of chuckles from the audience).

He emphasized that dreamers are important and that many Nobel prize discoveries where, at first, useless.  He showed through numerous examples - I took photos of some of his slides, which I have posted below, because I could not write fast enough in my notes - that curiosity-driven searches are as effective as directed ones. He also noted technology transfers and that these may take years but without the discovery of DNA structure we would not have gene therapies, without general relativity we would not have GPS systems, and noted that radioisotopes saved his life. This reminded me of the medical nuclear supply chain work that we have published several papers on.

One has to "keep one's eyes wide open" for those accidental discoveries. Think of Kevlar, for example.

I also VERY MUCH appreciated his emphasis of the importance of international collaborations because that is fundamental to our work at the Virtual Center for Supernetworks at the Isenberg School at UMass! He also related his fond memories of his high school in NYC, the Bronx High School of Science, which has produced more Nobel laureates than any high school on the planet - 7 in physics and 1 in chemistry (he did share a lot of jokes about chemists).

You can click on the photos below to enlarge them.
Remember the importance of the scientific method and the prepared mind!

Dr. Glashow also mentioned that his sister-in-law was Lynn Margulis, a former UMass faculty member, who passed away not long ago. I thanked him for his brilliant lecture afterwards and we reminisced about NYC. You could tell that his sense of wonder about the universe has never left him, which is truly special!

And, speaking of those great old school ties, Dr. Glashow was introduced by his former classmate at the Bronx High School of Science, Professor Morton Sternheim, who, along with his wife, has endowed this lecture series.