Exploring the Connections Between Sports and Science with Kurt Wüthrich

When reading the biography of Nobel Laureate Kurt Wüthrich, it quickly becomes clear that he embodies the concept of a Renaissance man. Not only did he excel in academic work, winning the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his advancement of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, but Wüthrich was also an avid sportsman.

As a young man attending the University of Basel, he worked towards degrees in both chemistry and sports — the latter requiring about 25 hours per week of intense physical exercise, as well as courses in human anatomy and physiology. Even though he chose science in the end, sports continued to play an important role in Wüthrich’s life. He enjoyed skiing, fishing, and even played in a competitive soccer league well beyond the age of 50.

Kurt Wüthrich speaking at #LiNo16

Kurt Wüthrich speaking at #LiNo16. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Given his interdisciplinary background, it came as no surprise that much of his master class at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting focused on the science of sports. In fact, two young scientists who gave talks at the master class — Dominique Gisin and Bettina Heim — have been blessed with a similar combination of both mental and physical talents as Wüthrich himself.

Dominique Gisin, currently a Bachelor’s student in physics at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, spoke about the mechanics of alpine skiing and its impact on the human body. Gisin started her degree at the University of Basel but interrupted coursework to concentrate on skiing, making her Alpine Ski World Cup debut in 2005. Four years later, she got her first World Cup victory in women’s downhill skiing, and at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, nabbed a gold medal in the same event.

To start off her talk, she played a series of video clips depicting the many crashes and falls she has suffered throughout her storied career, as the audience winced. In an average year, about 35% of all alpine athletes are injured — Gisin herself has gone through knee surgery a whopping nine times as a result of injuries.

In terms of physics, the variables that matter when it comes to modeling the dynamics of a downhill skier are numerous: the mass of the athlete, her velocity, the radius of a turn, snow temperature, air temperature, course condition, the mechanical characteristics of the equipment, visibility, and the mental/physical state of the athlete. These factors need to be considered when thinking about how to lower the rate of injury for the sport.

For instance, a tighter course setting would help reduce the athlete’s velocity, which could make crashes and falls less dangerous. But as Gisin notes, such a change would also cause skiers to move closer to the nets and potentially get tangled up in them. Another idea that might be interesting to pursue is uniform “anti-aerodynamic” racing suits that reduce athletes’ velocity and provide increased protection. Also, as seen in other sports, alpine skiing could benefit from the development of better protection equipment such as helmets and back protectors.

Kurt Wüthrich and Bettina Heim at the Rolex Science Breakfast

Kurt Wüthrich and Bettina Heim at the Rolex Science Breakfast. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Also representing ETH Zürich at the master class was Bettina Heim, a Master’s candidate in physics with a background in competitive figure skating. Her achievements in the sport include competing at two World Junior Championships, two World Championships, and becoming Swiss national champion in 2011. Only a short time after, Heim decided to hang up her skates and study physics full-time.

Her Bachelor’s studies culminated in a paper published by the prestigious journal Science in 2015, titled “Quantum versus classical annealing of Ising spin glasses.” It shows that evidence of quantum speed-up may depend on how the problem is described, as well as how the optimization routine is implemented. Today, Heim continues her research in the field of quantum computing, mostly in the realm of adiabatic quantum computing and quantum error correction, at ETH Zürich’s Institute of Theoretical Physics.

However, her focus during Wüthrich’s master class remained firmly in the world of sport and not quantum computers — in particular, she discussed the physics behind her specialty of figure skating. For instance, an athlete must gain a lot of speed going into a spin, and then one side of the body has to stop so the other can pass. This translates velocity into rotation, which results in the many types of spin moves performed by figure skaters.

As in downhill skiing, injuries remain prevalent in figure skating despite not being a contact sport. Common injuries for skaters include stress fractures, acute injuries involving tendons or ligaments, and back injuries. Heim noted that back injuries often originate from jump impacts (which can be hard on the spinal discs) and extreme positions that require flexibility (tough on muscles and ligaments).

As Wüthrich’s fascinating master class reiterated, the connections between sports and science go way beyond the physics of motion. Sometimes, an athlete and a scientist can be found within the same person.

Trailer Lindau Nature video: Better living through chemistry

At this summer’s Lindau Meeting we focused on pressing world problems and how chemistry can help us to solve them. In four films, laureates and students clash over the future of energy production, grapple with drug development, discuss dwindling supplies of metal catalysts and debate science’s role in the developing world. Get a taste in this trailer.

