Reflections on Nobel City

Cities, just like human beings, have character. The character is frequently defined by little things as well as big. For instance New York is The Big Apple, Paris the city of fashion, Sydney the city with the Opera House and Rio de Janeiro the carnival city. Small cities are also known for their own accomplishments. For instance, last year I visited the the little German city of Magdeburg which is known for Otto von Guericke, the man who established the physics of vacuums through a famous experiment involving horses.

Another city in Germany is known for the collection of intellect that gathers there once every year, a collection that is probably unrivaled by any other place in the world. This is the German city of Lindau, on the banks of the beautiful Lake Constance. If Lindau ever had another name, it would be Nobel City. Yes, I know, Stockholm where the Nobel Prizes are awarded is supposed to sport this moniker. But there is a difference. Whereas only the most current crop of Nobel Prize winners (along with a few other invited laureates) gather every year in Stockholm for that year’s Nobel ceremony, Lindau boasts dozens of Nobel Prize winners concentrated in one spot. It is impossible to look around you without catching a glimpse of a laureate. Last year there were about 40. This year there are more than 60. But there’s another thing special about Lindau; to soak up the knowledge offered by these high achievers, there are more than 600 talented students from all around the world. As chemists will appreciate, in such a concentrated milieu, the collision probability is very high, and fruitful reactions thus abound.

Last year I had the privilege of attending this one of a kind intellectual festival. I will never forget that experience and would like to slake some of the curiosity of first-timers through a few humble observations.

The thing that strikes you first is the little roundabout right by the bridge, where you might be riding on your bicycle to or from your hotel. There is a large portrait gallery of Nobel Prize winners strung up around the roundabout, with full-size faces looking at you. I doubt you will see this in another place, and it defines Nobel week in Lindau.

lindau meetings

When you get to the meeting venue by the side of the lovely Lake Constance, you are immediately struck by two things; eager faces of students from every country that you can imagine, and the general enthusiasm floating around in the place. The students know that they have been chosen among thousands of others, through nominations and a pretty rigorous process of selection. They know that they must make the most of their unique time here. And their minds are primed for the onslaught of knowledge they will receive in the next one week.

After you have taken in the first few minutes of this scene, you would undoubtedly be gratified by the smiling faces of some unusually friendly human beings. Probably the best thing for me about Lindau was meeting such a great team of writers and people who I very much look forward to meeting again. All these ladies and gentlemen will instantly put you at ease. Ethanolic drinks and snacks will be offered to soothe your nerves.

Then you start seeing the laureates. Or do you? Contrary to popular belief, laureates do not come with halos around their heads, and if you expected to see sparks flying off a laureate’s hair as he or she approached you, you would be disappointed. This fact leads to a key observation frequently confirmed through the next few days. It may be shocking to some and it is certainly shocking to some of the youngest students at Lindau- Nobel Prize winners are also human beings. This fact should not be surprising but it is. In many different ways this fact will be underscored in the next few days. At the end of it, you will likely have a new-found respect and understanding of Nobel minds and the process of discovery.

Once you are comfortable, you should wander around a bit more and sample the general tenor of the place. As I mentioned, you cannot take a step in any direction without encountering a Nobel laureate. Perhaps you might hear Peter Agre (C03) singing “The Elements Song”, as he delightfully sang at a dinner last year. Or you may hear Aaron Ciechanover’s (C04) passionate views on almost any scientific or political matter. Or perhaps Sir Harold Kroto’s (C96) quintessentially English accent and his provocative utterances on science and religion. This will be just a reminder of what you are going to hear over the next few days. Kicking off the meeting last year was a lavish banquet that featured food, dance and festivities. Included was a special dance where everyone including Nobel laureates have to present a rose to and dance with a member of the opposite gender randomly picked from a line. All I can say is that it’s a great way to get to know people.

