Friday, November 28, 2008

ST: Putting the oomph into physics

From the Straits Times on 28 Nov 2008:

Putting the oomph into physics

STUDENTS have been going for engineering, the life sciences and mathematics, and bypassing physics.

But physicists are needed in industries here, said Senior Minister of State for Education Lui Tuck Yew yesterday.

Singapore's having top-notch physicists was a key factor behind the world's biggest solar company - Renewable Energy Corporation of Norway - investing $6.3 million in a solar plant here, he said.

The concern, though, is over the future supply of physicists here.

Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui was speaking at the opening of the High-Energy Physics Conference, organised to interest 58 junior college and secondary school students in the subject. Teachers and university lecturers are also attending it.

Declared open at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) yesterday, the three-day event will feature presentations by 29 eminent physicists, including Nobel laureate professors Martin Perl and Gerard't Hooft.

Top students of physics from the schools will also take part in a workshop.

The numbers tell the story of the flagging interest in physics: The number of undergraduates reading the subject at the National University of Singapore has been stagnant at around 60 in the last seven years; at NTU, 70 are studying it this year, up from 27 in 2005, when the physics programme began there.

Of the nearly 10,500 graduates in 2006, over half - 55 per cent - had gone for engineering, the life sciences, mathematics and information technology.

Associate Professor Quek Leong Chuan, who chairs the Institute of Physics, called for more to be done to promote the subject in schools.

The institute will conduct more talks and seminars for students and raise the profile of physicists working in various industries, he said.

Professor Alfred Huan, who heads NTU's School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, added that having quality teachers was key to inspiring students' interest in the subject.

Former Raffles Junior College student Krithin Sitaran, 20, who has completed national service, will be reading physics at Princeton University.

He said: 'Rather than apply a ready-made solution to a problem, physics teaches me to think outside the box to find solutions.'

This was a point RADM Lui made earlier. He said that even if physics students decided to leave the field, their training makes for a strong foundation in managerial and leadership positions.

Lui Teck Yew claims that we need physicists for industries in Singapore and cites the example of Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) moving to Singapore because of, in his own words, Singapore's 'having of top-notch physicists'. This is of course utter rubbish. on two counts.

1. Singapore does not have any real top-notch physicists if you discount part-time faculty poached from other universities like Sir Anthony Leggett who doesn't work full-time or do any research in Singapore. I can only think of at most one real Singaporean top-notch physicist but I doubt his field of research was what motivated REC to invest in Singapore.

2. The supply of trained physicists in Singapore is probably not a significant factor in REC's decision to locate its manufacturing facility in Singapore. Don't take my word for it. Check out its job adverts for vacancies in Singapore. If you search for 'Physics' jobs, there are no vacancies. Zilch, nada, zip. If you search for engineering-related jobs in the same website, all of the positions are microelectronics-related and can be filled by any person who has some familiarity with silicon technology. That person can be trained in chemistry, materials science, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or physics. There is no specific requirement for graduates holding physics degrees. Those engineering positions in REC Singapore require the same technical background as any other engineering position in a wafer fabrication facility in Singapore.

Conclusion: Senor Minister of State for Education Lui Teck Yew is talking nonsense. Either that or he's been fed misleading information by his subordinates.


testtube said...

I also found it very strange that he was talking about this at the opening of a High-Energy Physics Conference. Two things are strange:

1) Whatever 'physics' is involved in HEP, it is very, very far removed from the kind of physics Singapore is interested in (i.e. anything that can make money in the short-to-medium term). In fact, it's just about the most far-removed field of physics they could pick (up there with cosmology). If the poor JC kids are dragooned into studying physics because of the wonderful ideas they are exposed to at this conference, how is that a good thing for Singapore? How will it help Singapore to have lots of aspiring particle physicists? Is the idea that inspiring kids with particle physics will lead to some sort of 'contagion' effect in that more of these kids will end up as other sorts of physicists after being misled into a physics major? But why would you want to do this? Why even pretend that the kind of physicists you need for local industries are anything like the kind of physics that is 'interesting' the students at the conference? If you really care about helping these students to make the right career choice, shouldn't you make it clear to students that if you want to do this HEP stuff, you can work at only a small handful of labs around the globe? Is Lui actually aware of this fact and purposely misleading the kids, or is he a complete ignoramus about physics?

2) Why is NTU organising a HEP conference, of all areas of physics, for kids? They have only one faculty member in the field. Plus it seems a waste to invite people like Perl and 't Hooft here to give what are basically pop-science talks. I do think it's a good thing for scientists to be involved in the public communication of science. I just don't necessarily see that people like Perl and 't Hooft are particularly gifted at it. It seems to me more a publicity stunt than anything else. If it's really for the kids, then they should bring in skilled science communicators (some of which are scientists), not just any Nobel laureate who'd agree to fly all the way out here. Of course, flying in Nobel laureates is a lot sexier.

Fox said...

1. Lui is probably a complete ignoramus.

2. It's probably a publicity stunt. NTU probably has money to throw around. Then again, that money could have been used to support undergraduate training in physics in our local universities.

Anonymous said...

I wonder who the top notch physicist you are talking about? What does it mean to be top notch? Publications?

Fox said...

Singapore has one APS fellow. Only the top one percent of APS members are recognised as APS fellows.

He has publications which are cited by the thousands.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I didn't know he was an APS fellow although I knew about his work that was very highly cited.

The HEP conference was organised by KK Phua and the IAS of NTU. Martin Perl and Gerard't Hooft and CN Yang are on their advisory board. So I guess it becomes a natural choice of who to invite.

As for asking Lui to be GOH, I think they were trying to make their agenda (presumably) heard to the govt. Cos they are concerned abt declining math, science and engineering enrolment. (To be honest, I'm only guessing at their agenda from their program.)

Anyway, Lui's portfolio was then Minister of State for Education. But he's so "junior". Perhaps he wasnt their first choice of GOH.

Anyway, it beats me why there is a HEP conference annually, except for the networking purpose -- KK Phua is very well connected. SG has so few people working in this field.

Anonymous said...

Regarding what writer "testtube" said in point (1), I'll like to point out that when different parties come together in an event, each has its own agenda to pursue.

So there's no need to see this as an event with a particular goal in mind. It's rarely the way things work in the world, in my experience. :)