Shaw Prize winners say Hong Kong system to 'succeed' does not feel right

Astronomy laureates say a system where pupils follow a set path to 'succeed' in life feels wrong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 12:35pm

Professor Jane Luu's eyes widen as she leans back in her chair and raises her hands in protest. "That's crazy! So they can't just know piano, they have to learn the drums too?"

The Vietnamese-American astrophysicist, the first woman to win a Shaw Prize, is shocked to learn about the education of Hong Kong students.

The tests, the idea that children must learn two musical instruments to simply be able to attend a good school, the idea that children must follow a set path, do this or that to "succeed" in life, cause her to raise her voice a few decibels.

In town to collect the Shaw Prize, which awards US$1 million to "rare individuals who leave their mark on history", Luu is learning about the Hong Kong system and its "path to success". To her, it feels wrong.

"We still don't know what we want to do" Luu says emphatically. "You can change. The main thing is you find what you like to do.

"When you do, you're going to be good at it. You're going to think about it all the time. You'll be interested, you'll work hard and then you'll be good at it. That's the hard part. Finding what you want to do."

Her life, she says has been a constant evolution, from when she was a small child in Vietnam who knew nothing about science, who thought the best thing she could be when she grew up was a teacher, to the woman who helped discover the Kuiper Belt, a belt of debris from the start of the universe that sits on the edge of the solar system, and now a technical staff member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is researching lasers.

"The point is being interested in things, and open to things," said fellow laureate Professor David Jewitt, her former adviser at MIT and current professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.

"Whatever you do to generate income - your job - is one thing, but separate from your job you're a person, and a person has to have an outlook. Do you want a very narrow outlook or broad outlook?

"So if you have an education system that convinces people that you have to specialise and you have to focus and pass this exam, this exam, this exam, it doesn't matter if it's interesting or not, you just want to get out but you can't get out, that's counterproductive."

Jewitt was drawn to astronomy after he realised there were questions about the world his mother could not answer.

"It's a star that shoots," was her explanation for what a shooting star was. Neither Luu's nor Jewitt's parents were college educated, nor did they have many books in the house.

Asked what had spurred the love of learning in herself and Jewitt, Luu said: "Maybe it's because our parents didn't steer. We were free to do whatever we wanted."

He and Luu advocate this kind of curiosity-driven approach to learning.

"Nobody really knows how to do a good job, but it's clear how to do a bad job," Jewitt said.

The Shaw Prize, created in 2002 by Hong Kong media mogul and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, offers US$1 million awards to pioneers in three fields; life science and medicine, astronomy and mathematics.

This year's winners were announced in May, but the awards ceremony took place at the Convention and Exhibition Centre on Monday.