Better living through chemistry

Nature Video presents four debates from the 2013 Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau.
For this series, we invited Nobel laureates and young researchers to discuss how chemistry can solve pressing world problems. The eager researchers come to the debates with big ideas and high hopes, while the laureates bring a healthy dose of experience. In our first film, former US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu injects reality into a debate about biofuels with his inside knowledge of science policy and economics. In the other films, laureates and researchers consider the best way to develop new drugs, worry about dwindling supplies of rare metal catalysts and draw on their own experiences to debate science’s role in the developing world.

Energy storage, rare metals and the next ice age

The holy grail of energy storage may lie in chemical bonds, but a process for making this happen remains unknown. All of the Nobel Laureates who weighed in yesterday on a chemical energy conversion panel agreed on this much. “Replacement of liquid fossil fuels is still in far reach,” said moderator Wolfgang Lubitz, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy and Conversion. From there, the men focused on the major questions relating to solar power, endothermic reactions, rare metals, the ever-controversial nuclear energy and another ice age.

Solar energy

Gerhard Ertl (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2007) told the audience that nuclear fusion stood as the en vogue future energy source when he was studying in graduate school. “We are still waiting for solutions,” he said. In a similar way, solar energy holds great promise, but the storage problem remains unsolved. Hartmut Michel (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1988), the photosynthesis expert of the group, reminded that even nature struggled to get the most out of photosynthesis. “In photosynthesis, only 40 percent of the sunlight — energy-wise — is absorbed by the plants,” he said. Therefore, the chemists onstage at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting exhorted young researchers to search for a brand-new catalytic conversion process that could solve the sunshine enigma.

The panel discussion on energy storage and conversation at the Lindau meeting on Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Kathleen Raven

Producing energy requires energy

Richard Schrock (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2005) reminded everyone that whatever the next energy source revolution is, it will most likely still rely on endothermic reactions. “Nearly all conversion processes require energy,” he said. Even with ideas such as carbon dioxide conversion, “it’s a zero-sum game to talk about converting [it] catalytically or storing it.” He apologized for sounding pessimistic, but wanted to be sure the researchers in the audience felt the gravity of the situation.

Running out of rare metals

A young researcher wanted the Nobel Laureates to answer this question: “What happens when we run out of a rare metal like lithium used in batteries?” Schrock was quick to point out that “we don’t run out of elements, but we run out of concentrated forms of them—they are neither created nor destroyed.” Robert Grubbs (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2005) pointed out that researchers have already begun looking at non-rare metals as potential energy sources, too. The consensus seemed to be that humans will use whatever source is most plentiful and easiest to extract before moving on to alternatives. “Fortunately, a lot of these problems have to do with inorganic chemistry,” said Schrock, looking out over the audience. “So, go to it!”

Not another Fukushima

No open discussion of energy sources can completely avoid the nuclear question. So eventually the question snuck into the dialogue. “The problem is with nuclear waste — not the energy,” Ertl injected. Schrock acknowledged that while nuclear energy is no longer an option due to political forces in Germany, “nearly 75 percent of France runs on nuclear energy, and I think that’s a little-known fact.” As the discussion focused more on politics, Astrid Gräslund, professor biophysics at Stockholm University and co-organizer of the Lindau meeting, picked up her microphone. “One has to consider that this is the situation now,” she said. She explained that politics and public opinion are constantly in flux and that these changes should not influence science per se.

And what about 1,000 years from now?

As the panel drew to a close, a young researcher in the first row stood up and gave a proposition. He offered: Won’t this discussion seem a bit strange, if we think 1,000 years into the future, when we will most likely be depending exclusively on renewable energy? The Laureates exchanged a few glances. Michel spoke first. He pointed out that some research has hinted that the next ice age on Earth may occur in the not-so-distant future. “So Berlin may be covered with ice and we won’t even be able to think about this because we’ll be under ice,” he said, with a half-smile. “How long will it last?” Schrock asked his colleague. “About 80 to 90,000 years, maybe,” Michel answered. “Oh, good, problem solved,” said Schrock.

Lindau’s 2013 Video Bloggers

Four young researchers are creating personal video blogs to share their impressions, encounters and experiences at Lindau. In a preview of the week to come, Edson Medeiros Filho, Sarika Goel, Núria Sancho Oltra and Crystal Valdez explain why they think the exchange between cultures and generations is important in science… and what they expect from their Lindau experience.

