When opportunity calls, just answer the telephone

The Nation - Saturday, February 07, 2004

Dr Richard J Roberts, a 1993 Nobel Laureate for Medicine, said yesterday that if your phone rings at six in the morning on a holiday, you should still pick it up. Roberts who won the prize for discovering split genes back in 1977 said he had no clue when the caller asked him, 'Did you hear the news?' His only concern was preventing his family from being awoken too early in the morning.

He asked the caller, who turned out to be from CNN, whether he knew what time it was, before being told that he had won the Nobel Prize.

And the secret?

Roberts said it is important for parents and teachers to nurture curiosity and an inquisitive mind among the young, which might lead to important discoveries in the future.

'A lot of things inspired me. . . . Insatiable curiosity. You want to know why the trees grow up or why they form the branches the way they do.'

As a child, he enjoyed solving puzzles, reading about Sherlock Holmes and putting together home-made fireworks.

It is important that children have the opportunity to get their hands on science, he said.

'Make more fireworks,' was his advice to children. 'Get your kids to do a hands-on experiment. They may lose a finger or two along the way, [but] life is not without risks,' said Roberts.

Roberts lamented at an earlier lecture on Thursday that these days people's main motivation to do anything appears to be money.

Roberts, who studied at Sheffield University in England but has worked in the United States for the past three decades, said money has become the new religion in the US and this new creed is spreading around the globe.

Roberts emphasised that working on something one is passionate about is crucial. 'My wife says I work too much, but I don't think of it as work.'After a technical lecture on his discovery of split genes yesterday, Roberts also talked about some of the good things that happened after he took that phone call.

The trip to Sweden to collect his prize was an awe-inspiring experience, said Roberts. It began with an announcement while flying there with Scandinavian Airline Systems that one of the passenger was a new Nobel Laureate, followed by complimentary champagne for all passengers and a toast in his honour.

After the plane landed, Roberts said he was treated to a wonderful ceremony. The award night, which takes place every December, includes people saying 'nice things that you would be embarrassed to say about yourself'.

He added: 'I would recommend that if you get the call, say 'yes'! Ever since I won I have had many wonderful invitations, including coming here to talk to you in Thailand.'

Roberts' visit is part of an on-going series of lectures called 'Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace' organised by the International Peace Foundation.

Pravit Rojanaphruk