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On 2 April, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel awarded seven honorary doctorates to 10 top scientists and international personalities under the banner Figures that Matter. Rector Caroline Pauwels opened the ceremony by declaring that figures, data and research results are the most powerful weapons humans have at their disposal in the fight against fake news, populism and global warming. At the end of the event, honorary doctor and physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf reinforced the rector’s words: “It’s a fact that you can trust science.”
Have a look at the *pictures* from the Honorary Doctorate Award Ceremony.
Scroll down to watch the tributes to the laureates *video*.
What’s the state of science today, summarised in a single word? “Good,” says Robbert Dijkgraaf, echoing what politician Leonid Brezhnev said when asked the same question about the state of the Soviet Union. “And next year it will be even better, because knowledge always expands. It’s the only natural resource that increases when it’s used. New ideas, experiments, data and technologies open up exiting research areas and promise major breakthroughs. There is an unprecedented worldwide pool of talent, including from regions and social strata that have not been previously engaged. And modern communication technologies enable new levels of connectivity and collaboration, building a truly global research community.”
And if he were to summarise the state of science in two words? Then, unfortunately, the answer is “not good”, again echoing Brezhnev. “Science and the scientific community are under fire in different parts of the world. Peer reviewed scientific articles are dismissed as ‘opinions’. There is a worldwide wave of fake news and alternative facts. Brexiteer Michael Gove claims that people in Britain ‘have had enough of experts’. In the Netherlands, a popular politician claims that universities ‘undermine’ society.”
Dijkgraaf’s response? “Yes, universities do undermine - namely preconceived ideas and dogmatic thinking. One of the duties of a university is to immunise society against sloppy thinking and the short-term interests of politics and business.”
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Just like Dijkgraaf, honorary doctor Gerard Alsteens (aka GAL), who has been a political graphic artist for 35 years with Belgian news magazine Knack, has plenty to say about current affairs. While Dijkgraaf is an expert in science communication and a master of rhetoric, GAL shuns the spoken and written word and chooses another powerful weapon: the pencil.
“I’m not a cartoonist. I am a political artist,” said GAL – who in his career creating political artwork has never known censorship or had to soften the edges of his work – during the ceremony. “Cartoonists put things into perspective. I don’t do that. On the contrary. Sometimes I even hurt with my drawings, because I have been affected myself. A political drawing is an expression of vulnerability.”
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Swedish statistician Hans Rosling (posthumous) and his son on and daughter-in-law also received an honorary doctorate for their contribution to making the world understandable. In their best-selling book Factfulness – published in 2018 after Rosling’s death – they share their fact-based world view. With the help of comprehensive data, they refute the untruths that circulate around the world. For example, they prove that the number of countries experiencing extreme poverty has halved in the past 20 years, contrary to what many people believe. The data they have made understandable in their book and through the Gapminder Foundation they created, has almost literally opened up a new world to readers.
Anna Rosling Rönnlund represented her late father-in-law, Hans, and husband, Ola, in Brussels. “Hans Rosling was a pragmatic man who loved teaching,” she said, summing up his life’s work. “He really wanted people to understand the world. Together we developed a data-based framework and to this data we added a great amount of storytelling, because without storytelling or stories, data remains pretty dull. The book was preceded by 20 years of data and fact collection. Secondary school teachers also needed to be able to work with it, therefore all academic lingo had to be removed. The book is made up of serious data and serious evidence, but the lingo was not allowed to be academic at all.”
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The American scientist Brian Durie received an honorary doctorate for his scientific achievements and search for a cure for multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer. Every year he brings together 250 experts from all over the world to fight the condition. This international collaboration is the final piece of the strategy used to increase the life expectancy of people with this type of cancer. With his wife, Susie, he founded the International Myeloma Foundation. Susie Durie: “Patients often know more about their illness than their doctor. Our greatest achievement is that we give patients the courage to talk to their doctor in the search for the best cure.”
Finally, three top international mathematicians also received an honorary doctorate. Karine Chemla from France explained how she tries to incrementally break down the walls between the West and East (in this case China) “with a toothbrush” and to gradually strengthen mutual understanding of each other’s mathematics. She believes mathematics can be both diverse and universal.
American Padmanabhan Seshaiyer was honoured for his ability to help people understand complex mathematical concepts in a simple way. He introduced a new way of teaching maths in primary and secondary education in the United States. To get people and children enthusiastic about maths, according to Seshaiyer, it is especially crucial to look for applications in daily life: “Mathematics should be personal and thus personalised.”
Finally, Belgian mathematician Freddy van Oystaeyen was nominated as an honorary doctor by Stefaan Caenepeel, dean of the Faculty of Engineering. Caenepeel was once a PhD student under Van Oystaeyen, who joked during the ceremony: “Just like the blues, mathematics is pure emotion. It can move me to tears. Especially when the equation turns out to be wrong again,” he said with a wink.