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The Warsaw Voice » Society » January 9, 2008
Voice - Science
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From Medicine to Black Holes
January 9, 2008   
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The Foundation for Polish Science granted zl.300,000 to 12 professors as part of its Mistrz (Master) program at a ceremony held in Warsaw Nov. 22. The grants, to be paid out in three zl.100,000 annual installments, are intended to help the recipients carry out scientific research projects with their younger colleagues.

One of the highlights of the ceremony was a lecture from Prof. Frank Wilczek, an American with Polish roots, who won the 2004 Nobel Prize for physics. Wilczek stressed the importance of educational continuity from one generation to the next. "Masters who can inspire their students are invaluable and should be given every support," he said.

Maciej Żylicz, the science foundation's chairman, said that grants to professors differ in nature from those for research projects. They do not require a detailed breakdown of costs or a project plan. Nor does every single penny have to be accounted for. "We simply want to select the best and give them as much freedom as possible to carry out their research projects," he explained.

Thirty percent of the grant is given to the professors as an individual scholarship with the rest going to their colleagues, doctoral and other students, or helping to cover the costs of attending academic conferences or purchasing equipment.

Several scientists with innovative ideas that have practical applications were among the award recipients. Prof. Paweł Kafarski, director of the Department of Bioorganic Chemistry at the Wrocław University of Technology, is one of them. He and his team are busy developing new drugs. "We are looking for inhibitors, that is, substances that reduce the catalytic activity of enzymes," says Kafarski. "We focus on enzymes specific to diseases associated with modern civilization-cancer, for example."

By contrast, Prof. Janusz Kałużny from the Polish Academy of Sciences and his team are engaged in basic scientific research. They specialize in astronomy-particularly in globular star clusters and binary stars. "Our research, from the standpoint of industry or medicine, is absolutely useless," says Kałużny. " You could say that it's more a hobby than anything else. However, pure research has always driven scientific development." He explained that he and his team are looking for black holes in globular star clusters, thousands of stars concentrated in spherical groups. It is possible that a black hole and a star form a binary structure, which usually only happens with two stars.

Wilczek spoke of the challenges confronting modern physics. He believes that researchers are gaining more insight into the nature of matter than ever before. This is why they conduct experiments on elementary particles, the smallest objects in the universe. He also mentioned the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator being constructed at the European Center for Nuclear Research near Geneva. The LHC is due to start operating in 2008 after 20 years in the making. Many researchers are hoping the device will facilitate a lot of scientific breakthroughs.

Wilczek explained that modern physics was also concerned with the structure of the universe as well as its history and its future. Researchers are also busy working on dark matter and dark energy. Building a new generation of computers is yet another major challenge, according to Wilczek. "Today's computers are certainly impressive," he said. "But if you look at how they're constructed, you can still see room for improvement. Computer processors are two-dimensional and their manufacture requires precision tools and sterile conditions. Meanwhile, the most complex comparable structure, the human brain, is three-dimensional. It develops all by itself in a natural setting and is capable of learning. The challenge facing 21st century physicists is to develop computers that work more like the human brain."

Urszula Rybnicka

Prof. Frank Wilczek talks to The Warsaw Voice.

Do you know, or have you worked with any Polish scientists?
I certainly know some Polish scientists. A couple of my MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] colleagues are of Polish origin. Just like today, I'm always meeting and learning about new people. But I'm mostly familiar with people from my own field-particle physicists. I've had students and colleagues from Poland throughout my career.

What do you think about Poland now? Having visited our country, do you see a lot of potential for scientific development here?
Absolutely. I last visited Poland in 1995 and it's a completely different country now. The rise in prosperity and the rate of progress is remarkable. So much has improved in such a short time. I think Poland is ready to stand on an equal footing with the rest of Europe.

Obviously, it's going to take years to build up the necessary infrastructure and for students to become professors and teach new generations of scientists. It's important to have programs like the one we learned about today. You also need international contacts but improvements in communications have made this easier than ever. And of course, Poland is not that far from where the action is going to be-the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. This is a great opportunity to participate in experiments and I know there are groups from Poland who are already doing that. The United States is now in many ways the scientific leader, but that's a relatively recent development. In the early part of the 20th century, the United States was way behind Europe. So it can be achieved in a few decades. I think Poland is on its way.
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