Now on to the enlightening lectures themselves. They will focus on a tremendous variety of topics. Some scientists will talk about their Nobel Prize winning work. Others will talk about current research topics in their labs. Yet others will share personal experiences which could be unrelated to science. For instance, Peter Agre presented a talk about his experiences living in the Arctic region, and Richard Ernst (C91) described his use of spectroscopy to explore one of his passions; eastern art. The lectures will throw more light on the laureates and will highlight another surprising and curious fact; great scientists are not always great speakers. Indeed, one of the less appreciated facets of academic research is that teaching and communication of scientific ideas is at least as difficult if not more so than doing great research. The people on stage who you see have been felicitated for their research accomplishments, not as idea-communicators. Thus, their public speaking skills range from excellent to average. What you should focus on is the substance of their talk. However, this experience does tell you that achievement in one human endeavor does not automatically imply achievement in others. Among the great communicators whom I remember from last year were Ciechanover, Kroto, Roger Tsien (C08) and Richard Ernst. However, you would also be surprised how much more eloquent some of these people are in private compared to public. Doesn’t that happen to many of us?

One of the great benefits of listening to these laureates talk about their work is that they lift the veil on some of the underappreciated aspects of scientific discovery. For instance, they will tell you their frustrations, the blind alleys they went down in and the unexpected observations which led to discoveries. Too often these failures and surprises are hidden in the polished final products of research presented in journals. Science is a human endeavor just like any other. Research is hostage to the same lapses of thinking, prejudices and biases, false hopes and sheer laziness that plague other human activity. The great thing is that scientific discoveries happen in spite of these pitfalls. The laureates’ talks will illustrate, even more than their intrinsic ability, their determination to get things done and their ability to overcome constant frustration. If there is one message all of us including the students should take home, it is the message about the doggedness that is essential for scientific discovery. And of course, while serendipity is an all-pervading factor in research, most talks that emphasize the importance of serendipity will also focus on the much more important factor pointed out by Alexander Fleming- the crucial “prepared mind” which can take advantage of serendipitous instances.

Apart from the talks, you should try to grab every opportunity to interact with students and laureates. Try to get an interview with even one or two laureates. It will be very informative and enlightening. I was fortunate to get a great interview with Peter Agre last year. While interviewing, remember that the question you should avoid asking is “How does it feel to win the Nobel Prize?”. The laureates have almost certainly heard this question a thousand times, and their answer won’t even add much to your knowledge. Instead of this, ask again about the unexpected pitfalls and frustrations the scientists faced on their way to their discoveries, ask about what excites them currently and ask about what advice they have for young students. Ask them about things that matter. Don’t be awed by their stature. It’s not a bad idea to ask them about current events at the interface of science and society or politics, such as the ‘controversy’ about global warming or the conflict between science and religion. You will find that at least a few scientists have something interesting and novel to say about these issues, sometimes based on their personal experiences. There is also a caveat in interviewing scientists; some of them are admittedly wary of the media and journalists. To overcome their suspicion that you are yet another guy who wants sound bytes for his blog, it is important to research their backgrounds and research and ask them genuine questions about their work. If they get the feeling that you actually know what you are talking about and are genuinely interested in knowing their thoughts on it, they will open up much more. And of course, don’t forget one of the golden rules of good interviewing- let them do most of the talking.

Talking to students is also an opportunity you should definitely not miss. In a way it’s they and not the laureates who are the real stars of the meetings. In fact the stated purpose of the meetings is the “transfer of knowledge between generations” and it’s the young people at Lindau who are going to be at the vanguard of discovery in the next few decades. Even if you don’t  actually interview a lot of students, walk among them and you will be very impressed and gratified by the way science transcends culture and national boundaries. Students from China, Azerbaijan, Australia, Germany, India, Russia and Nigeria will seamlessly overcome their natural barriers to tell each other about what excites them in science. For me, seeing so many hundreds of eager young scientists shatter the language and culture barriers between them through the common language of science was probably the most encouraging part about Lindau. It underscored the belief that science is truly an international endeavor, and like music and art, is one of those few common grounds that can keep humanity united.

