About the Hong Kong Laureate Forum

Welcome to the January 2021 issue of the newsletter of the Hong Kong Laureate Forum!

Application for the inaugural Hong Kong Laureate Forum (the Forum) ended on 13 December 2020. We have received over 450 applications from more than 30 countries / places including Australia, Britain, China, Russia, Singapore, and South Korea etc. to join the Forum. We are encouraged to see almost equal split of male / female applicants. The applications will be reviewed by a two-tier Scientific Review Panel comprising both local and non-local academics, the panel will then select the final 200 young scientists to join the inaugural Forum. More information about the Scientific Review Panel of 2021 Forum is available on our website.

Besides open application, the Council of the Hong Kong Laureate Forum (HKLF) also held a two-day event called "Tomorrow’s Scientists Exploration Camp" for local university undergraduates as a channel to select local young scientists to join the Forum. The event was successfully held online on 5 and 16 January 2021 with more than 60 students nominated by their universities in Hong Kong joining it. We are honoured to have academics from Hong Kong to be our guest speakers and panelists, namely:

• Prof Tom Cheung, Associate Professor of Division of Life Science of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology,
• Dr Sean Hon, Assistant Professor of Department of Mathematics of Hong Kong Baptist University,
• Prof Hua-bai Li, Associate Professor of Department of Physics of The Chinese University of Hong Kong,
• Dr Wing-cheong Lo, Assistant Professor of Department of Mathematics of City University of Hong Kong,
• Dr Carmen Wong, Assistant Professor of Department of Pathology of the University of Hong Kong and
• Dr Wing-chi Yu, Assistant Professor of Department of Physics of City University of Hong Kong

On the 1st day of the event, we had Dr Hon and Dr Wong as our guest speakers and they shared their journeys in pursuit of science with the students, this gave invaluable insights to students.

"You always encounter setbacks when doing research, but never give up when that happens." Dr Sean Hon

"Being a scientist is like being married, one has both responsibility and obligation on the sharing of knowledge for science." Dr Carmen Wong

On the 2nd day of the event, students had opportunities to share their research projects with professors and fellow students so as to stimulate more scientific ideas. They were also vying for the final places for their category.

Virtual InnoCarnival 2020 was also held online from 23-31 December 2020 and the HKLF participated in it. Our virtual booth not only covered information about the Forum but also premiered two videos about the journey in pursuit of science of Prof Dennis Yuk Ming Lo of the Faculty of Medicine, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. If you had missed the event, don’t worry, you may visit our website to watch the videos now! If you have watched it already, you are welcome to review them again.

The Year of Ox is approaching, we would like to wish you a healthy, prosperous, and happy Chinese New Year!

Phase Field Models and Their Effective Numerical Methods

The idea of the phase field method could be traced back to Lord Rayleigh, Josiah Willard Gibbs, and Van der Waals. Since then, it has emerged as a powerful approach for modeling and predicting mesoscale morphological and microstructural evolution arising from many fields, such as biology, material sciences, image processing, multiphase fluid mechanics, chemical and petroleum engineering, etc. A variety of phase field models have been derived to describe phase separations and transitions. In general, phase field models take distinct values (for instance, +1 and -1 in Figure 1) in each of the phases, with a smooth change between phase values in a thin layer of finite width around the interface.

( Figure 1. Phase field function )

Energy functionals play an important role in the phase field method. In the phase field approach, phase separations and transition processes are energy driven in the sense that the dynamics are the gradient flow of a certain Helmholtz energy functional. The Helmholtz free energy functional can be written as the sum of two parts: the interfacial energy and the bulk energy. The interfacial energy measures the energy stored in the interfacial layer and can be defined with the help of the phase function (ϕ in Figure 1). As expected, it would depend on the width of the interfacial layer (ϕ in Figure 1). On the other hand, bulk energy is usually problem dependent and may consist of several other types of energies such as kinetic and potential / gradient energy. This energetic approach makes the phase field modeling become systematic.

In practice, the main task of the phase field modeling is the construction of the Helmholtz free energy functional and the driving forces that provide the mechanism of energy dissipation.


