Fear of authority stands in the way of mainland breakthroughs in theoretical physics according to a top Harvard and Hong Kong academic Chinese academics and students need to free themselves from their 'authority mentality' if the mainland is to produce top-flight scholars, an award-winning Hong Kong mathematician said this week. Harvard professor Yau Shing-tung, 57, director of Chinese University's Institute for Advanced Mathematical Sciences, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the deferential attitude was a contributing factor to the small number of students working in advanced theoretical physics. Speaking on the eve of scientist Stephen Hawking's visit to Hong Kong and Beijing and in the same week as two of his students published a proof of a 100-year-old mathematical problem, he said there was a marked difference in academic attitudes between China and the west. 'Theoretical physics has not been as popular in China as in other countries in terms of the fact that China is so big and yet the number of successful theoretical physicists beside the older generation is very small,' he said. 'Unfortunately the development of basic science in China is different from other countries. In Britain or the US any young kid or undergraduate can decide they want to go in a certain direction. They can get funding and support and go anywhere they want to in most cases. But not in China. If you don't listen to some authority you're completely screwed up. You will not get jobs, you will not be complimented, you will not get funding. You have to get backing from some authority. 'In America and Europe there are many established physicists who are against string theory but it still develops. Good students decide that's the way to go and go into it independently of what people say.' The attitude extended to journalists too. Professor Yau said he'd had to explain over and over again that publication of the proof of the 100-year-old Poincare Conjecture in the US-published Asian Journal of Mathematics, of which he is an editor-in-chief, was a matter for experts in the field. 'They always ask which authority has approved it,' he said. Professor Yau is chairing Strings 2006, the international six-day conference on mathematical string theory in Beijing that Professor Hawking is due to address next week. The annual conference has been held in the UK, Japan, France and Canada in recent years Gerard Postiglione, professor of the sociology of education at the University of Hong Kong, agreed that there was still a deferential attitude among some mainland academics but that it had to be understood in a wider context. 'To say there is deference to authority is just part of the whole system,' he said. 'You can't jettison the system entirely because of it.' Professor Postiglione said mainland academia was 'at a crossroads' as part of China's rapid transformation and integration into the global economy. 'It's only a matter of time before it produces Nobel prizewinners in science,' he said. 'Academics still have a residue of cultural deference but they're being practically pragmatic and proactive at the same time.' He added that the mainland academic community was in transformation from a traditionally authoritarian approach to a more corporate culture of the kind being developed by other countries. Professor Yau described the 350-page Poincare proof by Zhu Xiping, 42, from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and Cao Huaidong, 48, now based at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, as a 'spectacular achievement' for China. He explained that it built on substantial work by the American mathematician Richard Hamilton and more recent input by the Russian, Grigori 'Grisha' Perelman. The conjecture, which French mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincare formulated in 1904, involves the proposition that if every closed path in a three-dimensional space finally shrinks to a point, the space must be a sphere. He never proved it though. It is one of a number of millennium prize problems for which Cambridge University's Clay Mathematics Institute is offering a US$1 million for a solution. The mathematicians are awaiting adjudication on the prize. 'The Poincare Conjecture has a long history but this approach, which has finally led to success, was due to a very outstanding mathematician, Richard Hamilton, a very good friend of mine. He developed a brand new equation and most of the important stuff was done by him. He laid the foundation of how to approach it. There were only a few points that still needed filling in. 'In mathematics if you don't give a complete proof nobody will say it is finished. Three years ago people were excited and thought it was finished but nobody was able to write down a complete statement. 'Even Perelman's ingenious input, which is only about 60 to 70 pages long, wasn't enough. People wrote to him and tried to get an explanation but he did not answer. Finally these two Chinese mathematicians reproduced every step.'