Spaced out

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 March, 2010, 12:00am

I have known my dentist for 15 years but I rarely ever visit him, or at least at his clinic. If I try to get my teeth checked or have them fixed, I know he would refuse to charge me. I feel guilty about that, but my sense of self-interest is also offended if I don't take advantage of him. I end up visiting far inferior dentists so I don't have to worry about these things.

The truth is, I am really wary about visiting a dentist who I know, in his heart of hearts, isn't into his job but prefers spending his days fantasising about grand science projects, some of which, believe it or not, do come to fruition, at least up to a point. Hong Kong dentists are into the money; that I can understand. My dentist friend, Ng Tze-chuen - universally known as 'TC' except in newspapers that insist on running full names - is not. I just don't get him and don't want to end up being a guinea pig for his experimental tools for use in outer space.

TC is at the moment designing what he described to me as a table-tennis system for astronauts to play in zero gravity inside a spacecraft or space station. The balls shoot out straight, via a magnetic force device. I want one of those for my kids. TC is also building a carpet-like metal detector for some dodgy adventurer who is searching for lost gold off the coasts of Costa Rica. (Hint: think of the island in Jurassic Park.)

These wacky projects notwithstanding, TC actually has a reputable track record. He not only designed award-winning and patented dental tools in his youth, but he has also spent the last two decades building exploration tools for the European Space Agency and Russian space scientists and engineers. He is currently worshipping at the feet of Dr Zahi Hawass, the arch-dictator of Egyptian archaeology - or formally, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities - so the great man might throw some research crumbs at him to prepare for a robotic-arm exploration behind a mystery door in the so-called Queen's Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza.

It must be weird for TC to think about tools he once made for Russian cosmonauts. These were destroyed along with everything inside the Russian Mir, humankind's first space station, when it was decommissioned and turned into ashes when it re-entered Earth's atmosphere in 2001. His forceps for collecting soil and rock samples were lost forever when Beagle II crashed into Mars on Christmas Day in 2003. I don't know if TC believes in Martians, but I know he fantasises about their existence, at least in bacterial forms.

Is he after the glory, the fame? It's most certainly not the money he is interested it. He uses his own money to fly around the world and finance his own projects. The most he ever got were free meals and accommodation from some international space groups, and a few free tickets from Cathay Pacific. I don't know whether the Tung Chee-hwa administration was wise when it refused to fund his projects or if it just missed repeated opportunities to put Hong Kong on the space-science map. But, to be fair, the government funding for the precision machinery centre at Polytechnic University, which helped TC produce most of his prototypes, could be construed as indirect support.

In some international scientific circles, TC is well known, or at least notorious. Nasa thinks he is a pest or a crank and will not touch him. It seems its people would be much more comfortable if he were offering his advice and tools for money. As soon as they heard he was doing it for free, they kicked him out. Still, in his time, he managed to work with Yang Chen-ning, the co-winner of the 1957 physics Nobel Prize, and Farouk El-Baz, a top Nasa scientist and science adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. So you know what I mean when I say I still can't make him out.

But I am glad Hong Kong has a guy like him. I have reported on his quixotic search, whatever it is, for almost two decades. It has been an education. It has forced me to read up on Mir and space stations, the politics of space science and international space agencies, the geology of Mars and pyramid history.

Still, I won't take my kids to his clinic for a check-up.