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[Yannis K. Semertzidis] Nobel Prize in sciences for Korea

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Published : 2016-11-14 16:08
Updated : 2016-11-14 16:08

I moved to this country in mid-October 2013 to become the director of the Center for Axion and Precision Physics Research (CAPP) at the Institute for Basic Science at the KAIST campus in Daejeon. Often I am asked why Korea hasn’t earned a Nobel Prize in sciences yet.

I believe that a Nobel Prize in science for Korea is just a matter of time. There is so much great work going on here with first-rate scientists that it should happen within a generation.

The reason I firmly believe this is because Korea is actually investing in research and development as well as basic science. The latter received a major boost through the establishment of the IBS.

IBS is the single most important action taken by the Korean government about five years ago that makes Korea’s chances of attaining a Nobel Prize in science realistic, but this investment needs to stay strong and we need to be patient.

The CAPP mainly looks for the dark matter of our universe in the form of axions -- a notion developed by prominent theorists around the world including Korea. Dark matter refers to the substance that is keeping our sun gravitationally bound to the Milky Way galaxy, since Newtonian gravity from stars alone is not enough to do it.

In the absence of dark matter our solar system would have been thrown to outer space, away from the galaxy, because it is rotating around the galaxy at nearly one-thousandth the speed of light. If we make a major discovery here, the Nobel Prize is almost certain, and indeed it will rightly belong to Korea since Korean scientists would have made a profound impact on the field. The second major subject of the center’s activities, although smaller than the axion efforts, regards the proton electric dipole moment, or EDM.

The proton EDM physics is related to the axion physics, but it can also help explain the so-called matter-antimatter asymmetry mystery of our universe.

The above physics subjects are two of the 10 most important questions in particle physics today. We are currently well on our way to developing a state of the art facility that will allow us to dominate axion dark matter research within the next five years.

In less than 10 years we plan to answer the question of whether axions are part of the dark matter solution in our galaxy even if they only constitute 10 percent of the dark matter for a wide range of axion masses.

Regarding the proton EDM experiment, we are developing several high-tech systems that are required for high sensitivity and we are actively seeking a host laboratory where we can build an all-electric storage ring. Technically, it is within our local capabilities and a proton EDM discovery would boost Korea’s standing, placing it at the forefront of science in the world.

I also enjoy being a professor of physics at KAIST where I teach the physics of high precision experiments. During the lectures I teach the students how to increase their own chances of claiming the Nobel Prize. I give them advice on how to choose their research subjects, how to come up with new ideas, how to proceed with developing them, when to discuss them with experts and finally what mistakes to avoid.

A major point is that one needs not only be smart but to be intelligent, too. An intelligent person is defined as one who is smart but is also aware of his or her environment, of the trends and critical problems in physics, and socially capable of being an effective leader. An intelligent leader instills confidence in his or her people and motivates them to put in the extra mile to achieve their scientific goals.

A modern research center is required to be an innovation hub where taking chances is part of the culture and encouraged, as well as a place where many breakthroughs will materialize. Running a research center solely as a project is a common mistake that often leads to it becoming defunct within the first five-year cycle.

Smart people should be given the chance to run R&D programs whose outcomes are not always certain. People should not be afraid to take chances and failure should not be used as an excuse to reduce research funding. One should judge the research program as a whole -- not by micromanaging every small part separately.

Basic science should also not be too efficient. There are many examples in which Nobel Prize-worthy discoveries happened with small, curiosity driven projects. For instance, the discovery of buckyballs, which resulted in the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry. It was the result of a side project, as was explained by one of its discoverers, Sir Harry Kroto.

Another example is the case of Martin Perl who discovered the tau lepton particle and received the 1995 Nobel Prize in physics.

He rejected job offers from top universities and chose a less known one in order to have more freedom in developing his own ideas. He said, “When most of the people go one way, dare to go to a different direction and work on your own ideas.”

The core values of our research center are the ownership of physics research programs and the personal responsibilities of researchers. Checks and balances are established, and the administrators are strong pillars of the center, impartial and staunch supporters of the rules and regulations of the IBS.

Finally, competition is proven worldwide to be the most effective way to keep scientists abreast with the latest developments and we want to keep a strong international component in our center by recruiting foreign scientists, collaborating with the best institutions outside Korea, and by maintaining a strong presence at international conferences.

We are building a strong base on which the future Nobel Prize winners of Korea are going to build on and excel. The days of Nobel Prize-worthy scientific discoveries are not far for Korea.

By Yannis K. Semertzidis

Professor Yannis K. Semertzidis is a physics professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and director of its Center for Axion and Precision Physics Research. He can be reached at -- Ed.