CHARLES Kao, a Nobel laureate in physics and former vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has died aged 84. His achievements in academic research and education are remembered by many people, who also pay tribute to his breadth of mind and tolerance. Kao was not only a great scientist, but also an honest, down-to-earth educator.
Born in Shanghai, Kao developed a passion for science as a child. As a teenager, he moved to Hong Kong with his family and went on to study abroad, returning to Hong Kong only in the 1970s to take up a teaching post. Nevertheless he regarded Hong Kong as his hometown all his life, describing himself as a veritable Hongkonger. In 1966, when Kao was in Britain, he proposed the basic principles of using optical fibre for communication applications, laying the foundations for optical fibre communications. There would not be the internet — let alone today's cyber world — were it not for optical fibre. As "the father of optical fibre", Kao never thought about obtaining a patent for the outcome of his study. He hoped instead the cost of optical fibre would keep coming down until it was free for everyone to connect to the internet. "Had money been the top priority in every matter, optical fibre would not have achieved so much." What Kao said was a testament to his noble and altruistic sentiments. It is indeed an honour for Hong Kong people that such a brilliant scientist came from our city.
Kao dedicated his life to academic research and education. Undeniably, it is to his credit that the Chinese University of Hong Kong has achieved so much today. When he was the university's vice-chancellor between 1987 and 1996, he established the Faculty of Engineering and Hong Kong Institute of Biotechnology one after another, and took an active role in the preparation of the Hong Kong Science Park even after his tenure at the CUHK, showing that he threw himself into Hong Kong's scientific research development. Kao was an amiable man and tended to avoid the limelight. Most teachers and students who were in touch with him described him as friendly, likable, open-minded, willing to listen to other people's views, not putting on airs despite being the university's vice-chancellor, and treating students lovingly. Some have even praised his tolerance towards students, thinking that many university vice-chancellors should learn from him.
Kao was a humble man of noble character, tirelessly devoted to education. He was a role model for all educators. But it must also be said that there is a world of difference between today's political atmosphere and that of the 1990s. If Kao were a university vice-chancellor today, he might be on the horns of a dilemma and feel hamstrung too facing wave after wave of political storms on campuses.
Kao was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 2009, the greatest recognition of his achievements. Lamentably, by then he had already been suffering from Alzheimer's disease and was not able to feel the honour fully. After Kao passed away, his wife said that his foundation would continue to help patients of Alzheimer's disease in accordance with his wish. As Hong Kong's population is ageing and a silver tsunami is expected in 10 years' time, the number of Alzheimer's disease patients is likely to increase significantly. The best way for the government to remember Kao is by devoting a huge amount of resources to supporting Alzheimer's disease patients and their families.