Saturday, June 1, 2013

Challenge to greatness

(Published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Oct. 21, 2010)

THERE ARE MANY WORLDS for bright, young Filipinos to conquer; worlds their parents and grandparents left unconquered during the 20th century—the most brilliant yet in human history.

Consider these challenges to greatness facing young Filipinos:

A Filipino citizen has yet to win a Nobel Prize in any of its six categories (Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Economics and Peace) since the award was instituted in 1895. We have had a few near hits, however.

Among Filipinos nominated for the Award was the late Carlos Romulo who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945. Former President Corazon Aquino was also nominated for the Peace Prize, but in 1986. Both did not win but are in illustrious company as non-winners. Among other great peace advocates who should have won the Nobel Peace Prize but didn’t is the great Mahatma Ghandi of India.

Undoubtedly the most famous awards in the world, the Nobel Prize was first awarded 1901. A recipient of the Nobel Prize, also called a Nobel Laureate, receives a gold medal, a diploma and a monetary award that depends on the annual income of the Nobel Foundation. Each Nobel Laureate for 2009 received $1.4 million.

A Filipino has yet to win the Abel Prize, the Fields Medal or the Wolf Prize in Mathematics. These are regarded as the most prestigious international awards for mathematicians, and each has their champions as the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics.” The Fields Medal was first awarded in 1936, the Wolf Prize in Mathematics in 1978 and the Abel Prize in 2003.

The Fields Medal

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years by the International Mathematical Union (IMU), an international non-governmental organization devoted to international cooperation in the field of mathematics. It is only awarded to mathematicians below 40 years of age.

The Wolf Prize in Mathematic is one of five categories in the Wolf Prizes, which are considered Israel’s Nobel Prize. Each laureate receives $100,000. On the other hand, the Abel Prize is presented every year by the King of Norway to one or more outstanding mathematicians. An Abel Prize Laureate receives close to $1 million and a Fields Medal Laureate, $15,000.

One of the winners of the Fields Medal in 2006 was the reclusive and eccentric Russian genius, Dr. Grigoriy Perelman of St. Petersburg. Perelman in 2003 proved the century-old “Poincaré conjecture,” one of the seven Millennium Prize Problems. The standard form of the Poincaré conjecture (one of the most important open questions in topology) states that every simply connected, closed 3-manifold is homeomorphic to the 3-sphere.

Dr. Grigoriy Perelman

Put in simpler terms, the Poincaré conjecture argues that any three-dimensional space without holes in it is equivalent to a stretched sphere. Its solution by Perelman could help determine the shape of the universe.

Surprisingly, Perelman refused to receive the Medal and the $1 million prize money. “I'm not interested in money or fame. I don't want to be on display like an animal in a zoo,” Perelman was supposed to have said in turning down the medal and the money.

“I'm not a hero of mathematics. I'm not even that successful, that is why I don't want to have everybody looking at me.”

The other six Millennium Prize Problems have remained unsolved to this day, and represent challenges for future Filipino mathematicians. These are The Hodge conjecture; The Riemann hypothesis; P versus NP; The Yang-Mills Existence and Mass Gap; The Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture and The Navier-Stokes Existence and Smoothness.

Terence Chi-Shen Tao
The Millennium Prize Problems were determined by the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000. A non-profit foundation based in the USA, the institute is dedicated to increasing and disseminating mathematical knowledge. It considers the problems important classic questions that have resisted solution over the years.

Another 2006 Fields Medal Laureate is the Australian-Chinese mathematics prodigy, Terence Chi-Shen Tao, who said he learned about numbers by watching Sesame Street.  Now 35, Tao is also one of only 20 persons to have won the Clay Research Award that recognizes major breakthroughs in mathematical research.

Only four persons of Asian or Asian descent have won the award. Tao is best known for the “Green-Tao Theorem” that proves the existence of arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions of prime numbers. His collaborator in this theorem is the brilliant English mathematician, Ben J. Green, who received the Clay Research Award in 2004.

S.R  Srinivasa Varadhan
A noted Indian-American mathematician was the last Asian to win the Abel Prize. S. R. Srinivasa Varadhan received the award in 2007 for his fundamental contributions to probability theory and in particular for creating a unified theory of large deviation. He received the “Padma Bhushan,” India’s third highest civilian decoration in 2008 for his contributions to education and literature.

Outer Space Challenge
Another great challenge for young Filipinos is literally out of this world. A Filipino citizen has yet to travel into outer space as an astronaut. The Space Age began 53 years ago on Oct. 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union’s Sputnik-1 became the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin (also of the Soviet Union) became the first person to orbit the Earth. From April 1961 to May 2010, 579 persons from 39 countries have traveled into space. Not one of them has been a Filipino.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) defines spaceflight as any flight over 100 kilometers (62 miles) above mean sea level. FAI is the world body governing world records in aeronautics and astronautics.

The Philippines has the human material needed to produce astronauts who will bring it glory and honor. The task ahead for this government or the next is to make sending the first Filipino into space by the next decade the single-minded aim of a united national effort.

I am not proposing that we embark on a trillion-peso space program. What I do suggest is that we launch a search to identify, train and finance a core group of astronauts, one of whom will be selected to become the first Filipino in space. This search can be a joint project of the government, business and interested institutions.

Our partner in this Great Endeavor can either be the Americans, the Russians, the Europeans, the Chinese or even the Indians. Our astronaut will ride into orbit aboard the space vehicle of one of these countries. He or she will also have to be trained in space flight by one of these countries. A joint mission involving Asian countries and astronauts would be ideal.

This Great Endeavor might even unite this nation as never before. Who wouldn’t want to see and hear a countryman in space greeting us in Filipino? This will be a day of great pride.

All astronauts, cosmonauts or yuhangyuans (Chinese for astronaut) are heroes to be exalted and emulated. These men and women are, after all, a special breed of hero—intelligent and highly skilled—the intellectual pride of their countries.

We don’t even have a Filipino word for astronaut.

Olympics Challenge
In sports, obviously, the greatest challenge remains the Summer Olympic Games. A Filipino has yet to win a Gold Medal in the Olympic Games. The best we’ve achieved is Olympic Runner-Up and both our Silvers were in Boxing: Anthony Villanueva at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games and Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games.

Six other Filipinos have won the Bronze Medal in regular Olympic sports in the 86 years of Philippine participation. The Philippines first joined the Olympics (Paris) in 1924.

With the 2012 London Summer Olympics a scant two years away, and with no local preparations for these Games in sight, it appears quite doubtful if a Filipino will win Gold in London despite immense monetary incentives for them to do so.

So many worlds to conquer—and all the time in the world to do so. You should start right now.