Transcript from an interview with Yuan T. Lee, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 1986, at the 55th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2005. Interviewer is freelance journalist Marika Griehsel.
Welcome to this interview Professor. I want to start off by asking you a little bit about your childhood and what made you want to take the way to becoming a scientist. Was there something particular in your childhood?
Yuan T. Lee: I was born in Taiwan before the end of the Second World War, so when I was young, airplanes from America started bombing Taiwan every day. That was when I started my elementary school. So war certainly influenced everybody’s lives. And the bombing and airplane flying – all those scientific things came to our minds very early. But after the end of the Second World War Taiwan returned to China. At that time China was very chaotic. Very weak. Everybody believed there was only democracy in science would save China. I’m also interested in using my bare hands. And also the creations. So when I went to High School and read a book on Madam Curie I thought that it would be a good thing to become a scientist so that’s why I decided to become a scientist.
That was a way for you to work for humanity and for peace in the world.
Yuan T. Lee: That’s right. Very ‘idealistic’ person.
You really wanted to bring that up in your own life as well I believe.
Yuan T. Lee: In high school I became ill and rested for about a month and didn’t go to school so I re-examined my life. And at the end of the bed period of one month I decided that I wanted to become somebody useful to humanity through science. And I also saw very unreasonable situations in Taiwan. I thought it would be a good thing to get together people with idealistic mind to transform the society. So I had two things in my mind all along. One is to become a good scientist. The second thing is help to transform the society. I might be ‘revolutionary’.
That is interesting. I want to come back to that, but we could just briefly say that you did return. You went to America, you returned, and you’ve been back in Taiwan for 11 years now. Can you see these changes? Can you feel that you have influenced?
Yuan T. Lee: When I went to America in 1962 I didn’t plan to stay in America for so long. But after I got my PhD people gave me a professorship and it went on and on and before I knew it I found myself to be 57 years old and I had spent 32 years in America. I decided to go back to help because Taiwan needed my help more than California. So I did go there. Taiwan is a small place with 23 million people – a small island. According to physical law, if you push the acceleration is invert in proportion to the mass so Taiwan is relatively small. With many people returning to Taiwan from America, tried to push science and such a transformation, and it seems to be moving.
Which is the greatest challenge do you think for Taiwan in the field that you are working?
Yuan T. Lee: I think history goes through the democratisation. In 1996 Taiwan allowed people to elect a president for the first time in the history of China. So -96 was an important change. But by the year 2000 it was the first time the ruling party, which has been in power for 50 years, has been overthrown by popular vote. So that really marked another phase of democratisation. So when I went back, what I was really happy to see was the society become more democratic. So human power would be liberated because of the democratic process.
You came back with a Nobel Prize and of course you have many students today and I would imagine that some of them are also going to America to do some of their research and then come back. How do you feel that somebody is going away for a while? Is it a loss for Asia?
Yuan T. Lee: In the 1960s and 70s it certainly was a big brain drain. Many people went to America and stayed there. But now, during the last ten years, I asked many established scientists including the member of National Academy of Sciences, several of them returned during the last years to Taiwan. And so I would like to look at it this way: it’s the brain circulation. Young people go out and they learn something and then they come back.
On the other hand, the situation in Taiwan improves more and more students like to stay at home rather than go abroad. So now we are sitting looking at scholarships, who is supported, and sending them out to foreign countries. We really need them to see the world before settling down in Taiwan.
That’s a good thing that they go out, and it’s something you would recommend to young students.
Yuan T. Lee: A country like America also should look at the student coming from Asia as part of the brain circulation rather than one way street.
Somebody said that the students that come from overseas to America sometimes are so focused and so strong in their minds that they are actually better students than the American students.
Yuan T. Lee: In Asia, in order to survive, people have to work very hard. Especially if you go to a country like America the only way you can survive or climb up the social ladder is through hard work to establish yourself. And for many students who are interested in science this is no problem because science is so interesting and so you work very hard and enjoy yourself. And sometimes later you’re recognised and offered a position and on and on.
What did it mean to you that you were given the Nobel Prize back in 1986, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry?
