‘Like science? Pursue a career in it, enjoy and succeed’

BusinessMirror, January 14, 2008

PARENTS will surely not be happy with his advice but it will delight advocates of science education: that children "ignore" their parents who insist in their pursuing a financially rewarding- courses like law and, medicine if they like to take science courses.

"If you love what you are doing, you succeed and enjoy life... you will be better at it... you can participate in .a wonderful adventure."

And to future scientists? Read science stories and "get excited.”

These are the words of wisdom imparted by Prof. David J. Gross, 2004 Nobel Laureate for Physics and director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California in Santa Barbara, in the "Dialogue with Researchers" held at the University of the Philippines-National Institute of Science and Mathematics Education Development by Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace and hosted by the International Peace foundation.

Gross, a gray haired scientist, was not the typical intimidating scientist. He brought the house down with his light banter and interesting anecdotes.

He even asked how many from the audience-majority of whom are students- are pursuing science courses, and expressed hope that they would pursue careers in science.

He said that there would be greater challenges for future scientists because society in general has a low appreciation of science.

“Many in our society don’t understand the beauty of science and what a great life it is [as a scientist],” said Gross, also the first incumbent of the Frederick W. Gluck chair in theoretical physics also at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Although financial success is an important component in today’s living, Gross stressed financial matters should not be the primary consideration in pursuing scientific studies. “Earning is just one aspect of life,” he said.
Gross said he is fortunate that he started to develop a love for physics at a young age. “At 13, I decided to become a theoretical physicist,” he said.

He developed his love for physics by reading popular science materials. “I was turned on, excited by physics very early…It wasn’t difficult; just study math and physics,” was his advice to students.

In a Third World country like the Philippines, appreciation of science is quite low and parents usually discourage their children in taking science courses, and push them to pursue “more financially rewarding” careers like medicine or law.

In response, Gross said the children should tackle the situation head-on and tell their parents that science is their career option.

In the case of physics graduates, he said they can work not only in research laboratories but also in other sectors such as information technology, banking, among others.

When asked if he developed a road map for his scientific career, including the winning of a Nobel, Gross told the audience that he did not have such plan and just pursued working on his researches until he found his magnum opus leading to the Nobel Prize in physics.

“You don’t go to science to win prizes and awards. You don’t go into science to make great discoveries and be recognized. You go there for the love of your pursuit, the love of working, of laboratories. I love research problems,” said Gross.

“People who are only motivated by winning prizes will live bitter lives,” he warned.

He was also a recipient of the J.J. Sakurai Prize of the American Physical Society in 1986, the Dirac Medal in 1988, the Oscar Klein Medal in 2000, the Harvey Prize of the Technion in 2000, and the High Energy and Particle Physics Prize of the European Physical Society in 2003.

Moreover, Gross said research is the main element why science is exciting. In this regard, he said the unpredictability of a scientific revolution also makes science a thrilling experience.

“It’s not research if it’s predictable. That’s the beauty of science,” he said.

In his experience, it was doing his graduate studies when he had “break out” period. At this stage, Gross said he developed his potential with the help of competent mentors. “I was lucky to have very talented mentors who helped a lot in developing my skills in physics.”

Gross said the current batch of physics students is very lucky because of the Internet. He said the huge volume of information and materials on the Web can immensely help students in their research in 24/7 mode.

Gross told the audience that he is now relieved of the “October” tension when he finally bagged the plum for physics in 2004 for solving in 1973 the last great remaining problem of what has since come to be called “the Standard Model” of the quantum mechanical picture of reality. He and his co-recipients discovered how the nucleus of atoms works.

Before winning the award, he laughed as he said that October of every year was a very difficult time because of the expectations mainly from friends and colleagues that he will be the winner.

“When they announced that I won, I told my wife there are no more October disappointments. It feels good and a lot of fun.”

Gross shared the award with Frank Wilczek, now a physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was Gross’s graduate student at Princeton University, when the pair completed the calculation that resulted in the discovery for which they have received the Nobel Prize. The other recipient, H. David Politzer, a physics professor as the California Institute of Technology, was working independently on a similar calculation.

They discovered and explored the force that binds particles inside an atomic nucleus. The phenomenon led to a whole new physical theory and enabled scientists to complete the standard model of particle physics, which described the fundamental particles in nature and how they interact with one another.

Relating the announcement, he said he got a call around 2:30 a.m. from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and participated by phone in the press conference under way in Stockholm.

He recalled that he described his initial reaction as “shock” and told his wife “this is it.”

He said the Nobel Prize signified that scientific discoveries have become a broader field. This means that scientific explorations into fundamental reality are not only confined to brilliant minds such as Galileo or Newton or Einstein, but a collaborative effort by a community of scientists.
“Hundreds of experimental physicists at the world’s accelerator laboratories have designed and run the experiments that gave us early hints about how the strong force operates and then, after we published our theory, proved it. The effort to explore the subtleties of the nuclear force continues today; we still have many implications of the theory to work out,” he said in a statement posted on the web site of Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics.

On the issue of global warming, Gross said it is an immediate problem that needs to be addressed quickly.

He said there is a need to find an economic or political system that could respond to the current challenges. He added that the growth factor in economies should be given a second look because this has created a huge environmental disaster for many countries resulting in desertification, deforestation and pollution, among others.

“What is an economic or political system for if it can’t function on a continuous growth in the long run,” said Gross.

He added that even if a certain country achieves a 10-percent exponential growth will be useless if it can’t be sustained.