Multi-facets of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic (the pandemic) continues to affect the world, research teams in different countries / places have been working relentlessly to combat the pandemic. In the previous issues of our newsletters, we shared articles on the roles of and also analysis by different scientific fields, such as "Epidemiological Study on Coronavirus 2019 at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University" in the May 2020 issue, "Beyond Vaccines" by Prof Ping-Chung Leung in the September 2020 issue and "Clinical Management of Coronavirus Disease 2019" by Dr Wu Tak Chiu in the last issue. Besides epidemiological study, vaccines development, and clinical management which are fields that are directly related to the combat of the pandemic, some areas of medicine where COVID-19 also has an important impact on patient care are being studied by Hong Kong medical teams. In the current issue, we have two articles by Prof Gary Wong and Prof Vincent Mok, both of the Faculty of Medicine of The Chinese University of Hong Kong on this aspect.

Having noted that children have been less likely to contract COVID-19, and less likely to get sick when they do, Prof Gary Wong of the Department of Paediatrics headed the first study team to examine how the disease was affecting infected children.

The Chinese Paediatric Novel Coronavirus study team led by Prof Wong looked at the epidemiologic characteristics, clinical features, and radiologic findings of infected children at the early stages of the pandemic.

The epidemiology of juvenile cases of COVID-19 helped deliver insights into the underlying immune response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its severity. In contrast with adults, most infected children have a milder clinical course typified by cough, fatigue, muscle pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Fever is only found in about half of the infected children. Check out Prof Wong’s publication in The New England Journal of Medicine here to learn more.

On another aspect, people with dementia are particularly vulnerable to infection from SARS-CoV-2. Not only are they directly at high risk of contracting COVID-19, they are also hurt by the physical distancing necessary and isolation often created when implementing countermeasures against this infectious disease.

Prof Vincent Mok, Head of Division of Neurology in the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics led an international team to devise strategies for the elderly and patients with dementia so that they can receive appropriate treatment during the pandemic. The team advocates measures such as the use of telemedicine to ensure delivery of care, with online consultations and remote medical advice. Other measures applied first and foremost to group-living facilities for people with dementia, but could in many cases be applied to the care of older people in general.

The team brought together experts from 29 universities in 16 countries around the world, including the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, the Vrije University of Amsterdam, Harvard University, and the Karolinska Institute. Check out the team’s publication and recommendations in Alzheimer’s & Dementia here to learn more.

Acknowledgment: Faculty of Medicine, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The World-changing Power of Scientific Research

Globalisation is a major trend in world development. With the popularisation of the Internet, communication technology has developed rapidly and encouraged spread of knowledge and exchange of ideas. Knowledge and scientific research are also going globalised. From basic scientific research to the development of innovative technology, there are rapid proliferation of cross-region and cross-discipline collaboration. If we look at the major international awards on science subjects in the past two decades, such as the Nobel Prize and the Shaw Prize which is also known as the "Nobel of the East", many prizes were awarded to research teams comprising multinational scientists as well as teams from different parts of the world working together.

A case in point is the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020, it was awarded to two female scientists, Prof Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Prof Jennifer Doudna of the USA. They jointly published a gene scissors technology called "CRISPR / Cas9" in 2012, which was a major breakthrough in gene editing technology. This technology has been applied to crops and livestock and is expected to be conducive to the treatment of cancer and other genetic diseases. Prof Doudna was awarded Doctor of Science honoris causa by the University of Hong Kong in 2017 and she attended the Congregation Ceremony in Hong Kong, when two generations of scientists came together to inherit the spirit of science and research.

Let’s also not forget the Breakthrough Prize, also known as the "Oscars of Science", in Fundamental Physics 2020 was awarded to the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (the EHT) for establishing the first image of a supermassive black hole, which was taken by an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes. The EHT is a collaboration of more than 300 scientists around the world, connecting telescopes from different locations to form a giant radio telescope network with an aperture equivalent to the diameter of the Earth. These telescopes are located in the USA, Mexico, Chile, France, Greenland and Antarctica. The radio telescope does not only capture images of black hole directly but also provide a lot of scientific data, which scientists can construct images of black holes after complex calculations and calibrations. Mr Chan Chi-kwan, an astronomer from Hong Kong who is a member of the EHT pointed out that cloud computing is very important for this international collaboration and it can provide enormous data to other scientists from around the world.

Thus, it demonstrates that, in addition to curiosity and perseverance in scientific pursuit, the new generation of scientists should also have innovative thinking, international perspective and ability to work in teams.

