Nobel prize-winning chemist attracts full-house audience

Craig Francis

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A full-house audience of almost 200 people was treated on 30 October to an illuminating journey into the world of chemistry, and taken on a guided tour of the milestones in its history, by 1987 Nobel Prize-winning chemist Professor Jean-Marie Lehn.

Professor Lehn’s lecture at City University of Hong Kong (CityU) was part of the France-Hong Kong Distinguished Lecture Series co-organised by the French Academy of Sciences, the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong and CityU.

Professor Lehn is regarded as one of the founding fathers of supramolecular chemistry. His lecture, titled “From Matter to Life: Chemistry? Chemistry!”, was an exciting, entertaining and highly informative look into the realm of chemistry that links the inanimate to the living.

Professor (Chair) Roderick Wong Sue-cheun, Vice-President (Research) and Dean of Graduate Studies, opened the proceedings by highlighting that Professor Lehn is one of the most eminent and innovative scientists of modern times and welcomed him as the latest guest speaker in the lecture series.

Introductory speeches were then made by Professor Richard Ho Yan-ki, Acting President of CityU, and Mr Jean-Pierre Thébault, Consul General of France in Hong Kong.

“Even though I am no scientist, I know Professor Lehn is a great scientist who belongs to the 21st century and he represents what we at CityU have been saying for years. He believes in collaboration with other scientists and, more importantly, in an interdisciplinary approach to applied research,” said Professor Ho.

“Everybody can study science but the difficult thing is to be able to step outside of science once you are deeply involved in it. Professor Lehn can step in and out of chemistry like he can in and out of a magician’s box. And that is the strategy for nurturing our students as well. In the many years to come, we will have a rich portfolio of general education courses to choose from, so that these students can step in and out of the major disciplines and become global professionals,” added Professor Ho.

Taking such a complex topic as supramolecular chemistry - chemistry beyond the molecule - and transforming it into a lecture readily comprehensible to an audience that does not necessarily possess a scientific background, Professor

Lehn led a tour of the great historical milestones of scientific discovery in this discipline. Whether citing the amazing early insight of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus and his theory of the atom, quoting the prose of Chinese poet and essayist Han Yu (768-824) or explaining the contributions to science of his own contemporaries, Professor Lehn ensured the chemistry between himself and the audience was always lively.

Mr Thébault praised the role CityU played in encouraging scientific exchanges between Hong Kong and France, stressing that it highlighted just how active the University was in research on a global scale.

“The lecture series helps to show that Hong Kong is not just a financial city but also a city where science is respected and practiced. It also gives students the chance to meet such extraordinary scientists and confirm their chosen vocation,” said Mr Thébault.

Professor Lehn received the Nobel Prize, together with Professor Donald Cram and Mr Charles Pedersen from the United States, for their pioneering work in supramolecular chemistry. His innovative research was the premise for an entire new field in chemistry and today plays a central role in numerous disciplines, including molecular biology and nanotechnology.

During a talk that ranged from the onset of the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago to the infinitely diverse range of possibilities for life tens and hundreds of thousands of years into the future, Professor Lehn invariably returned to the relatively simple building blocks - the elements of the periodic table - of the universe and their

seemingly irresistible tendency to “self-organise”, in explaining how we humans had progressed to the present stage of our evolution.

It was this self-organising, or gelling, of the basic building blocks that led to the formation of the double helix strands of DNA and made us and all living creatures what we are today, Professor Lehn said.

“We cannot say whether we are at the end of our evolution. Who can say what shape or form we will take in ten thousand years?” he said. “At the beginning of the universe there were particles, then they were condensed, then there came organised matter, living matter and finally, thinking matter. The evolution of matter has become more and more complex, from the elementary particle to the thinking organism,” he added.

In closing, Professor Lehn looked both forward in time and back into history.

“Let me finish with some general considerations. Self organisation; first we have to describe it, then we have to understand how it works before we can use it to - maybe - devise, design and create new forms of complex matter,” he said.

“Leonardo da Vinci had already expressed that in a very eloquent way; ‘Where nature finishes producing its own species, man begins, using natural things in harmony with this very nature, to create an infinity of species,’ ” Professor Lehn said.

The France-Hong Kong Distinguished Lecture Series was first launched in 2005 under the initiative of Professor (Chair) Philippe Ciarlet, Department of Mathematics.

Professor Ciarlet, a Member of the renowned French Academy of Sciences, engineered the agreements with both the French Academy and the prestigious Collège de France in Paris, which brings lectures of the highest calibre to CityU.

Speakers featured at the previous lectures included Professor Phillippe Kourilsky, a Member of the French Academy of Sciences, and Professor Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, a 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics. Professor Cohen-Tannoudji will visit the University from 3-16 November to discuss the development of methods to cool and trap atoms using laser light, the area of research for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He will receive an Honorary Degree from CityU during the University’s Congregation on 8 November.

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