Published on 29 Sep 2022

Nobel Prize Laureate Lecture at NTU by Prof Serge Haroche

The Usefulness Of Useless Knowledge

The Nobel Prize Dialogue featured physicist Serge Haroche. Professor Haroche won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his ground-breaking experimental methods which enabled the realisation of some of the thought experiments imagined by Bohr, Einstein or Schrödinger. Held on September 14, 2022 at the NTU School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, the lecture was attended by over 300 students and researchers in person. Professor Ling San, NTU Deputy President and Provost gave a welcome address, followed by opening remarks from Ms. Laura Sprechmann, CEO for Nobel Prize Outreach.

Nobel Laureate Prof Serge Haroche (top), Prof Ling San, NTU Deputy President and Provost (left) and Ms. Laura Sprechmann, CEO for Nobel Prize Outreach (right)


Professor Haroche addressed a full auditorium, and captivated an audience as he took on a colorful journey of scientific inquiry entitled "The Usefulness Of Useless Knowledge", a title borrowed from an article by Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

What is light? What is matter? What are these counter-intuitive laws to which they obey? Traveling through time and visiting a lineage of giants, from Newton, to Maxwell, to Einstein, to Townes and Gordon (the inventors, in 1953, of the maser, the forerunner of the laser), from early measurements of the speed of light to cutting-edge work on quantum entanglement, we witnessed "useless" science, spurred by curiosity rather than by the drive to invent useful and marketable devices. 

In his passionate and precise defense of “blue sky research” – “Oh, by the way, why is the sky blue on Earth?”, Professor Haroche and history tell us that basic research and technology are two sides of the same coin -- without basic research, novel technologies cannot be invented. Through time, scientists have made discoveries with no immediate applications, but serendipitously or through combinations of breakthroughs, after a long maturation time, these discoveries have led to innumerable inventions that have revolutionized our daily lives – e.g. personal computers, lasers, MRI scanners, or the GPS software guiding us to our exact destinations by correcting for the slowing of time in each satellite of the GPS system, slowing of time accurately measured by embedded atomic clocks. Today, state-of-the-art atomic clocks measure time as precisely as one-twentieth of a second over the age of the universe; this seemingly useless exactness will, for example, allow scientists to measure tiny gravitational ripples through space-time, and better detect deep underground early signals of earthquakes or help in the search for certain types of dark matter in the universe. 

[From left:] Prof Phan Anh Tuan (Chair,SPMS), Prof Sum Tze Chien (Director, IAS NTU), Mrs Claudine Haroche, Nobel Laureate Prof Serge Haroche, Prof Ling San (NTU Deputy President and Provost), Ms Laura Sprechmann (CEO for Nobel Prize Outreach), Prof Simon Redfern (Dean, NTU College of Science) and Prof Liew Wen Siang (Associate Chair (Research), SPMS).


As a parting thought, Professor Haroche concluded his lecture with the necessity to preserve the values of civilization, especially in dark and dangerous times, through the essential pursuit of basic knowledge, and citing Flexner, who in 1939 wrote:

It is not a curious fact that in a world steeped in irrational hatreds which threaten civilization itself, men and women - old and young - detach themselves wholly or partly from the angry current of daily life to devote themselves to the cultivation of beauty, to the extension of knowledge, to the cure of disease, to the amelioration of suffering, just as though fanatics were not simultaneously engaged in spreading pain, ugliness, and suffering? The world has always been a sorry and confused sort of place -- yet poets and artists and scientists have ignored the factors that would, if attended to, paralyze them.”

We agree with Professor Haroche and Abraham Flexner. 

Marc Rakotomalala, Research Fellow, SKBI, SMU.

Watch the video recording