Alfred Nobel’s philanthropic gesture of establishing the Nobel Prizes enabled our society to annually recognise some of those who, in Nobel’s words, conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.
This is the story of how an annual event that celebrates the achievements of the Laureates, continues to spread the spirit of the Nobel Prizes and inspire the next generation.
Each year since 1951, a small picturesque island bordering Lake Constance in Germany, has hosted a meeting of Nobel Laureates and early career researchers from around the world. It is an unparalleled opportunity for young researchers to interact with Nobel Laureates, discuss their science with the best in the field and be inspired by the life experiences of the Laureates.
In July this year, I was fortunate to be one of 8 Australian students who got to meet some of these exemplary individuals at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting. In attendance at this year’s Lindau meeting, were 33 Laureates who had been awarded Nobel Prizes in Chemistry or Physics and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate José Ramos-Horta.
Countess Bettina Bernadotte, who is the president of the Lindau Council, described in her opening address at this year’s meeting:
For one week, Lindau is transformed into the microcosm of an ancient university or rather an outstating laboratory. The attractive force is the intellect and the personality of the Laureates but the dynamics which then unfold around them is characterised by open informality and an absence of hierarchy, leading to free communication and dialogue irrespective of notional or national limits.
One of the striking aspects of Lindau was the diversity of attendees. With more than 600 researchers from around 80 countries, it felt like a United Nations gathering! Converging from all corners of the globe, we had different research backgrounds, came with different expectations and spoke with different accents but our common thread was that we were all scientists. Indeed, Alfred Nobel himself recognised that science was cosmopolitan and advised in his will that “in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates.”
As a conference, the Lindau meeting is a well-organized and highly interdisciplinary forum. The main topics of the 2013 meeting were Green Chemistry, chemical energy storage and conversion as well as biochemical processes and structures. The plenary lectures commenced with a presentation by 2012 Laureate Brian Kobilka who spoke about his research on G protein-coupled receptors which are central to signalling pathways in our cells and the target of almost half of all pharmaceuticals. Akira Suzuki’s lecture on his work on forming carbon-carbon bonds in organic synthesis brought back memories of my organic chemistry lectures at university. Quantum physicists David Wineland and Serge Haroche demonstrated in their lectures, how rather complex concepts can be effectively communicated to a non-specialist audience by describing different ways one could kill Schrödinger’s cats!
However, the lectures weren’t all about the Laureate’s prize winning research or the cutting-edge science they were involved in currently. Some Laureates used the opportunity to test out their fringe theories on other Laureates and the students (future Laureates?), while others presented talks about their other passions and world-views. For example, Richard Ernst who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991 for his contributions towards the development of NMR Spectroscopy, showed us examples of exquisite Tibetan artworks which he had analysed with a Raman Microscope in the basement of his house! He described how art had motivated him to connect science with social responsibility and he reminded us about the importance of keeping our eyes open for unexpected opportunities which could lead to new insights or new paths in life.
I was particularly impressed by the life stories of two laureates, Ada Yonath and Dan Schectman who both exemplified the importance of dogged dedication to one’s science. Their prize winning crystallography research on the ribosome and quasi-crystals had been dismissed by the community in its early days and the tale of how they overcame the negative sentiments of leaders in the field serve an example of how revolutionary work sometimes needs time and endurance to be accepted, and valued, by the community.
The best part of the Lindau meeting was not the lectures but the discussions that followed among the Laureates and the young scientists. There were a range of panel discussions and Q&A sessions with individual Laureates where they willingly talked about the details of their own work and broader scientific topics. One of the panel discussions that I found quite informative was with Steven Chu, 1997 Physics Laureate and US Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013. The panel discussed the role of science and innovation in the improved management of our global resources. Although Chu’s research background, prior to taking up the Secretary of Energy role in the Obama administration, had been in physics and biology, he came across as a person who had really educated himself about the science, economic and societal issues within his portfolio dealing with climate change and alternative energy. He demonstrated how a scientist at heart, could successfully cross-over to the dark world of bureaucracy and make a positive contribution to society.
During other events of the social programme we had the opportunity to dine with the Laureates and other young scientists and this is where we delved beyond the scientific discussions. It was in these informal settings where the really interesting personal stories were revealed, new ideas emerged and friendships were forged.
It was truly amazing to be surrounded by enthusiastic researchers who were passionate about doing science and communicating science. The atmosphere of the meeting encouraged us to network and I look forward to strengthening the connections that were made during the Lindau week. Broader conversations on profound issues that our civilisation faces today reminded me that with perseverance and courage, individuals can change the world. As I finish my PhD and embark on a new direction in my scientific career, Lindau has been a highly motivating experience that I will cherish for years to come.
If I had the opportunity, I would love to return to Lindau every year and remain forever young but what makes Lindau special is that it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As young scientists, we can participate only once, unless of course… we were to be awarded a Nobel Prize ourselves!*
If you are a young researcher, keep an eye-out for annual invitations from the Australian Academy of Science. Upcoming meetings include the 2014 meeting dedicated to Physiology or Medicine, and the 2015 interdisciplinary meeting which will host Nobel Laureates from the fields of Physiology or Medicine, Physics and Chemistry.
More photos and videos are at my Inspiring Lindau photo blog and Flickr. Find out more about the meetings at www.lindau-nobel.org, view lectures at the Mediatheque and a series of debates at Nature Videos, or get a 360° virtual tour of the labs of Nobel Laureates!
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to the Science and Industry Endowment Fund, the Australian Academy of Science and ANU for their financial and logistical support. My participation in the meeting would not have been possible without encouragement from Melissa Ness, who attended the 2012 Lindau meeting and shared her experiences with me, and Australian Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt and my supervisor Charles Lineweaver, who kindly supported my application to be part of the Australian delegation in 2013. The exceptional organisation of our delegation leaders, Andrew Holmes and Mark von Itzstein coupled with the company of my fellow Australian delegates made for a fantastic time together in Lindau. Thank you.
* Want to win a Nobel Prize? Then starting eating chocolate… and lots of it! Nobel Laureates consume nearly twice as much chocolate as their peers 🙂