Yuan T. Lee: I was really surprised, first of all. I have been enjoying science with all my students and actually I’ve had some kind of record in America. If you look at the faculty member produced in major universities, famous research universities like MIT, Caltech, Berkeley or the Chicago or Cornell, I have former students in all those universities among the chemistry faculty. I learned that I produced more professors for American universities than anybody else. So I really enjoy doing science and by the 1980s we know that we are doing the best because we see many chemical researchers and many things nobody else in the world can do. So we are very happy that we are leading the world and people from Europe and Japan came to do post doctoral research. And as a scientist knowing that you are doing well is quite satisfactory.
But in 1986 I received an award from chemical society, /- – -/ White House. At the time I was a US citizen. They gave me the National Medal of Sciences. And then the Nobel Foundation gave me the Nobel Prize. At the same time Wolf Foundation in Israel also wanted to give me a prize and I was really surprised. Life suddenly changed. I was a very shy person. Even if I see a lady my face become red. I was very shy. But after the prize I had to be in the limelight so often to give after dinner speeches and then gradually I got used to it. But I remember during the first three months I suffered so much so my wife said ‘Yuan, you enjoy so much working in the laboratory with students, why do you have to become an after dinner speaker?’. And she suggested maybe we should return the prize to the Nobel Foundation and then you can go back to the laboratory.
Well, that was my wife’s suggestion but I’m glad I didn’t do it since winning the Nobel Prize you have the different opportunities to serve different segments of the society. I went back to Taiwan and became the President of the Academy of Sinica in Taiwan. We run 30 different institutes in an assembly of academicians that belong to the office of the president. So I am certainly quite influential in Taiwan. I can talk to the President anytime I want. So I have been able to do quite a bit in Taiwan. That’s a good opportunity given by the Nobel Foundation.
Is there any special memories that you have from the time you went to Stockholm that you would like to share with us?
Yuan T. Lee: When I received the Nobel Prize people said ‘Yuan, you have to be a spokesperson. You have to speak for science. And people will ask you all sorts of questions that you don’t know the answer to but you still have to give the answer.’ That has been a big challenge for me so I studied very hard. Especially when I went back to Taiwan and took the position of the President of the Academia Sinica because academy cover humanity, social sciences, and physical sciences and biological sciences. As the President, as a spokesperson, I did learn quite a bit. So that was an exciting thing. Actually, Taiwan is a member of APEC, Asian Pacific Economical Corporation. Our president was not allowed to participate in APEC because men in China would not allow us to go. So I have been representing our president to attend APEC for the last three years. It was interesting.
First time I went there all the presidents of the countries of the pacific region including George Bush and all the people they are quite curious to see that a scientist, a Nobel Laureate, came to this political meeting and talking about economical development. It was quite interesting that they look at me in a very different way. As if I’m a different animal. Of course, for politicians scientists are very different. We all look at the things in the longer term. What is the truth? How can we do better? The politicians tend to think in short term. All they worry about is next year, maybe another election. They want to keep their position and so on and so forth. So that was interesting.
That’s a good suggestion. Maybe more Nobel Laureates should be doing what are you doing. The world would be a different place.
Yuan T. Lee: It would be a better place. I think so.
Definitely. That leads me to the next question which is about the environmental situation that we’re facing in the world today. You knowing so much about chemical reactions and so on, what do you think we are facing at the moment with global warming and ozone layer getting thinner? What is the reason for this and how can we as human being change it? Is it necessary for us to change the way we are living our lives?
Yuan T. Lee: Yes certainly. Let me say this. Human beings developing on the surface of the earth in a biosphere for quite a long time. The earth is infinity for human beings. But 250 years ago after the industrial revolution we invented so many machines and used so much energy and people become so comfortable with the science advances. Population went up during the last century by /- – -/ now we have six billion people living on earth. So if you look a the development of the history of mankind last century we went through a critical point. It means earth used to be infinity. Now you become finite. It’s finite because of all the people. It means human activity is starting to damage the ecosystem and that was not happening 200 years ago.
But now it’s happening. But people are now waking up. People didn’t realise that we are going through the transition almost like water become ice. There is a fresh transition taking place on earth. So if you look at the development of China, India, or Taiwan, Thailand. All follow the pattern of western development but that was the time that earth was infinity. Now earth is finite. So we really have to change. Change the use of the energy. Fossil energy is going to dry out and we have to depend on the solar energy or nuclear. And that we really have to make our mind to do a lot of research.