‘People from different generations and cultures are like key ingredients for a perfect science recipie.’
Sarika Goel

‘Coming in from a different culture, from a different background allows you to see problems from different directions, from different angels.’
Crystal Valdez

‘We can also learn from each other, transfer our knowledge to those starting in their scientific path.’
Núria Sancho Oltra

‘I really like the keywords: Educate. Inspire. Connect. – I think it summarizes very well the idea.’
Edson Medeiros Filho

[hr] More about the four bloggers in this blog post ‘Videos from a personal perspective‘.

Behind the greatest experiments: basic research

Insight must precede application.  — Max Planck, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1918

Max Planck statue outside the main entrance of Humboldt University in Berlin
Photo by Kathleen Raven

One summer day a young Martin Chalfie walked out of a lab after a particularly frustrating experiment. He thought—quite erroneously—that the life of a scientist was not for him. After teaching high school chemistry for some years, he gave one more try. Working with Robert Perlman, then in Harvard University’s physiology department,  Chalfie rekindled his passion for chemistry.    Basic science benefitted immensely from the work Chalfie and his colleagues accomplished many years later. They won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for showing how the gene that causes green fluorescent protein (GFP) to glow could be used in C. elegans to highlight individual cells without the need for added enzymes to create the light. This discovery was necessary for his further research into the function of nerve cells that create our feeling of touch, balance and hearing.

On Wednesday, 3 July during the Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings, Chalfie will discuss how tickling C. elegans worms with an eyelash hair led to further insight. With all of these connections to basic research, I’ve been thinking often about Max Planck who was allegedly told that “there was nothing new to be discovered in physics.” The famous German scientist pursued his interests anyway. And we still experience his discovery through “Planck’s constant,” which is mentioned in the description of Nobel Laureate David Wineland’s talk  scheduled for 1 July called “Superposition, Entanglement, and Raising Schrödinger’s Cat.”

In the United States, basic research – the unglamorous stepchild in grant funding circles – is often pushed aside. The slower progress found in this line of work, coupled with larger risks of dead-ends, may make it seem tedious. Translational science projects usually start full-steam ahead with the promise of bedside solutions. As we listen to and talk with each in the coming weeks, I think all conversations would benefit by highlighting the basic research that exists—as well as the knowledge we have yet to gain—in all great chemistry experiments.

“Scientific inquiry starts with observation,” said Chalfie in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2008. “The more we can see, the more we can investigate.”



What to learn from Nobel Laureates

Being able to meet 35 Nobel laureates is a rare and highly desirable opportunity. A question that arises when preparing to meet people of such stature is: What can we learn from them?

It was my good fortune that I already had the chance to meet one of the laureates – Paul Crutzen (Nobel Prize Chemistry, 1995) in January 2013. He received an honorary doctorate from Maastricht University and I attended a lecture he was giving the same day.

Paul Crutzen
Foto: Creative Commons – Teemu Rajala

The prospect of Paul Crutzen visiting Maastricht University was very thrilling. I immediately started to read his publications and was overwhelmed by his achievements (among others, to show the significance of nitrogen oxide and the ozone hole) as well as his exciting biography.

After being trained as a civil engineering, he truly was seeking to become a scientist. He got a position at the University of Stockholm as a programmer (without knowing first what a programmer was) where he entered the world of academia. Next to his work he took courses for a MSc and finished a PhD in meteorology and made his first discoveries towards the relevance of nitrogen oxide. He stayed in the UK and the USA and finally became  a director of the Atmospheric Chemistry Division, Max-Planck-Institute in Mainz, Germany. Being convinced that one has the responsibility to explain significant results to politicians and the general public, among others, he was member of an Enquete commission of the Federal government dealing with the influence of mankind on climate. On the basis of his background and accomplishments, I got the strong impression that he took opportunities and made the most out of them.

So at this day in January I eagerly waited for him to start his lecture. He focused his talk on his academic path and the discoveries he made. He strongly emphasized the need to preserve our planet and one can thank him for his contributions on his discoveries about the ozone layer. After the lecture he took questions from the audience and I asked him on his thoughts on new technologies like energy storage. He told us about his passion on engineering and that in another life he might would have chosen that path.

Afterwards I took the initiative and approached Crutzen. We spent a couple of minutes talking about his path, and he was so kind as to also talk with me about my work in energy storage. During this talk he also mentioned the upcoming Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. I could truly feel his passion for this meeting. My first meeting with a Nobel Laureate impressed upon me how down to earth and approachable Paul Crutzen was. In Lindau he will again talk about ‘Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate in the Anthropocene’ his main topic.

