Reception offers sample of upcoming Kyoto Prize lectures

By Pat Sherman

More than 50 people gathered at the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library Nov. 28 to learn about three free lectures that will be offered next spring when this year’s Kyoto Prize recipients visit San Diego. (See page 30 for more photos.)

One lecture will be offered at each of the following institutions: University of California San Diego, University of San Diego, and San Diego State University.

The Kyoto Prize honors individuals who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual betterment of mankind. Japan’s non-profit Inamori Foundation presents the prize annually in the following categories: Advanced Technology, Basic Sciences, and Arts and Philosophy. It includes a cash gift worth about $625,000, making it Japan’s highest private award for international achievement.

For more than a decade the laureates have visited San Diego to give presentations on their work.

This year’s Laureates include computer scientist Ivan Sutherland, molecular cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, and literary critic and educator Gayatri Spivak.

During the reception, UCSD oceanographer and 1999 Kyoto Prize recipient Dr. Walter Munk, recalled attending the awards ceremony in 1999 and again last month.

While there, he and his wife were invited aboard the Chikyu, a Japanese drilling vessel designed to bore seven kilometers beneath the ocean floor, and ultimately into the Earth’s mantle — a quest Munk was involved in five decades ago as part of Project Mohole.

Though Munk and his crew never reached the mantle, his expedition invented technology that prevents a ship from drifting during such research, which is still used today by Chikyu researchers.

San Diego State University entomologist and Vice President for Research Stephen Welter offered an overview of the Kyoto Prize recipients’ professional achievements.

Dr. Oshumi, who won the prize in Basic Sciences, gave a talk titled “50 Years of Autophagy” (in which the body or cells self-digest to provide sustenance, as happens in dieting).

“Autophagy is this process by which cells take portions that are either damaged or unnecessary, they recycle them, then move them along,” Welter said. “It’s important for cancer, for anti-aging — which I’m very fond of.”

Welter said Oshumi’s talk moved from the technical to the esoteric, focusing on how students can succeed by taking the path less traveled.

“If you do daring research, that’s where you make a difference,” he said. “In (Oshumi’s) case it turns out the daring path was yeast. Most of us think of yeast as things that make beer or bread, but the truth is that yeast is a very simple organism that allows us to do very elegant experiments.”

Welter said he relishes the oft-used image of Indian theorist and philosopher Gayatri Spivak in a sari and combat boots, marching to a remote village to teach women how to educate impoverished populations.

Prof. Spivak, who won the prize for Arts and Literature, was educated at the University of Calcutta and at Cornell.

“She really is a philosopher, an intellect, a social critic and her topic is basically post-colonialism,” Welter said. “Her concern is that the Western world’s perspective ultimately defines how we see India, or how we see other cultures, and that it’s very difficult to evaluate another group through the prism of our own eyes when we’ve had such a different experience.

“It could have been left at just a criticism,” Welter said, “but she’s one of those people that’s taken criticism and turned it into action.”

Computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland, who received the prize in Advanced Technology, is often referred to as the father of computer graphics.

Sutherland later moved on from computer graphics to form companies and conduct research at Harvard, California Institute of Technology and elsewhere.

Welter said Sutherland deemed computer graphics “no longer a worthy intellectual opponent.

“I think that gives you some kind of insight into these kinds of people,” Welter said. “There’s a hunger in him you can see… People in his companies went on to form Adobe, Pixar. It’s like every river, there’s a source for that river. … Clearly people came to him. He nurtured them, he spun them off and they became tributaries.”