Looking back at the milestones of scientific development, many trailblazing inventions and discoveries may just be pie in the sky at the early stage. However, after persistent work by scientists and research teams, they were realised and used to shape the future of mankind. For instance, when Mr James Maxwell, a mathematical physicist, predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves from theoretical calculations in 1865, other scientists cast serious doubt. A hundred years later, electromagnetic waves are widely used in many areas from mobile phone’s wireless networks and e-wallets to weather radars in the sky and satellites in space, making significant contributions to human civilisation, technology development and quality of life.

What seems to be scientific dreams today may become great discoveries tomorrow. Young generation who aspires to become leader in scientific pursuits are encouraged to participate in Laureate Forums to interact and exchange views with world-renowned scientists, so as to cultivate innovative thinking, broaden international perspective, develop supportive network and communicate with different stakeholders with interests in similar scientific and research fields. These experiences will definitely enhance their research strength, improve their skills, facilitate gathering of resources and encourage cross-cultural and cross-boundary collaboration.

Great Conjunction

In Astronomy, conjunction refers to the phenomenon where two astronomical objects are very close in the sky when observed from a specific object such as Earth. When a conjunction occurs, the locations of the two objects have either the same right ascension or the same ecliptic longitude as observed from Earth. "Great conjunction" is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, it is named "great" for being by far the rarest of the conjunctions between planets that are visible from Earth. In December 2020, there was a rare great conjunction over the sky of Hong Kong. At that time, the separation between Jupiter and Saturn, as seen from Earth was only 6.1 arcminutes. The last time a great conjunction with separation less than 10 arcminutes traced back to 1623.

How rare is a great conjunction, in particular the 2020 one?

The orbital period of Jupiter is about 11.9 years and that of Saturn is about 29.5 years. This makes a five to two resonance period between the two planets, that is, Jupiter will orbit the Sun five times while Saturn will orbit twice. As observed from Earth, great conjunction occurs once every 20 years, it is rare compared with conjunctions of other planets. For example, the conjunction of Mercury and Venus occurs every 1.6 years, the conjunction of Jupiter and Mars occurs every 2.2 years. The great conjunction in 2020 attracted many astronomical enthusiasts, not only because the separation is small, but also it can be observed with naked-eyes. However, not all great conjunctions are observable. The orbits of these two planets are different, causing different separation each time they conjunct. A closer conjunction occurs once every 60 years, a conjunction with similar separation like this one may take 400 years to occur. The visibility of a great conjunction may also be affected by seasons, weather and location of the conjunction. The last time a great conjunction could be seen with bare-eyes and the separation of planets was that close occurred in 1226. In the past 800 years or so, two great conjunctions, in 1563 and 1623 respectively had separations less than 10 arcminutes. However, it was difficult to watch these two great conjunctions because the directions were too close to the Sun, thus making them difficult to be observed. The next great conjunction with such small separation will not happen until 2080.

The Great Conjunction and the Star of Bethlehem

In the ancient time, people predicted the future by observing the changes of astronomical phenomenon. They thought that the astronomical wonders were signals to mankind. In the "Gospel of Matthew" in the New Testament, it was mentioned that when Jesus was born, there was a very bright star in the sky illuminating the entire Bethlehem. The biblical Magi were inspired by the star to travel to Jerusalem to pay homage to Jesus and the bright star was the "Star of Bethlehem". The real identity of the star has been a fascinating puzzle for astronomers and enthusiasts to solve with and they proposed various hypotheses to affirm that the "Star of Bethlehem" was real since ancient time.

In the early 17th century, a famous German astronomer Mr. Johannes Kepler discovered the laws of planetary motion. He was the first man to propose that the "Star of Bethlehem" might have been the occurrence of a great conjunction in 7BC when there were three great conjunctions in late May, late September and early December. Although the hypotheses were invalidated later, it inspired the idea that the "Star of Bethlehem" might be an astronomical phenomenon. In the recent era, via the astronomy software calculation, astronomers Messrs Ernest Martin and Cragi Chester deduced that the "Star of Bethlehem" was the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 3BC. The "Star of Bethlehem" was considered a very bright star since the two planets were very close to each other.

Yet, the hypotheses mentioned above cannot be validated since there is no conclusive historical record of the actual birthday of Jesus. Perhaps the mysterious veil of this star will be lifted when the science is more advanced in the future.