Nobel laureates: Think like a child, study a useless subject

Nobel laureates drop in to paint a vision of the future of education – and share their inspiring journey to self-discovery

By Derek Rodriguez

With his shock of white hair and deep authoritative voice, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has often been mistaken as actor Morgan Freeman.

But it wasn’t for this that the audience stared at him with collective surprise. The celebrated playwright’s assertion that “students should be compelled to learn a ‘useless’ subject” was met with a brief moment of disbelief, before he explained that students should be pushed to go beyond their comfort zones.

Interestingly, Prof Soyinka’s “useless” subject was mathematics. And mathematics was what got him through a period of solitary confinement when he was a political prisoner in his native Nigeria.

Listening to several stirring anecdotes like this was the highlight of the Nobel Prize Series, which took place in NTU on 5 and 6 November last year. The global debut of this event saw five Nobel laureates – Profs Soyinka (Literature), Stefan Hell (Chemistry), Sir Harold Kroto (Chemistry), Ada Yonath (Chemistry) and Sir James Mirrlees (Economic Sciences) – sharing their opinions on education and their experiences in their respective fields in a series of lectures.

Driven by the theme The Future of Learning, the event kicked off with a roundtable dialogue showcasing the Nobel laureates, industry leaders, academics, students, NTU Chairman Mr Koh Boon Hwee and Singapore’s Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), Mr Ong Ye Kung, at NTU’s iconic learning hub, The Hive, itself a concrete manifestation of the theme.

At the heart of the discussions was a debate on how to educate new-age learners. As Singapore’s President, Dr Tony Tan, said in his speech at the opening of the event: “The education system must prepare students to tackle social and ethical issues that arise as technological advances enable humankind to do more.”

The Nobel laureates and guest speakers agreed on one thing: the importance of fuelling curiosity in the young and the university’s role in cultivating inquisitiveness in students, along with a big heart for humanity. So say “goodbye” to your 10-year-series exam questions. The world’s greatest minds in science asked questions first, before they tried to find their own answers.
Mark their words

“A waste of human talent is in process when the individual does not have the opportunity of education. If you don’t use a muscle, it atrophies, and this applies to the mind. Every opportunity to exercise that crucial part of the human anatomy, the brain, is the entitlement of every human being in society.” - Wole Soyinka Nobel laureate (Literature)
“No matter how much we know, we should be curious about things that happen around us. And teachers should encourage curiosity.” Ada Yonath Nobel laureate (Chemistry)
“Like most physics students I was attracted to fancy theories like quantum mechanics and particle physics. But when it came to selecting a subject for my PhD thesis, I lost courage. I had two options, either to become miserable and drop my thesis or to do something cool. I opted for the latter.” Stefan Hell Nobel laureate (Chemistry)
“A particular characteristic of universities is the cultivation of social consciousness. It’s because of this feature of universities that I want university education to be extended to as many people as possible.” Sir James Mirrlees Nobel laureate (Economic Sciences)
“I consider humanity to be our greatest achievement. In every country, I want to hear this said to the young people: Put humanity first.” Sir Harold Kroto Nobel laureate (Chemistry)