How to win a Nobel prize

December 21, 2001

You know what you have to do to join the ranks of the great science laureates, but just as important is what you don't do. Leo Esaki has a list of golden rules to help you on your way to stardom in Stockholm.

The 20th century was characterised by the remarkable progress of science and technology. Establishing the Nobel prize at the start of the century helped to foster such progress by stimulating global scientific competition. The race in business ventures based on new scientific knowledge has brought about further technological advances.

Among a number of great achievements of the 20th century, the following three are most significant and have greatly influenced the opening of new frontiers of science and technology:

* The advent of quantum mechanics, which explained the structure of the atom, thus dramatically upgrading our understanding of matter from a microscopic viewpoint

* The development of molecular biology, which has clarified the structure of the gene, thereby deepening our understanding of living organisms and opening up a new field of genetic engineering

* The evolution of information technology, comprising computers and telecommunications through the advancement of semiconductor devices, which enhanced functions of the mind.

Science is the institutionalised art of inquiry. It creates the information necessary for a systematic understanding of our physical and human environment, while technology is the application of scientific knowledge to the resolution of social and economic problems. Scientific progress has been a powerful tool in developing new technologies. Science and technology have made invaluable contributions to improved living standards in terms of economic development, the provision of health care and amenities, the upgrading of our infrastructure, and the mitigation of the effects of natural and human disasters.

It means we now realise that the future is not simply a natural extension of the past and the present. Scientific innovations and technological breakthroughs shape and form the future. The power of the human mind can be divided into two major categories. One involves the processes of analysing, understanding, selecting and making discretionary judgements. The other embraces the ability to create new ideas through perceptiveness and imagination.

Indeed, this creative mind is the engine for innovations and breakthroughs, and sustains the advance of human civilisation.

I would like to present a list of five research "don'ts" that anyone with an interest in realising his or her creative potential should heed. Who knows, it may even help you to win a Nobel prize.

Rule number one : don't allow yourself to be trapped by the constraints of your experience. If you allow yourself to get caught up in social conventions or circumstances, you will not notice the opportunity for a dramatic leap forward when it presents itself. Looking back at the history of the Nobel prize, you will notice that most of the laureates in the sciences have received the prize for work they undertook during their 30s. In my case, I was 32 years old when I developed the "Esaki tunnel diode". The point that I am trying to make is that younger people are able to look at things with a clearer vision, one that is not clouded by social conventions and past history.

Rule number two : don't allow yourself to become overly attached to any authority in your field - the great professor, perhaps. By becoming closely involved with a great professor, you risk losing sight of yourself and forfeiting the free spirit of youth. Although the great professor may be awarded the Nobel prize, it is unlikely that his subordinates will.

Rule number three : don't hold on to what you don't need. The information-oriented society facilitates easy access to an enormous amount of information. Be careful of misinformation and badly organised information. The brain can be compared to a personal computer with an energy consumption of about 25 watts. In terms of memory capacity or computing speed, the human brain has not changed much since ancient times. Therefore, we must constantly input and delete information, and we should save only the information that is truly vital, in a relevant form. As the president of a university, I have the opportunity to meet with many people and to exchange meishi (name cards) with them. I try to discard the name cards as soon as possible, so that I always leave maximum memory space open. I'm kidding, of course...

Rule number four : don't avoid confrontation. I myself became embroiled in some trouble with the company I was working for many years ago. At times, it is necessary to put yourself first and to defend your own position.

Rule number five : don't forget your spirit of childhood curiosity. It is a vital component for imagination.

Having listed the five rules, let me say that they alone will not create the conditions necessary for success. They are merely suggested guidelines. Good luck!

Leo Esaki was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1973.

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