Now, I am very much looking forward to the upcoming meeting. I hope to get the chance to speak to many more Nobel Laureates to obtain more insights on these remarkable achievers and discuss my findings with the global community.

Find more information on Paul Crutzen in the Lindau Mediatheque and in “Paul Crutzen on the Ozone Hole, Nitrogen Oxides, and the Nobel Prize“.

Die Entstehung der Farbe

Der gute Charles Darwin, auch über 200 Jahre nach seiner Geburt und über 150 Jahre nach der Veröffentlichung seines Hauptwerkes ist er nicht tot zu kriegen. Die Evolution kann man halt überall beobachten. So auch an jenen bunten Fischen, die ihre Namen dem ihnen typischen Muster zu verdanken haben: Den Zebrafischen.

Und um genau die ging es in dem Talk von Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. Nach Ada Yonath schon der zweiten Biologin und Nobelpreisträgerin, der ich hier in Lindau lauschen durfte. Den Preis selbst bekam sie schon 1995 zusammen mit Eric F. Wieschhaus und Edward B. Lewis für ihre Arbeiten zur genetischen Kontrolle der Embryonalentwicklung. Zusammen identifizierten und klassifizierten sie die Gene, welche in den Eiern der beliebten Laborfliege Drosophila Melanogaster die Entstehung des fertigen Organismus steuern. Außerdem entwickelte sie die Gradiententheorie die zeigt wie Stoffgradienten in Eizelle und Embryo die Genexpression steuern und zeigte Parallelen in der Embryonalentwicklung von Insekten und Wirbeltieren. Grund dafür: Auf Embryos lastet keine Selektion im eigentlichen Sinne da sie relativ gut behütet herangezogen werden. Deshalb kann Selektion erst später eingreifen.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard bei ihrem Vortrag in Lindau

Und auch die Zebrafische machen natürlich eine embryonale Entwicklung mit. Ihr Vortrag begann dann allerdings wieder bei Darwin und mit dem Hinweis auf “The Origin Of Species” welches sie wunderbar als “wichtiges Buch, dass ihr vermutlich nicht gelesen habt” (important book you probably have not read) klassifizierte. Von dort aus ging es dann über die verschiedenen Stämme, Klassen und Ordnungen der Tiere zu den Zebrafischen hin. Deren Farbmuster entstehen bei den Embryos aus der Neuralleiste, die bei der Anlage des späteren zentralen Nervensystems eine entscheidende Rolle spielt. Aus dieser Leiste bilden sich später neben den für die Farben verantwortlichen Zellen auch die Zähne und andere Knorpel-Elemente heraus.

Für die Farben des Zebrafisches sind 3 verschiedene Zelltypen verantwortlich und diese unterstehen glücklicherweise auch keinerlei sexueller Selektion. Eine andere Art der selben Gattung zeigt nämlich ein völlig anderes Muster und diese Arten können sogar noch gekreuzt werden. Spannend auch bei der Farbentstehung: Eine “albino” genannte Mutation, die durch eine einfache Mutation (eine Punktmutation die zu einem Stop-Codon führt) ist dem Namen entsprechend farblos. Wie man zeigen konnte, liegt dies wohl daran, dass ein Vesikel was sonst die schwarzen Farbpigmente transportiert nicht mehr richtig funktioniert.

Spannend ist dann aber noch die Frage wie die adulten Tiere zu ihren Streifen kommen, denn die Neuralleiste gibt es ja nur bei den Embryos. Dazu gilt es die folgenden Fragen zu klären:

  • Woher kommen die Streifen der erwachsenen Tiere?
  • Wo sind die Stammzellen die dafür verantwortlich sind? 
  • Über welche Pfade geschieht das?

Die Hypothese die Nüsslein-Volhard dazu hat ist, dass diese Stammzellen mit dem peripheren Nervensystem assoziiert sind. Und sie haben auch ein paar Untersuchungen dazu angestellt, die in die Richtung deuten. Und mit Hilfe von Zell-Transplantationen konnte man auch zeigen, dass es bereits reicht wenn einer der Zelltypen fehlt um die Entstehung der Streifenmuster zu verhindern. Wenn man durch die Transplantationen diese Zellen jedoch wieder hinzufügt, dann kann das Muster mehr oder weniger wieder hergestellt werden.