As bloggers, you will probably not be invited to some of the closed sessions between scientists and students. And for good reason. The meeting belongs to the students, and they get first priority in interacting with their role models. But if you are fortunate as some of us were, you may get a chance to attend a dinner with a Nobel laureate and a small group of students. If you do get this chance, this might be your best opportunity to observe a laureate up close and interact with him or her. In my case, the added bonus was being invited to dinner with Aaron Ciechanover, a passionate thinker who has strong views about many matters. In addition Peter Agre was at the next table. I was delighted to interact with Ciechanover and have penned my account of the dinner here. It was at such dinners that you can truly get to understand the aforementioned fact; that Nobel laureates are human beings too. We had a long dinner at an excellent restaurant in downtown Lindau which sported choice continental dishes, drinks and desserts. My companions were a couple of bright students from Norway, Sweden and Russia. The dinner was enormously stimulating and we talked about several topics, including travel and Ciechanover’s research. But the piece de resistance came when we started talking about politics. Ciechanover had some rather strong views on politics in the Middle East, and it was probably a revelation to some of the students around the table that they did not quite agree with some of these. And why should they? That’s the key point here; Ciechanover’s is a brilliant biochemist, but he is probably no more or less qualified to speak on politics than any number of intelligent laymen. For a moment there, we forgot that we were talking to a Nobel laureate and felt that we were simply talking to an intelligent man passionately holding forth on politics. In the end Peter Agre provided a delightful counterpart to the serious discussion by singing “The Elements Song” and joking about how he and Ciechanover received the chemistry prize in spite of both being trained as doctors. I think that the dinner was a very revealing experience, and told all of us that even Nobel laureates are not experts in everything (there is of course the question of whether one can truly be an expert on political matters the way he is on scientific matters, but that’s a different matter …). And that’s exactly how it should be. As the late Richard Feynman quipped, “When you ask me about a non-scientific matter, I am as dumb as the next guy”.

After dinners, interviews and lectures came the culmination of this wonderful experience- a trip to the island of Mainau in Lake Constance. A special and enormous solar-powered boat took us to this beautiful island with a tremendous variety of flowers, birds and butterflies. The weather was hot and spirits were high. The highlight of this trip was a panel discussion on climate change about which I have written here. Included were some of the Nobel laureates including Rajendra Pachauri (P07), chairman of the IPCC and Bjorn Lomborg, the well-known climate skeptics. Debates during this session again demonstrated how much scientists can be bitterly divided when it comes to economic and policy matters. Lomborg was admittedly in a minority, and sparks often flew between him and the other panel members. Once again, it was obvious that Nobel prizewinners in science are not going to be enough to address an issue like global warming, and we need to all work together across international boundaries and disciplines to solve this enormously complex problem. The international spirit of science constantly on display at Lindau augers well for such an effort.

Even after a week of unique and high-octane intellectual stimulation and human interaction, you would still not want to go home. But you can rest assured that the experience you have had at Lindau will stay with you long after the sights of Lake Constance have receded beyond the horizon and the words of laureates have dissipated from your ears. You would understand the open and universal nature of science as an instrument of discourse, excitement, communication and progress. You would understand that Nobel laureates are great men and women who are subject to the same prejudices and pitfalls that befall all of us. But most importantly, you and the students would understand that, paradoxically, a meeting that’s all about the Nobel Prize is actually not about the Nobel Prize at all. Every single one of the scientists there would attest that he or she was never working towards the Nobel Prize, and the prize would at most be a welcome side-effect of the basic curiosity and passion that drove him or her to make important discoveries. This, as I mentioned in a post last year, should be the key message. It’s all about simple curiosity in the end. As Robert Oppenheimer once said, “The deep things in science are not discovered because they were useful; they were discovered because it was possible to discover them”.

I bid you godspeed on your trip to Lindau. 

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