La Jolla reception offers sample of upcoming Kyoto Prize lectures

Dick Davis, executive director of the Kyoto Symposium Organization; Athenaeum Board President Max Elliott; Scripps oceanographer and 1999 Kyoto Prize recipient Walter Munk; and SDSU Vice President for Research Stephen Welter Photos by Pat Sherman
Dick Davis, executive director of the Kyoto Symposium Organization; Athenaeum Board President Max Elliott; Scripps oceanographer and 1999 Kyoto Prize recipient Walter Munk; and SDSU Vice President for Research Stephen Welter Photos by Pat Sherman
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Dick Davis, executive director of the Kyoto Symposium Organization; Athenaeum Board President Max Elliott; Scripps oceanographer and 1999 Kyoto Prize recipient Walter Munk; and SDSU Vice President for Research Stephen Welter Photos by Pat Sherman

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.

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

While there last month, 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.

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Cheryl Alden, Taka Kunitake, Lynn Truong, Eugene Kunitake and Kim Doren.

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.

SDSU 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” (a process 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.”

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Event guests listen as SDSU’s Stephen Welter discusses the 2012 Kyoto Prize Laureates’ work.

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 Philosophy, was educated at 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 hadsuch a different experience.

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