So I do see in the next 20 years because the petroleum will peak, demand will go up. There will be a gap between the demand and supply. And there will be an energy crisis on the one hand. On the other hand earth has become finite so we have to worry about how our earth consume the pollutions. So those two conditions will make it extremely difficult for human society. The only way out I can see is to learn to use energy efficiently. For example lighting in the room. We can use about 25 percent of the electricity to get the same light by using light emitting diode. You can use the combined hybrid automobile even at the present time will save you energy more than factor two.
We do have enough technology to save energy. To use energy more efficiently. So that will go a long way. On the one hand, we have to learn to use the solar energy more efficiently but for the next 50 years saving energy, making energy more efficient, will be a very important way. As a scientist, I do believe that in spite of the fact that science and technology will help humanities but we have to learn to walk together as one community. Globalisation has gone halfway. So you do see economies is globalised but nation based competition still fiercely going /- – -/ so you see war, friction. Before the end of the century if we do not learn to operate as one community for the entire world I think the chances of humanity to survive on earth will be very, very small.
Do the politicians listen to you when you tell them this message?
Yuan T. Lee: They certainly listen and they seem to understand. But they look at the short-term effect. So nobody dare to change. I saw the President of Academy of Sciences of China, former academy of science president Dr Cho. I know him for 25 years now so when we met a couple of weeks ago I said we have been talking about China should develop a different way. Not following the pattern of western style. And keep on using the automobile and you should have the public transportation. But then he said ‘Yes we know but everybody believe that unless the automobile industry becomes successful it will not bring up the entire economy.’ So the automobile industry in Japan, Germany, you know you name it, China. It is producing millions and millions of automobile now. The question is where are you going to get the petroleum in the next 20 years.
The western world which has developed also coming to the developing world in their short interest.
Yuan T. Lee: That’s right. The same thing. so we all know that if the developed world were to give one percent of GDP to help developing world then the tornado of money flow from the under developed world to the developed world in a year about 100 billion dollars is flowing from the so called underdeveloped into developed world. Not the other way around. It takes about one percent of GDP to donate to the underdeveloped world to change the tide. So unless we do that the underdeveloped world will not have any chance. Corruption and also the way of imitating rich people in the developed world will keep the money flow out.
When you talk to your young students and ask them to look into the future for the future kind of research that is necessary, what fields would you suggest? Where will the big breakthroughs come in the next 20 years?
Yuan T. Lee: For quite a long time we have been interested in the origin of life. Creation of the universe. Structure of matters and the forces operating in the universe. Last century because we understand the motion of microscopic particles atomic physics developed and that influenced the chemistry. So my field of study doing molecular sketching certainly is based on the advancement made earlier in the 20th century. But now you look at the biology because of the advancement of chemistry, the advancement with the tools, it is now possible to understand many phenomena related to life. So I do believe that in the 21st century life sciences will be bring lots of excitement.
So if I were to start again probably I will pay more attention to biological sciences even as a chemist. But it was interesting when I started out as a chemist many of my friends told me ‘Yuan, if you want to be a chemist you have to learn physics better otherwise you will not become a good chemist.’ So I studied lots of physics. And I entered areas called chemical physics. It’s an inter discipline area. That certainly helped me develop other things. Now if the young people ask me I will see biology certainly given you excitement but you have to study chemistry better or physics better, otherwise you will not be able to go too far.
Just one last question I believe that you’re a good sportsman as well. Do you get time for sport still?
Yuan T. Lee: Yes. Unless you do some exercise you will be melted away. I’m a tennis player. I play tennis. So probably you know this week is Wimbledon. It is going on. Last night I saw Davenport was playing with Cluster. Salapovo was playing with somebody else.
So that’s also something you would recommend to young students. Not only stay in the research laboratory.
Yuan T. Lee: You have to keep your body fit. In the laboratory we often work overnight or two days in a row in order to find something else so we don’t sleep. Unless you have a strong body you won’t be able to do it.
Thank you so much, Professor.
Yuan T. Lee: My pleasure.
Interview with Professor Yuan T. Lee by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 55th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2005.
Professor Lee talks about why he decided to become a scientist; his move to the USA and why he went back to Taiwan (2:26); the Nobel Prize and how it has affected his life (6:56); his engagement in environmental issues (12:55); finally, Lee gives some advice to young students (19:33).
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