GlowFish. License: http://www.glofish.com/photos.asp

Und ein kleines Schmankerl am Rande: Die Zebrafische gibt es seit 2003 auch in (wortwörtlich) leuchtenden Farben zu kaufen. Zumindest in manchen Ländern, bei uns sind diese Tiere als gentechnisch veränderte Organismen so nicht zu kaufen. Und für die Entdeckung des Proteins, das diesen Tieren zum leuchten verhilft (das grün fluoreszierende Protein) gab es 2008 den Nobelpreis, in der Kategorie Chemie.

Bild der Fische: GloFish.

Roger Tsien: Science should be beautiful

Today I talked with Roger Tsien about his research leading to the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of green fluorescent protein (GFP). I learned that visually beautiful research results are the best motivation, and that winning a Nobel Prize doesn’t mean that papers and grants come easily – you might still have a manuscript returned from Nature without review.

Roger Tsien’s work personifies some of the themes of this year’s Lindau meeting. He has always been an interdisciplinary researcher, switching between Chemistry, Biology and Physics. He has also been very good in finding collaborators or postdocs that had the required skills or experience. Roger Tsien had worked on visualizing intracellular calcium signaling for many years and knew that GFP is a contaminant of aquorin, used by some of his competitors to study calcium signaling. He was therefore very excited when Douglas Prasher reported the cloning of the GFP gene in May 1992 and immediately (like Martin Chalfie) saw the implications. He had to wait a few months before with Roger Heim he had someone in his laboratory with enough skills in molecular biology to take on the GFP project. 

Basic vs. translational research is another recurring theme and this year’s Lindau meeting, and is also the topic of Roger Tsien’s talk on Tuesday: Designing Molecules and Nanoparticles to Help See and Treat Disease. GFP is primarily a tool that can be used to answer many different research questions, and they can be both basic and translational. The importance of the GFP discovery is obvious to everybody who has ever used GFP, as a large number of life sciences researchers have done over the years. But Roger Tsien told me is often asked how GFP can be used to help cure a disease.

Everybody who has ever seen cells, tissues or even animals expressing GFP is overwhelmed by their visual beauty. This has been a big motivation for Roger Tsien, and something he thinks is important for good research. He told me a story from his time doing calcium channel research. To visualize the different wavelengths of UV light emitted, even before the first experiment he spent two days setting up a very expensive piece of equiment to show the appropriate colors (instead of simply green and blue spectra).

At the end of the interview I asked Roger Tsien whether publishing papers and getting grants has become easier since winning the Nobel Prize. He felt that in some other areas of his work this would be true, but getting papers accepted has not become any easier at all.

Paul Crutzen’s Other Big Idea

Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen will be at Lindau this year, along with his fellow recipient F. Sherwood Rowland. The two along with Mario Molina contributed to one of the most significant intersections of science with politics and public policy in the twentieth century when they discovered the effects of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemical compounds on the all-important ozone layer. Crutzen is well-known for that contribution.

What Crutzen is not that well-known for may perhaps make him even more famous after a few years. In 2006, Crutzen published an article in the journal Climate Change that proposed a cheap and audacious-sounding technological fix to ameliorate the harm done by global warming. He proposed releasing millions of tons of sulfate and sulfur dioxide particles into the upper atmosphere which would cool the earth by reflecting sunlight. His scheme is part of what is now called ‘geoengineering’- willfully changing the climate of our planet to counteract the harmful effects of global warming. If Crutzen talks about geoengineering this year at Lindau, it will very likely be one of the most provocative talks at the meeting, and students should make sure they ask him lots of questions about it.

Let’s admit it. If we want to talk about the craziest-sounding ideas dreamt up by mad scientists with disheveled hair and demented glints in their eyes, geoengineering would admirably fit the bill. This is the stuff that pulpy science fiction is made of, when horrible accidents engineered by technology-obsessed scientists cast humanity into eternal doom. Yet, geoengineering is now seriously being considered by top scientists and policy makers. It also has a long history that is permeated by some of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century. Science fiction it may sound like, but it’s being treated as serious science by serious people. Some have predicted that the issue of geoengineering will be catapulted in a few years into one of the most visible public debates of our times, regularly bandied about in the mainstream media. It will become a topic rich with scientific, political, social and moral dilemmas. Given the potential impact and importance it can have, I personally feel very likely that this will happen.

