29 March 2008
By Chang Ai-Lien, Science Correspondent
It was, in every sense, his dream job.
But if Professor Kerry Sieh had been handed $300 million on a platter to start the region’s biggest earth observatory a few years ago, his answer would have been a firm no.
‘I would not have come here if my partner could not have come with me,’ said Prof Sieh, who is gay.
But the words of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew changed his mind.
Though the male homosexual sex remains a crime in Singapore, MM Lee had said in an interview last year that while Singapore wanted to maintain its social norms, the Government should not pry on consenting adults.
‘We must take cognisance of the contemporary world that has become more accommodating…
‘Homosexuals are mostly born that way, and no public purpose is served by interfering in their private lives,’ said Mr Lee in an interview published last July.
To Prof Sieh, who was on sabbatical at Nanyang Technological University here last year, this was enough to show that attitudes towards homosexuality here were changing.
‘I’m no crusader, but I’m going to be myself,’ he said.
Prof Sieh said the issue of whether he could take his partner with him was the first one he raised with NTU when the university approached him with an offer in October.
When NTU told him it had no objections, the 57-year-old said ‘yes’ to the job of founding director at NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore.
The facility will study plate movement, volcanic activity and climate change.
Prof Sieh is giving up a 30-year career at the California Institute of Technology to take up the appointment here full-time, and will move here with his partner in August.
‘I have developed a real love for South-east Asian earthquake geology,’ said Prof Sieh, whose current research interest is Indonesia – the world’s hot spot for giant earthquakes.
Being in Singapore will mean he is ‘right next to the earthquake experiment’, he added.
‘For me, it’s a thrill that we’re in a place that has the economic wherewithal to take on something like this.’
He hopes his research will lead to earlier earthquake forecasts, so disasters can be averted.
‘The idea is not just to save lives, but to save livelihoods as well,’ he said.
His interest in nature started when he spent summer months on his grandparents’ farm in Iowa as a boy.
His work on the infamous San Andreas fault led to the discovery of how large earthquakes are often triggered by it in southern California.
More recently, together with colleagues and students, he finished a study of Taiwan’s multitude of active faults and figured out how earthquakes there are creating that mountainous island.
He is currently a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and chaired professor at Caltech’s Tectonics Observatory.
On the big move here, Prof Sieh, who enjoys snow skiing, jogging and gardening, added: ‘I’m excited. You have to leave your nest eventually and do something great, I hope.’