Mastering the Mechanics of Giving

Mastering the Mechanics of Giving

26 August 2020

Reading has always played a big part in Professor Phua Kok Khoo’s life. Growing up, he was a self-declared 'bookish' child, who was constantly surrounded by hefty tomes of the written word. Interestingly, some of these were penned by his father — a writer, poet, publisher and key office-bearer at the Ngee Ann Kongsi and Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan — and his father's friends on the literary scene. Later, as a youth with a passion for fine arts and history who was steered to study Physics through his father's pragmatism, it was through the pages of the best Russian textbooks translated to Chinese that he developed a deep understanding and love for the science.

Now in his seventies, Prof Khoo continues to feed his diverse interests through immersing himself in books on vast topics — and it is more than just a personal hobby. As Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of World Scientific Publishing Group, he is the man behind the numerous volumes that line the bookshelves of scientists, researchers and students all around the world.

The modest establishment had a total of five staff when Prof Phua and his wife Doreen Liu founded it in 1981 with Prof Phua as editorial advisor and his wife as Managing Director. Prof Phua became Editor-in-Chief and Chairman when he went on unpaid leave from the National University of Singapore. World Scientific is now a revered publishing house with a formidable global presence. It has an agreement with the Nobel Foundation to reproduce the entire series of Nobel Lectures and has collaborated with many Nobel laureates to publish some of their most important works. However, it seemed like an impossible mission of sorts when Prof Phua — who obtained his BSc DIC from Imperial College and PhD in Mathematical Physics from Birmingham University in 1970 before returning to teach at the then Nanyang University — decided to embark on it.

"Singapore was a desert for knowledge back then," recalled Prof Phua. "Yet with no water, you will not have trees. I felt it was necessary to start an academic publishing house."

It was a labour of love that had sprung forth from a sense of professional pride. "There is a lot an educator can do. Publishing is also an important pillar in academia," said Prof Phua, who is an adjunct professor at National University of Singapore's Department of Physics.

Indeed, while the reach of classes and talks is often limited to those present at that moment in time, books — be they physical copies or online editions — can be distributed to a worldwide audience, and the content appreciated long after the works have been written.

Prof Phua's idea of starting a publishing house for the scientific community in Asia to break the grip of the western world on the industry was supported by the late Nobel laureate Prof Abdus Salam as well as Nobel laureate Prof Yang Chen-Ning, the then external examiner of the Department of Physics at Nanyang University. The first few years were difficult and sacrifices had to be made — not only did they have to mortgage their house to finance the enterprise, they also missed precious moments with their two young children. "As a scientist, I always want to do something new, to challenge the impossible," Prof Phua stated.

Their efforts paid off. Slowly, but steadily, researchers started to come to World Scientific Publishing Group for their work to be published.

Leading, Nurturing, Inspiring

Yet Prof Phua's contributions to the field of physical sciences go far beyond his influence as a publisher. As a researcher, the theoretical high energy physicist has produced interesting and useful studies on phenomenology in high energy collisions. Not one to work in a silo, he has also been a people-mover, one who has founded many associations that seek to strengthen the local and regional scientific community. Alongside Prof Yang and other senior physicists, he is one of the founding council members of the Association of Asia-Pacific Physical Societies, which came into being in 1990.

Prof Phua was also the Chairman of the organising committee for the 1990 International Conference on High Energy Physics (Rochester Conference) organised by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. Here in Singapore, he serves as the founding director of NTU's Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) — a body that identifies and pushes strategic research areas with the advice and guidance of a committee of world renowned scientists. Since starting IAS in 2005, Prof Phua has led it to become a highly-regarded institution in the Asia Pacific region that plays a key role in important annual events such as the Global Young Scientists Summit and International Science Youth Forum that sees the participation of Nobel laureates.

For his continued efforts, the 77-year-old was awarded the Institute of Physics Singapore President's Award in 2006 for outstanding contributions to physics research and education in Singapore. He was also elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society for contributions to research and education in Physics in 2009.

Shining a Light

Under Prof and Mrs Phua's stewardship, World Scientific Publishing Group has grown steadily over the course of 38 years. With 13 offices worldwide and a global presence in over 140 countries, it publishes approximately 600 new titles and 140 journals covering various fields annually. Many of its books are recommended texts adopted by renowned institutions such as Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Princeton University.

Some of the publishing group's bestsellers include Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particle Physics by Martinus Veltman; Lectures of Sidney Coleman on Quantum Field Theory; and Optical Trapping and Manipulation of Neutral Particles Using Lasers by Arthur Ashkin, who was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics at 96 years of age.

Initiated by Prof Phua, World Scientific has also donated generously towards the support of young talent. For more than a decade, the company has given one student from the 10 ASEAN member states a scholarship to Imperial College London each year. Through its longstanding relationship with the Nobel Foundation, World Scientific has also been able to accord one top Junior College student each year the privilege of attending the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar held in conjunction with the Nobel Prize Presentation Ceremony, where he or she has the opportunity to get up close and personal with Nobel laureates.

"A Nobel Prize winner of that year can invite just 20 people — so being able to send that one person each year is not easy. We are probably the only organisation doing so from Asia, and we have interested parties from China working very hard through us for the opportunity to send their youths," Prof Phua elaborated. The privilege has not been lost on the young students either — Prof Phua shared that the experience is often life-changing for them.

Tireless in his quest to promote science as a field of study, the publisher is thinking of setting up a school through World Scientific. It is certainly unconventional, but Prof Phua has never been one for conventions.

World Scientific Publishing Group Gives to NTU

In a move that is particularly noteworthy to NTU, the World Scientific Prize in Physics and Applied Physics was established on 3 October 2019. The donation of $20,000 will be distributed as a term fund of $4,000 per annum from Year 2020 to Year 2024, and is the first set of prizes established for first and second-year Physics students at NTU.

Eligible for students pursuing a full-time undergraduate degree in Physics or Applied Physics from the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at NTU, it will be awarded to candidates who demonstrate strong performance in the regular courses or experimental work in the laboratory courses performed while at the Division of Physics and Applied Physics (PAP).

Two prizes will be awarded to the best students in the theoretical courses of the first year and second year, and another two will be awarded to the best students in experimental work performed in the first and second years.

Cause and Effect

"What can one do with a degree in pure science? Many today ask. So the enrolment numbers are falling, which is worrisome," Prof Phua reflected.

To illustrate, the PAP undergraduate population has dropped from 485 between 2016 to 2017 to 383 between 2019 to 2020. By establishing the prizes, Prof Phua wishes to open the students’ eyes — through exposure to the work done at World Scientific — to the different career possibilities the analytical training gained through an education in physical sciences can lead. "It is important to spread the message that studying physical science is not without future," he stressed.

Through a selection criteria that looks beyond examination grades, he also hopes to highlight the need to promote flexibility and a degree of adventurousness, which he sees as integral to the nurturing of world-class scientists. For doing well at structured exams and being able to think out of the box — yet being rigorous and systematic in conducting research work at the same time — takes different skill sets. The prizes thus acknowledge the potential of those who may not be exam smart, but are strong in research.

"Why the focus on research? As scientists, we are looking for the unknown — and the unknown can only be discovered through experiments and research," Prof Phua explained.

Thus, it all boils down to a passion for learning and an emphasis on education, instilled in Prof Phua since he was a young boy.

"My father valued education and sent me and my siblings to the best schools. When you educate a person, you don't just change his life, but that of his entire family, even his descendants. The impact of education is deep and farreaching, and that's why we give to support education," Prof Phua surmised.

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