So what is geoengineering? It is simply the application of technology to engineer our environment to our benefit. If this does not sound like a novel definition, it probably isn’t. Human beings have been changing their environment using technology for thousands of years. The invention of agriculture and architecture and the breeding and domestication of animals are all examples of engineering our surroundings to suit our needs. Yet the word geoengineering deserves a modern definition in its own right simply because of the magnitude and audacity of ideas it dares to conjure up. Crutzen’s sulfur dioxide scheme constitutes one of them. Not bold enough? How about building giant hoses that will release sulfates tens of kilometers high up? Still too boring? How about dropping billions of tons of iron compounds into the world’s oceans to encourage the growth of CO2-eating algae? Covering the oceans up with gigantic white plastic sheets to reflect sunlight? And these seem to be some of the more conservative ideas floating around. One of the main problems that people seem to have with geoengineering schemes is that they think these schemes will add another dangerous and uncertain variable to a game we have already played with our planet beyond reason. And yet if we think about it, playing with the earth does not sound so bad when we ponder our present situation and its consequences.

Let’s take a hard look at the facts. Mankind has warmed the planet by emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on an unprecedented scale. This contribution has already engineered the planet in its own way by radically changing the environment and making the future uncertain for further generations. Drastically reducing CO2 emissions seems to be the one way to possibly stall the impact, even if we probably cannot completely neutralize it. But human nature being what it is, it has proven immensely difficult to adopt global policies that would reduce emissions. Kyoto was a dismal failure. Last year at Lindau, Rajendra Pachauri who is the chairman of the IPCC was glowingly optimistic about the 2009 Copenhagen conference. Now we know that although there were weak assurances and promises, that meeting too ended in failure. The bottom line is, the world still runs on fossil fuels, and many think it’s going to be decades if not more before all the inequities and differences among the peoples of our planet will make it possible to approach anything comprising significant consensus in reducing fossil fuel emissions. Clearly it’s a Sisyphean task to convince humans to give up their ambitiously high standards of living. Till then it could be too late.

But if human beings find it hard to reach a consensus, they don’t find it that hard to come up with other creative ideas to address the key issues. If we could modify the weather by other means and buy ourselves some time at the very least, shouldn’t we do it? The twentieth century is replete with attempts by scientists to come up with ways to change the climate for a variety of reasons, far before global warming was ever on the agenda. Probably the most high profile reason was being able to influence local weather patterns as a form of warfare; if you could radically engineer the weather around enemy formations, you could throw all their war preparations into chaos. Such type of thinking pervaded Cold War strategy. And it got a boost from one of the most brilliant humans being who ever lived.

John von Neumann, mathematical wizard who could multiply six-digit numbers in his head and recite the entire telephone book when he was six years old in his native Hungary, has become an anecdote-generating legend. Almost any anecdote about this great man and the quickness of his mind is likely to be familiar or sound like a cliché, so I will refrain. The sheer diversity of fields- pure mathematics, physics, nuclear weapons design, economics, computing, biology- to which he made lasting contributions boggles the mind and is without a doubt unprecedented. He made so many important contributions to so many important fields that even now one suspects if there was a conspiracy of geniuses who all published papers and ideas under the same name. In only one lifetime, while establishing the mathematical foundations of quantum theory, inventing game theory, designing the plutonium implosion bomb, laying out the blueprint for genetic replication, exploring the workings of the brain and becoming a father of computer science through his invention of what we call ‘software’, von Neumann ended up contemplating the use of the computer for weather prediction almost as a pastime. A prized consultant to top-secret government agencies, von Neumann had grandiose schemes for first predicting and then manipulating the weather using intensive computer modeling. Although his diabolical schemes to wage war (probably fortunately) did not come to pass, von Neumann’s ideas were the forerunner for some of the earliest computer models of climate, culminating in the sophisticated General Circulation Models (GCMs) that modern day climate scientists use.

Von Neumann died in 1957 in great pain from cancer, heavily surrounded by military security personnel in fear that he may divulge nuclear secrets while medicated. As if one brilliant Hungarian was not enough, another brilliant Hungarian materialized to don von Neumann’s mantle.

