Nobel laureate inspires youth

Vietnam News, 04 December 2012

Since winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1996, Stanford University Professor Douglas Osheroff has traveled the world promoting the importance of science. Viet Nam News reporter Le Quynh Anh spoke with him.

You have visited Viet Nam to deliver a lecture on the topic "How science changes our lives" as a keynote speaker in the fourth ASEAN event series "Bridges - Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace" facilitated by the International Peace Foundation. What is the main message you wanted to put across, especially to young and aspiring science students?

I am here to share my excitement for science and explain how to make fresh discoveries as well as how to make use of them to improve our lives. The first thing I want to emphasise is that there are both positive and negative features with almost every contribution that science makes.
You don't get anything from nothing. In an ideal world, we want everything to have the desired impact, but sometimes there are undesirable secondary effects that we also have to take into consideration.

During my lecture, I talked about how a number of discoveries were made including my own, and I hope it inspired students to take up a career in science. I made the discovery that won me a Nobel Prize when I was a 23-year-old graduate student at Cornell University. It's kind of amazing that someone at that level could make such discovery, isn't it? I don't wish to say that anyone can do it, but I believe that if you are bright, creative and have the opportunities, you can.

Your discovery of superfluidity in the isotope Helium-3 has been praised as one of the major achievements in low temperature physics this century. Some have even compared your discovery for science to the moon landing's contribution to technology. Could you tell us in layman's terms about its significance?

The value of my discovery is that it allowed physicists to confirm the existence of a superfluid state that had been predicted but never observed. Superfluidity in Helium-3 is very similar to certain rare kinds of superconductivity which broadly is the state in metals where the electrical resistance disappears.

Thus by studying superfluidity in Helium-3 we could understand more fully the nature of superconductors. Typical common superconductors include zinc, lead, tin, and aluminum.
Superconductors now provide us with the most stable, and most homogeneous magnetic fields known to mankind. This characteristic is crucial for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, which is used in basic research and medicine. In addition, superconducting devices allow us to measure magnetic fields with incredible resolution and accuracy.

The device called a SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) has a myriad of applications, from measuring magnetic fields produced by the human heart to measuring incredibly weak voltages and electrical currents. Studies of superfluidity in Helium-3 have helped us to obtain an understanding about superconductivity. In all its forms, superconductivity and superfluidity in helium and in metals have resulted in several Nobel Prizes.

As a physicist working with nuclear particles, what is your stance on developing nuclear power? Do you think developing countries have sufficient resources to handle sophisticated technology like nuclear power?

In principle, nuclear power can be safe but we clearly don't fully understand what it requires to be safe. One little mistake could lead to horrible consequences, and that's one of the main problems with nuclear energy.

There's no question that nuclear power has its risks which will never be completely eliminated. But on the other side of the coin, burning fossil fuel carries all sorts of problems that are at least as real as those associated with nuclear power.

We seem to be in a state of denial, and think that burning coal is safe, but it is having profound effects on our environment. So you have to ask the question, which is worse?

The dangers you don't understand or the dangers you do understand. I think we should be able to build nuclear power plants that are safe. I believe developing countries can develop nuclear power, and one of the best approaches is to contract experienced companies to build nuclear power plants and services for you. That certainly eliminates a lot of hazards associated with using people who don't understand the processes.

What do you think would be a good way of raising standards of science and technology in developing countries, including Viet Nam, to the point that they can become developed countries?

The most important part of successful research is an environment that enables scientists to conduct a lot of experiments, but that is not available in many developing countries. In the West, there is equipment available but it is not being used for a variety of reasons. It would make a lot of sense to send it to developing countries. But I think for this to work as effectively as possible, we also need to send students to the West to learn how to use the equipment, rather than just send the equipment itself. It would be worthwhile developing a programme that works both ways.

You would decide what kind of equipment you want and there should be a way of distributing that request through research laboratories in the West. Laboratories from both sides should create a partnership and hopefully something really useful will come of it.

What I think needs to come out is the fact that the technology has been transferred.Sending students to work in research laboratories in developed countries is in my opinion one of the best ways to train scientists in third world countries that would enable them to catch up with science.
There is, of course, always the possibility that the students won't return to their home country. That's part of the risk that goes with having access to the best equipment is there. To encourage young researchers to return to their native homeland, I think that the most common strategy is to offer them considerable funds and personnel to set up their own research labs. For one thing, this demonstrates that their home country is serious about supporting science, and if young researchers does not return, the funds will not be wasted. — VNS