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Black hole's lesson in global teamwork

To be able to see what's unseeable in a galaxy 55 million light years away seems like an impossibility. But it happened; the result captured vividly in the first image of a black hole. In astrophysical terms, it has been likened to peering "at the gates of hell, at the end of space and time". In terrestrial terms, the breakthrough was a shining example of what can be achieved through international collaboration. The remarkable image seen worldwide recently was the work of a multinational crew of 200 scientists using a network of eight telescopes based in areas as far flung as Chile, Spain and Hawaii. Such global teamwork is increasingly important in science and technology, even if the popular notion of breakthroughs is that of a lone Nobel Prize winner having a eureka moment. The increasing specialisation of knowledge is one major driver of this trend, making teamwork not just within fields, but also across fields ever more compelling.

For an idea of how far things have developed, consider the Wright brothers' shoestring efforts at getting their plane aloft in 1903, compared with modern-day aviation's need for multiple specialists in areas as diverse as avionics and metallurgy. Another major driver for greater international collaboration is the complex and global nature of the challenges the world faces today. Climate change alone cries out for solutions on many fronts, from finding clean and sustainable forms of energy to adapting crops and fisheries to environmental changes. Cutting-edge discoveries in artificial intelligence (AI), genetic engineering, medicine and biotechnology, in turn, spur more innovations, as well as questions about their applications. How best to harness the possibilities? Is it ethical to do so? Clearly, no one individual or country can supply the answers, nor is it wise to do so. Collaboration involving people and ideas across borders and backgrounds offers better odds of yielding fresh views and new solutions.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2019, with the headline 'Black hole's lesson in global teamwork'. Print Edition | Subscribe