Nobody looms as large over geoengineering as the brilliant and impetuous Edward Teller, the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’. Teller was so obsessed with nuclear weapons that he has become almost a clichéd caricature of the mad scientist, supposed to be one of the inspirations for the character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s famous nuclear satire. As the greatest nuclear weaponeer in history, Teller never shied away from making nuclear bombs bigger, better, smaller and more powerful. Throughout his life Teller was known for two things, his scientific brilliance and his tortured relationship with his fellow scientists. After his testimony in the trial of Robert Oppenheimer made him a virtual outcast from the scientific community, Teller began to hobnob with powerful military and political leaders who wanted bigger and better nuclear weapons. Teller’s love for nuclear weapons led him in the fifties to propose ‘Project Plowshare’. Project Plowshare figures big in the history of geoengineering. It was literally a plan for sculpting the earth to suit human needs. It envisaged everything from blasting gigantic harbors in seconds to diverting the course of entire rivers to turn deserts into lush grasslands, all made possible by megaton nuclear bombs. Such grand planning was typical of the Cold War belief in technology, a belief which lasts even today. The Soviets also explored such plans and publicized them as glorious Communist dreams intended to bring the benefits of technology to the masses. Nuclear weapons had acquired a bad rap because of their destructive effects. Now Teller wanted to put a positive spin on them. But Teller’s motives were not completely benevolent. If Project Plowshare became popular, it would lead to more nuclear testing and hence to more nuclear building, both of which were Teller’s cherished goals.

Edward Teller (1908-2003)

One of the first experimental projects that Project Plowshare had in mind was excavating a giant harbor in what was considered a remote region of Alaska. In just a few weeks Teller was transformed into a marketing executive who strove hard to convince the local population including the local Inuit natives about how nice such a harbor excavated by a huge nuclear blast in two seconds would be for them. He even said he could sculpt a harbor in the shape of a polar bear. Teller insisted that fallout, which was the biggest threat from nuclear detonations, would be limited. He did not really give much thought to the details of the region and the fact that the Soviet Union was only 180 miles from the harbor’s location. Fortunately, Teller’s plan was killed in the water when a geologist named Don Foote mapped the entire region and its rich biodiversity and showed that not only would the livelihood of the Inuits be completely destroyed, but that uncertainty in wind patterns would likely draft the radioactive fallout toward the Soviet Union, a geopolitical disaster. A disgruntled Teller still did not give up on his dreams of changing the face of the planet, and planned for a small experiment in the Nevada desert that would perhaps convince the naysayers. The goal was quite elemental, to see how big a hole a nuclear weapon would dig. In 1962, a 1.5-megaton bomb excavated a crater more than a thousand feet in diameter and 300 feet in depth in about two seconds. Unfortunately, fallout from the blast was carried by the wind as far as Canada. Finally, after more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars in spending, Project Plowshare was dead. The crater still exists and is a tourist attraction.

But Teller’s highly fertile mind never remained still. Throughout his life he kept on coming up with highly creative and more than a little wacky ideas of accomplishing technological feats using nuclear weapons. I think Teller’s whole frame of mind is aptly summed up by Carl Sagan, who said that Teller’s problem was that he genuinely liked nuclear weapons. Thus he wanted to use them for almost any problem. Want to turn coal into diamonds? Use the pressure from a nuclear blast. Teller even insisted using nuclear weapons for pure science research. Want to analyze moon dust? Explode a nuke on the moon and analyze the resulting spectrum. Until his death in 2003 at the ripe old age of 95, Edward Teller continued to be enamored of technology as the solution to mankind’s greatest problems. His vision, even if it has been transformed into something a little more gentle and realistic, still lives on in the minds of geoengineers.

So who are these people and what do they want to do? Geoengineering schemes seem to fall into two categories. We know the first one as ‘carbon sequestration’ and it sounds more benign. It seeks simply to suck the excess CO2 out of the air and store it in one form or the other, either underground or in other locations. However, the word ‘simply’ does not do justice to the complexity of the problem. CO2 is a high-entropy material that has been generated from low-entropy fossil fuels such as coal. Essentially reverting the process might require much more energy than is saved. Plus, where is this energy going to come from? From fossil fuels which are going to release more CO2 themselves? That would be futile. So scientists are trying to come up with other creative ideas. One of the more creative ideas is being tested by David Keith, a physicist at the University of Calgary. Keith’s process to trap CO2 relies on high-school chemistry. Lye or sodium hydroxide will react with the CO2 from air to form sodium carbonate. This in turn will react with calcium oxide to form calcium carbonate. In his lab Keith is running experimental CO2 absorption columns. Success until now has been spotty; the reduction in CO2 is typically only 5 ppm, but the technology is worth exploring.

