Lindau through the eyes of the meeting’s organizer

It’s cool enough to experience the Lindau meeting as one of the young researchers (or as one of the bloggers, as it happens). But there’s nothing that broadens your mind like a change of perspective. At my last Lindau meeting, I was fortunate enough to see Lindau through the eyes of a Nobel laureate. This time, I’ve interveiwed one of the organizers: Burkhard Fricke, a professor of physics at the University of Kassel, Vice President of the Council that organizes the Lindau meetings, and one of the two Scientific Chairmen of this year’s physics meeting.

MP: Which was your first Lindau meeting?

Fricke: My first Lindau meeting was 1965 – I was a student back then. It was very exciting to share a table with Werner Heisenberg – and be able to ask him questions! -, to see the likes of Otto Hahn, Hideki Yukawa, or Max Born, or Paul Dirac. Lindau showed you the human side of these great physicists. I remember Paul Dirac’s lecture, after which the audience was encouraged to put some questions to the speaker. The first participant to do so didn’t have a question – it was more of a statement. Dirac just stood there, not doing anything, for half a minute, for a minute, until the chairman asked him “Don’t you want to answer this question?” Dirac just answered, “No. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement.” That doesn’t teach you anything about science, but it tells you a lot about Dirac as a human being. And that human side is very important, in Lindau.

MP: Now you’re one of the organizers. How did that come about?

Fricke: Later, when I had a chair for theoretical physics, I was a regular visitor here. I’d simply bundle three or four students into my car and drive to Lindau – that was still possible, back then. The organizers noticed that I was a regular, and when they were looking for a successor to Mr. Uhlenbusch, they called me up. That was nine years ago. I first assumed responsibility for one of the physics meetings three years ago. This year, it’s my turn again. But they’re already looking for my successor – I’ve moved up in the world and become Vice President of the Council.

MP: What happens behind the scenes before the meeting? I presume that the Nobel laureates are the first to be invited?

Fricke: Absolutely. Our philosophy is to invite all of the living physics laureates when there is a physics meeting, and so on. For historical reasons, all of the German laureates get an invitation, regardless of their specialty. Most of them decline the invitation when the meeting is not about their field, but Prof. zur Hausen und Prof. Neher are here this year – which is good! This year, I also looked through the list of chemistry laureates to see who might have an affinity to physics. I invited those, as well.

The invitations go out in September. We ask the laureates to reply by mid-November. But we only finalized the program four weeks ago.

By the way: We first approach the laureates about the Lindau meeting directly at the Nobel ceremony. Countess Bettina Bernadotte or another member of the Council will talk to the new laureates. These times, it happens more and more that the laureate has already heard about the meeting. You can’t ask for more! And among last year’s laureates, Brian Schmidt and Daniel Shechtman immediately said they would come.

MP: How do you select the young researchers, then?

Fricke: For a few years now, the researchers have applied online. They give us the relevant information, and we pick out our attendees. There’s a subjective element to that, to be sure; but all in all I think we are making the right choise. The system works.

There are some subtleties. For three countries, we have quotas: for the Americans – otherwise, there would be too many of them! -, for the Indians and for the Chinese.

We currently invite 25 attendees from China. For the selection process, we go to China and talk to the applicants. We have to make sure they are sufficiently fluent in English to be able to communicate! This year, for the physicists, I went to Shanghai and to Beijing. Together with two colleagues, I interviewed 100 candidates. Talking to the candidates directly, we soon find out whether or not there is good communication. We chose the best 25, and those are with us in Lindau today.

India is less of a problem, where English is concerned. The Americans make their own selection. We just take a final look at who they’re sending us – just to make sure they’ll not send an astronomer to one of the medical meetings!

MP: In the participant directory, each participant’s listing has a statement of financial support. What’s that about?

Fricke: We try to get financial support for every single participant. Several foundations and several governmental organizations support the Lindau meeting in this way. The Council then matches the participants with their sponsors. Three months ago, I was in Cairo, in Egypt, selecting 2 attendees out of 11 candidates. We now have a memorandum of understanding with the Egyptian government, which is paying for their attendees’ stay. This is the first time, I believe, that we have full financial support for every single participant.

MP: Let’s talk about the meeting’s scientific programme. When do you fix that?

Fricke: The laureates tell us roughly half a year before the meeting what they want to talk about. Then it’s my job to bring the program into shape and give it some kind of structure. We only get the abstracts four weeks before the meeting starts. That’s when we produce the printed version of the program.

MP: I noticed that Brian Schmidt gave a very good, but comparatively technical talk. Do the new laureates know beforehand about the style of the Lindau meeting?

Fricke: No, not at first! Schmidt is typical in that respect: The first time they’re here, the laureates will give science talks the way they’re used to from other scientific conferences. But in listening to the other talks, and through discussions with the students, most laureates catch on rather quickly that Lindau is about reaching students from all areas of physics, and that there is great interest in the laureate’s human side, as well. The second or third time they visit Lindau, most laureates have adjusted.

MP: I did notice in 2010, and then again this Thursday, that talks with a human touch are the best the Lindau Meeting can be. For instance, there was a talk by Oliver Smithies who structured his talks around images of pages from his lab book…

Fricke: …that was the most exciting Lindau lecture ever! That was fantastic! The best talk I’ve ever heard in Lindau! Smithies took on the big questions, and made the young researchers sit up and take note.

MP: This year’s unique event was the live video feed from CERN about the Higgs search update, and the discussion after that.

Fricke: That was very special indeed. Two years ago, we had another panel discussion about CERN and the LHC. The November after that, I was in London for a meeting of [the international physicists’ organization] IUPAP, and [CERN director] Heuer gave us a highly interesting LHC update. In closing, he claimed: “Next year, we’ll deliver!” After the talk, I went up to him and said: Dr. Heuer, splendid, in that case we’ll have another LHC panel discussion at the next Lindau meeting. I set the date for the discussion as July 4th, at 3 pm – that, mind you, was half a year ago!

My gut feeling was spot-on: Four hours after CERN had announced their discovery, we had our panel discussion. Does it get any more topical than that? I’m happy things worked out this way, and I’m proud I made this happen – even though it was mostly a matter of dumb luck!

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