Luck, Sense, Effort?

This year, the CN Yang Scholars’ Club Press & Publicity Portfolio has been expanded to include our very own writing subcommittee. Our team of 9 passionate young writers will be sharing about their experiences in the CN Yang Scholars’ Programme, various science and engineering articles that have piqued their interest, interviews with members of the CN Yang family and much more.

To kickstart this new initiative, Erico Tjoa, a second year student majoring in Physics and Mathematical Sciences, will share his views on achieving our dreams and aspirations.

Luck, Sense, Effort?


One fine day I set off to school earlier than usual in the pursuit of a certain individual liberty against a certain, uhm, repressive, uhh, obligation to an undoubtedly nobler moral responsibility. I’m certainly no Amos Yee and so in the fear for my future the details to this crusade should just quickly vanish with the haze.

Anyway, I’m supposed to come out of the discussion the wiser, and sure I did. One of the most important life advices I ever came across, and the only one to be skimmed through here, was regarding an ingredient to success. It was something along this line: “Most of the time, success is not attributed to one’s ability. You have to make friends, talk to people” when I interjected with “Basically connection?” in my simmering dissent, which was not at all devoid of amusement. Of course the other party turned defensive and denied it with elaborate justifications.

While the statement itself might really just be a mild, we-live-in-a-world-full-of-hope sentiment, I should admit that I too took for granted the fact that different perspectives matter more than anyone cares to admit. Having said that, of course, apart from a little refreshing life lesson, the discussion afforded me something to contemplate with respect to which I write this.

No, I wholly disagreed with that sentiment even before we started talking about the importance of human relation. If luck does not play 90% part of someone’s success, it does 50% and individual ability and effort sure is a heck lot of the factor affecting the winds. In the spirit of scientific discoveries I would like to present to you some notable isolated instances for illustration.

[Untitled photograph of Velcro] [1]

[Untitled photograph of New Zealand Pirri pirri bur] [2]

I like this best. What is the similarity between the two pictures above? At the top is what we see every day, a Velcro, and at the bottom is a plant called bur. George de Mestral [1], a Swiss born engineer had gone for a hike with his dog when he came back to find his pants covered with the spiky parts of the plant. Upon inspection under the microscope, he found out that these spikes stuck persistently to his pants because of a hook and loop structure, which he adopted for his successful invention, the Velcro. Needless to say, it takes brilliant, well-thought ideas like this to make things work.

[Untitled photograph of Percy L. Spencer] [3]

Percy L. Spencer invented the microwave [1]. This engineer was dealing with a microwave-emitting contraption when he felt something strange in his pocket. The chocolate he had with him had melted and, there, with a sparkle of a genius, we have the microwave today. Luck aside, a petty, unthinking mind might have brushed this incident aside and grumbled away.

[Untitled photograph of an x-ray] [4]

Next, Wilhelm Rongent noticed that fluorescent material was illuminated by the x-ray, an observation not related to the experiment he was involved in at that moment [2]. He also realised that x-ray could penetrate some objects but not others. It took a great deal of curiosity and keen observation skills to capture the significance of seemingly unrelated matters to create such a great invention, which, as we have known found important use in medical science.

There are other instances such as Davisson and Germer [3] accidentally discovering a way to show the diffraction of electrons. With a pinch of salt, we can include Newton’s observation of a falling apple and the subsequent formulation of his laws. Great scientific advances require insights.

Here, I do believe that individual abilities we have acquired throughout our lives make important assets. With some nudges, with many trial and errors, and more importantly, with initiative, this dormant potential may turn into bona fide achievements. Of course we should not lack curiosity and the willingness to try out things and acquire broader perspectives. Who would think that a fun hiking trip would lead to a scientific discovery?


  1. Biddle, S. (n.d.). The 10 greatest (accidental) inventions of all time. NBCNEWS. Retrieved September 27 from
  1. The British Library Board. (2015, Mar.). Roentgen’s discovery of the x-ray. British Library. Retrieved September 27 from
  1. Lee, S. (2014). CJ Davisson and LH Germer [Prezi Presentation]. Retrieved from


Featured image: Human Intelligence Brain [Digital Image]. (2014). Retrieved from

  1. [Untitled photograph of Velcro] Retrieved from
  1. [Untitled photograph of New Zealand Pirri pirri bur] Retrieved from
  1. [Untitled photograph of Percy L. Spencer] Retrieved from
  2. [Untitled photograph of an x-ray] Retrieved from