Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Lindau Meeting: On Dinners and scientific dos and don’ts

The Lindau Meeting between Nobel Prize winners and early-career scientists is now over for another year. The official blog is choc-full of insightful posts discussing all aspects of the meeting – from the musings of laureates to the gastronomic highlights of the academic meals.

Martin Fenner summarises the panel discussion about ‘being a scientists’, one of the highlights of the conference. The panel consisted of laureates Oliver Smithies, Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, Harold Kroto and John Mather. The audience learnt, among other things, that a successful scientist needs to play hard as well as work hard, and that having up to 10% of your audience fall asleep is acceptable, but no more than that (at least if you’re Harold Kroto). One panelist (Francoise) even admitted doing lab work on her wedding day.

One of the best moments for all concerned was the academic dinners in which young scientists got to sit right next to their heroes over a three-course meal. Lou Woodley recounts her conversation with the ever-inspiring Oliver Smithies, who offered plenty of food for thought between mouth-fulls of potato dumpling.

[Smithies] explained to us that what is most essential in life was “to do something that you enjoy” because then it won’t feel like work. He explained that even now, aged 85, he still goes into the lab on a Saturday and he does so because he still has the curiosity to discover more. This enjoyment came across clearly on Wednesday morning in his lecture where he showed carefully numbered notebooks (he’s now on notebook Z’1!) and sometimes less easy to decipher scribblings, that track his many experiments.

(This ‘childlike spirit’ was also noted by Anas Mouti who enjoyed the outpourings of Smithies ‘truly beautiful mind’ at a Lindau talk.)

A similar tone of ‘in it for the joy of science’ was sounded by the trio of Nobel laureates sharing a table with Martin Fenner:

After desert the discussion turned to the Nobel laureates, as they were asked how the prize had changed their (scientific) life. All three of them stressed that it is not the prize that is important, but rather the joy of doing scientific work. Torsten Wiesel said he was lucky that he got paid for work he enjoyed doing anyway. And all three laureates are still working in science despite their age.

Those ages, by the way, are 86 (Torsten Wiesel), 87 (Walter Kohn) and 76 (young stripling Carlo Rubbia). Martin also described the work of five young scientists who were lucky enough to join this august gathering.

Across the island of Lindau, a parallel academic dinner was taking place with an even higher ‘density of Nobel laureates’. Akshat Rathi recounts a meal involving no fewer than seven prize winners and 11 young scientists, arranged by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

My first Nobel encounter was with Rudolph Marcus (Chemistry Nobel 1992) who proved to be a remarkably humble man. Marcus received the Nobel Prize for his work on the electron transfer theory which explained numerous reactions in biological systems like photosynthesis, respiration, and detoxification routes amongst others. He came a few minutes after I arrived and found an empty seat beside me and within a few minutes the four students around him had made their introductions. What followed were funny stories about all the places that the students came from. He seemed to be a very well travelled gentleman. He probed me on the origin of the names of Indian metro cities and asked about the official status of Catalan to a Spanish student from Catalonia.

Finally, what’s it like to be a Nobel laureate at Lindau. And what’s it really like having all the attention the accolade commands? The only way to get a frank view is for the interviewer and interviewee to remain anonymous. We’ll leave you with an excerpt from just such a piece:

It’s hard for people who aren’t Nobel laureates to understand the stresses and the pressures involved. Everybody thinks it’s just a great thing, they don’t understand there are all these expectations, and all these extra demands. You suddenly become a role model, and you would like to see the next generation do well, and so you feel a certain responsibility to live up to the expectations of the students. It would always be very embarrassing to get arrested jaywalking as a Nobel laureate, or to be in an automobile accident.

While the meeting has now finished, do keep an eye on the official blog where interviews that the team did with various Laureates will be posted in the coming days, as well as closing thoughts on the event as a whole.

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