Crawling Toward 2020

“My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.” – Alfred Nobel

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

The Nobel Centennial Exhibition was just over at the National Science Centre. Alfred Nobel made an awful lot of money from his 1866 invention (he had 355 patents) – dynamite. This wonderfully destructive material helped in the creation of spectacular feats of engineering but it also helped kill people more efficiently. Nobel was a man of many interests as well as science – he wrote plays, novels, was a linguist and was deeply interested in social questions. On November 27, 1895, Nobel signed his last will providing for the establishment of the Nobel Prize to celebrate the nobler things in life: Science, literature and peace. Since their inception the prizes have become extraordinarily prestigious – helped no doubt by Sweden’s neutrality and the nation’s perceived sophistication.

Now Malaysia wants to attain a Nobel Prize. Murmurings have been going on ever since Mahathir first mentioned the idea back in 1998 and now a proposal has been submitted to the Government outlining steps needed to produce a Nobel laureate by that auspicious Malaysian year, 2020. Academy of Sciences Malaysia vice-president Datuk Dr Mohd Salleh Mohd Nor said the initiative would be carried out under the National Scientific Research Council and was an “initial path towards getting a Malaysian Nobel prize winner.” He added, “It will promote fundamental research in the universities which will be carried out in satellite laboratories that will be established. And it is also a way to create an environment for the right kind of research.” Who knows, something may even come of it although it is interesting to note that there is no official desire to win a prize for literature or, heaven forbid, peace.

That’s because science is perceived to be politically neutral. I was always sceptical of Mahathir’s “Great Leap Forward” pronouncements. They invariably led to a Guinness book of world records ethos. Ministers and civil servants would rush to complete grand schemes that looked creaky when viewed up close. Malaysia has been blighted by a rash of initiatives that were not undertaken thoroughly or with any passion for achievement – it was enough that they were there and it didn’t matter if they were not as good as they could be or if they didn’t even function terribly well. I include the National Science Centre.

From a distance, the National Science Centre’s Buckminster Fuller inspired geodesic dome looks surprisingly radical and un-Malaysian but on closer inspection one finds the reassuring homely signs of poor maintenance, cheap finishing, exposed cables and a dirty dome. Inside one finds the customary large, cheap, bland floor-tiles that carpet all municipal structures from the National Art Gallery to a school’s outside toilets. They’re an inspired touch to soften the shock of the new. The exhibits also have that ramshackle Malaysian feel. The tragic, desiccated looking mechanical turtle forlornly waving its arms, works not so much to remind us that the animal is endangered but that we might actually be doing them a favour by putting them out of their misery.

The intentions at the National Science Centre are good – introduce science as hands-on, exciting and non­ threatening. And the restrictions are clear – keep it within budget and make it childproof. But all the exhibits are plastered with explanations printed out from cheap civil service printers, the exhibitions do not flow and the sheer cheapness means it fails in its most important mission – it fails to inspire. These exhibits are designed by civil servants who know something about science but who know nothing about presentation, however much they are of their audience. Remember, Form and Function.

The Centre’s “Pathway to Science” permanent exhibition starts with a painting of some Arabs doing scientific stuff a long, long time ago. So long ago in fact that it might just as well have been in a galaxy far, far away. Opposite, there is a picture of Einstein, that noted Jewish scientist fellow. Yes, we must not be threatened by scientific pursuit and it is not antithetical to Islam. But the pictures are hidden, framed differently and cheaply. This pathway is strewn with good intentions.

Upstairs is an exhibition of an altogether different calibre: The Nobel Prize Centennial Exhibition. Here is a classy, plush yet small travelling exhibition. It is eclectic in presentation, mixing audio-visual displays with lovely tactile machinery within a consistent, satisfying whole. Here we discover everything from individual Nobel Laureate stories to what they eat on prize day itself. One video presentation, tucked away in a cozy booth tells us about the trials and tribulations of being a scientist. One scientist describes the depression and prozac; his university mailman tells us how he feels sorry for the scientists who work under great pressure to discover and yet they rarely do. It’s a surprising, boldly honest and seldom mentioned aspect of the academic/scientific world.

The exhibition’s intent is to inspire and teach us about the Nobel prize as opposed to science specifically and in that it does a fine job. After all, the Nobel Prizes cover literature, science, medicine, biology, economics and, of course, peace. Not many will walk out of it filled with a desire to take up a life of scientific discovery but if any do then that is good. Hopefully at least it will show to parents and children alike that pursuing these fields is something to be respected even if it is not easily attainable.

The name of the Nobel exhibition is “Cultures of Creativity”. Science, or indeed any endeavour that’s worth a damn, is a creative process. Creativity needs to be nurtured and inspired. It needs decent education, funding and freedom. We can try to fast-track a Nobel prize winner but we must develop a culture of creativity. But then somebody might win a prize for literature. It’s a scary thought. By the way, Alfred Nobel was entirely self-taught and never went to university.

First Published: 30.06.2004 on Kakiseni

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