The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nobel Laureate Douglas D. Osheroff

Today, I had the privilege of hearing Nobel Laureate Professor Douglas D. Osheroff talk. His public lecture, “How Science Changes Our Lives”, was held at the Pusat Sains Negara – or the Science Centre, in Kuala Lumpur.

I attended the talk along with Ainan, 11, Fintan, 7 and our friends Zuhairah Ali, of the NAGCM and her son, Ismael.

For me, the talk itself was as I expected it to be: “Science Light”. It was an overview of some of the major figures in science and the major creative works, with, in the view of Professor Osheroff, the most impact. It was a personal tour of the highlights of science, by Osheroff. It was interesting to note, however, a strong environmental thread throughout it, in that he went to the trouble to present the evidence, graphically, to the audience, of how CO2 levels are affecting global temperatures. This could have been interpreted as an anti-science remark, in that use of fossil fuels and the attendant technology had led to global warming. Osheroff deflected this conclusion by saying: “Scientists are not to blame for global warming: Mankind is.”

For me, the most interesting part was the question and answer session at the end. I was the first to ask him a question, which was rather good in a way, since it encouraged the more customarily shy Asian audience to step forward in a long queue, after me.

I asked the grey bearded Professor Osheroff: “What do you think are the most important qualities in a scientist?”

He smiled at that, as if about to joke. “Well, you have to be pretty smart, for a start.”

The audience laughed.

“I would say, intelligence, curiosity and persistence.”

“Which of those three is the most important?”

“Well...”, he looked off into the air, as if struck by the difficulty of such a choice, at first.

“I would say curiosity”.

That is kind of what I had thought he would say, but it was good to hear it from a man who had already made the kind of journey through life that he had.

Another remark he made, which didn’t surprise me. He complained, at one point, that “Since getting the Nobel Prize, I have had a lot less time to do the kind of work that got me the prize in the first place.”

This is similar to Doris Lessing’s complaint of a few years back, that all she could do after the Nobel Prize, was to answer questions from journalists. So, perhaps it is merciful, indeed, that Nobel Prizes usually come late in a career, long after the work was done that won it.

Yet, it wasn’t all complaints. He observed that winning the Nobel Prize had afforded him many opportunities that he would never have been offered otherwise. He received offers from all over the world, like the one today. He could “pick and choose” which to do. He had chosen to come to Malaysia three times, for these Nobel Laureate lectures. He noted that before the Nobel Prize, he would fly about 30,000 miles a year. After the prize, he now flew about 150,000 miles per year. (Hence, “I spend my time doing all these things, and not thinking about my next experiment!).

However, he declared that he enjoyed speaking about science, in fact, he said: “The most important thing I can do now, is to stimulate young people to go into science.”
So, Professor Osheroff’s presence at the talk was part of his ongoing mission to excite interest in science in the young. Many in the audience were quite young: there were many secondary school students present. They seemed pretty sharp about science too. One boy asked: “Why does superfluid helium move towards warmer places on its own?”

“Are you an undergraduate?”, he asked of the boy in school uniform, with a white shirt and red tie.

“No. I am in secondary school.”, he said, with a proud little smile.

"How do you know THAT?”, asked an amazed Professor Osheroff.

“I did some research into it,” said the boy.

“Well, I don’t know how to answer you without a lot of maths, but it has to do the Gibbs Free Energy.”

One question received a particularly intense answer from Professor Osheroff.

“When you started out in science, was it your goal to win a Nobel Prize?”

“No.” He countered, a little worked up about it. “I think the people who go into science wanting to win a Nobel Prize are going to end up bitter men, because they are mostly men, in science. Bitter because they didn’t reach their goals in life. No. I think you should choose realistic goals and go after them. Choose good goals – but they have to be achievable.”

“What were your goals then?”

“Just to do experiments I was interested in.” His simple answer was set beside, in many of the audience’s mind, the magnitude of his success in doing so.

“It is OK for a nation, like Malaysia, to aspire to a Nobel Prize. I think that is doable. Although you have to be aware of the statistics. America has...oh...(eyes glazed in calculation), about 50 times the number of scientists as Malaysia, and we only get a few Nobel Prizes here and there.”

“There is hope.” He observed. “After all, this auditorium is full – and there is another room out there, with people watching on TV screens. So, there is a lot of interest in science, among the young, here, in Malaysia.”

He finished off his lecture with a call to action: “I hope some of you will choose to go into science!”

It was a rallying cry, and he clearly enjoyed giving it.

Professor D. Osheroff became a Nobel Laureate for being one of the three co-discoverers of the superfluidity of Helium 3. He has spent his life researching into low temperature Physics. He is presently a Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Stanford University, though, interestingly, he refers to himself as “not an applied scientist” but a basic scientist.

Nobel Laureate Professor Douglas D. Osheroff’s talk was part of Malaysia’s National Nobel Laureate Programme, which proposes to inspire an interest in science in Malaysians by flying in Nobel Laureates to speak every year. I think the programme is a good idea and a lot of kids had glowing eyes, today, at the chance to hear a real, live Nobel Laureate speak. We enjoyed it, too and I hope the National Nobel Laureate Programme remains a permanent fixture of the Public Lecture circuit in Malaysia.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 9:14 PM 


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