Lindau: A receding horizon, now within reach

This is a post that almost did not get written. In 2009 I attended the Lindau Meeting and had a wonderful time interacting with researchers and students and partaking of choice morsels of scientific fellowship. Since then the organizers of the meeting have been kind enough to invite me every year, but each year some critical prior engagement intruded on my plans; sometimes an urgent project deadline, another time some unavoidable family matter or personal entanglement. This year too I was immensely gratified to see an invitation. But a trivial difficulty threatened to disrupt my plans.

My wedding.

In another universe the decision would have been easy. I would have told the organizers right away that I could not make it, because I had some rather obviously pressing things to take care of. There is no doubt that they would have understood. But this is not that universe. It’s one instead in which I see the Lindau Meeting as a wholly unique opportunity and one that ideally should not be missed. Even for my own wedding. It wasn’t that bad of course. The meeting was to start a day after the wedding and not in the middle of it, but still; it’s not often that someone sprints off to scientific conferences instead of to a honeymoon right after their wedding.

I started to envision tortuous negotiations and dire consequences in my mind. Would my fiancée refuse to marry if I told her that I had plans to leave for a meeting a day after we got married? Edison was rumored to have been found hard at work in his lab the day of his wedding. But as much as I had impressed my fiancée enough to convince her to marry me, I was under no illusion that she thought of me as another Edison. Would her family disown her and me if she stood by my side? Would my own family think of me as a particularly pathological kind of sociopath who had just provided the first piece of evidence that he would be an absentee husband? And again, what about my wife? Once your husband heads out of the door for whatever professional obligation the day after the wedding, surely it must be all downhill from there.

A wise friend has repeatedly told me that the two most important words in any marriage are “Yes Dear” – on both sides of course. If this is indeed the key to a happy marriage, then it’s just possible that I might have already found it. It took me all of six seconds to convince my fiancée that this meeting is important and that I must attend it if I can possibly can. “Convince” is actually the wrong word. I simply told her that if possible I would very much like to go to Lindau after the wedding. She said yes, or more accurately, “Yes dear”. My faith that I have found a wise wife was reaffirmed. After that convincing the families was a trivial affair; a few noises of disappointment followed by a laudatory note. I also begged the organizers to let me arrive a day later, and they graciously accommodated my request.

So here I am at the airport at 12:30 AM, waiting for my flight to Munich. After four years of waiting during which Lindau seemed to me much like the accelerating horizons of the universe that bagged their discoverers the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, it looks like I will finally get there. The real question though is this: what is it about the Lindau Meeting that would encourage me to even think of bringing up the idea of heading out of the door after my wedding? If I think about it the obvious culprits don’t pass muster. Yes, the meeting is an immense concentration of talent, populated with eager young minds and some of the smartest scientists in the world. In terms of sheer brains there’s almost nothing like it in the world. But that could not be all of it. Even in my relatively short career I have meet scores of very smart scientists, both Nobel Laureates and otherwise. I have also interacted with a long list of very bright students at all levels. So although an undoubtedly gratifying prospect, it’s not just the opportunity to meet very smart people that really tips the balance of Lindau for me. Neither could it be the gleaming ripples on the Bodensee and its surroundings, which although very pleasing, would not inspire such unconventional behavior on my part.

No, what makes Lindau uniquely attractive to me is something else – it’s an opportunity to witness a rare and unique offering of the verbal tradition. I realized part of the answer when I remembered how the American theoretical physicists of the 1930s used to make pilgrimages to the great centers of physics in Europe – Cambridge, Gottingen, Copenhagen, Leiden – to learn at the feet of the masters before theoretical physics came into its own in the United States. The key aspect of this learning was to imbibe the verbal tradition, a pedagogical paradigm that has transcended culture, time and nationality and educated generations of erstwhile students. Both the Chinese and Indians have had religious and educational verbal traditions going back centuries whereby students traveled hundreds of miles and sometimes even housed themselves in the homes of great teachers to learn from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. The verbal tradition goes much beyond the simple teaching of facts. The physical contact involved results in the transmission of subtleties, tics, idiosyncrasies and most importantly, what we call a “taste” for a discipline that cannot be developed through formal lessons alone; some of the best teaching in the verbal tradition is done after hours, in ancient times during walks in the forest or by the river, and in modern times in bars and at house-warming parties.

Many of these discussions are intensely revealing because, unlike the cut-and-dried end product of classroom teaching, they provide a view into the working of science as it is created in real time. A single evening of shooting the scientific breeze after a few drinks have lubricated everyone’s mental gears is worth a hundred formal scientific talks where the messy guts of science have been papered over by the deceptively reassuring veneer of tidiness and certainty. In one sense the history of science can be seen as a series of schools created by famous scientists who believed in keeping the verbal tradition of alive through informal discussions about science; as two examples, Niels Bohr’s verbal tradition played a foundational role in the creation of quantum mechanics, and Robert Oppenheimer’s verbal tradition created the first modern school of theoretical physics in the United States. The real teaching in case of both men was done not in the classroom but on hikes in the Alps and in the New Mexico mountains, over ping pong in Copenhagen and fine wine in San Francisco. Both schools provided exemplars of science as something to be lived and not just to be done.

Sadly the modern digital era and the professionalization of science education have made it increasingly difficult to perpetuate the verbal tradition. Several universities, especially in the United States, are now treating education as a business in which the “sale” of raw facts, assignments and problem sets for a fee is regarded as the appropriate way to communicate the feel and excitement of a field. Contact between students and teachers is minimal and business-like. There are cases where even formal lectures have been abolished, students relying instead on pre-taped video lectures of professors.

To me the Lindau Meeting is one of the very few bright spots that provide an exception to this disturbing trend and promise to keep the all-important verbal tradition of science alive, and this unique aspect of it is what made me take a chance on making a quick getaway after my own wedding. Lindau is a microcosm of scientific teaching. There’s the formal talks of course, but there’s also scores of dinner discussions, breakfasts, outdoor events and master classes. Students don’t just get to listen to Nobel Laureates but they actually get to talk to them one-on-one, pepper them with informal questions about how they actually made their discoveries rather than how it all appeared in the official journal articles and even get to sample their signature styles of thinking on topics ranging from culinary preferences to politics. They get to witness these scientists in all their glory and human folly. It is In Lindau that we see limited but illuminating versions of the heated discussions taking place on Oppenheimer’s native American rug high up in the New Mexico mountains or over Niels Bohr’s ping pong table in his institute. Not all the laureates here can inspire entire schools of thought, but they can light a flame. We can be assured that just like Oppenheimer’s or Bohr’s students, the bright minds at Lindau will come away from their experience with an appreciation not just for the beautiful facts of nature but the style and taste with which the minds of science’s foremost practitioners grapple with them.

In Lindau we get a taste of the verbal tradition that has suffused some of science’s greatest personalities and discoveries for several hundred years. And for this it’s worth at least broaching the topic of whether it’s appropriate to leave the building right after you get married.

Ashutosh Jogalekar

About Ashutosh Jogalekar

Ashutosh Jogalekar is a scientist and science writer based in Boston, USA. He has been blogging at the “Curious Wavefunction” blog for more than ten years, and in this capacity has written for several organizations including Scientific American and the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. His literary interests specifically lie in the history and philosophy of science.

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