The second category of proposals would make science fiction fans stand up, because these are the ones aimed at actually modifying the planet’s atmosphere in one way or the other. Crutzen’s proposal to inject sulfur dioxide particles in the stratosphere is a running candidate. One reason why it is taken seriously is because there is a precedent in which the earth actually geoengineered itself. In 1991, the volcano Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted and put millions of tons of sulfur dioxide particles in the atmosphere. True to calculations and predictions, the planet actually cooled by a fraction of a degree. The most likely location for doing this kind of cooling experiment is the Arctic, which is rapidly losing ice. The problem with ice is that it constitutes positive feedback which makes the global warming problem worse; less ice means less reflection of sunlight which means higher temperatures which means even less ice and so on. Consequently, cooling the atmosphere above the arctic would mean more ice, which would kick-start the reverse cycle, increasing reflectivity and cooling the planet further. The amount of sulfur dioxide needed and its cost is not too much compared to what’s at stake. The main problem that some people see with this scenario is that it’s a band-aid, since it won’t actually curb CO2 emissions. Also, CO2 doesn’t just cause global warming. It also causes other serious problems like ocean acidification, which is killing off entire species and catastrophically disturbing ocean biodiversity and balance. Sulfur in the atmosphere is not going to mitigate these other issues. The good thing though might be that these increasing CO2 levels would be absorbed by plants, encouraging foliage which will suck up even more CO2. This brings us to the other geoengineering scheme- seeding the oceans with iron compounds. These compounds will encourage the growth of algae which will eat up the excess CO2. Algae might also serve another purpose. The British scientist James Lovelock who is the originator of the “Gaia” theory pointed out that algae produce the gas dimethyl sulfide (if you haven’t smelt this, don’t, as I can attest from experience) which also forms sunlight-reflecting aerosols. Lovelock is a big fan of engineering and thinks that it’s too late now for us to get a grip on climate change by reducing emissions alone.

Probably the craziest-sounding idea for geoengineering has been suggested by University of Arizona scientist Roger Angel. Angel proposes shooting out thin polymer-based disks, each about the size of a trash can lid, into orbit around earth. Once in orbit, these disks will cast a huge shadow on earth that will reduce sunlight absorption by about 2%. Even this small change will be enough to cool the planet. The problem? The mind-boggling number of disks that would have to be shot out into space- about 16 trillion. But Angel’s proposal is one of a kind proposed by scientists that include launching millions of sunlight-reflecting mirrors into orbit, essentially serving the same purpose.


Then there are proposals grounded in genetic engineering. These are again being taken seriously by a number of well-known scientists. Craig Venter, the famous genome pioneer who recently synthesized a working organism from scratch, is on the lookout for CO2-eating bacteria. Freeman Dyson has suggested a slightly more futuristic idea- engineering trees with silicon leaves instead of carbon leaves which would absorb much more CO2.

Science fiction or not, mainstream scientists are wary of all such proposals for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the belief that such proposals will be eagerly seized upon by industrial interests who can then go on emitting CO2 with abandon. Geoengineering is seen by these opponents as nothing more than a band-aid, leaving us free to indulge in even more fossil fuel based development. There is definitely merit to this point of view, but the same opponents should also realize that we are probably going to be entrenched in fossil fuel based development for decades. Till then we must do something to explore alternative scenarios for cooling the planet. There are arguments which say that geoengineering messes with a complex system about which we understand very little, and these are not invalid. But the history of technology shows that for whatever reason, we have been able to manage complex systems much better than what we initially imagined. Geoengineering should be supported at least on an experimental scale. The other more philosophical problem that some have with these ideas is that they cast yet another volley in mankind’s attempts to destroy the world’s natural essence. But whether we like it or not, we have already destroyed and irrevocably altered this essence since the last 40,000 years or so, when modern humans started migrating across the earth in large numbers. The planet now is radically different from what it was then, and it’s hard to see how geoengineering would be any different from the massive amounts of engineering we have done on this planet until now. And the bottom line is that global warming is too complex a problem to be attacked only through a single line of inquiry, that of reducing CO2 emissions. Only a multipronged approach can help resolve such a convoluted dilemma.

But ultimately the objection to geoengineering goes much deeper than technical and scientific issues. Geoengineering seems to signal the epitome of the hubris that human beings have always had, fuelling the belief that technology is going to solve all our problems. To some extent it has gotten a bad name because of scientists like Edward teller who wanted to harness the primeval force of the atom for sculpting our environment, without much thought about consequences. We all know what happened when Icarus became giddy with his powers of flight and soared too close to the sun. Our own Icarus has already outdone himself in his ambitions. Geoengineering seems only to be the culmination of our fantasy to achieve mastery over the planet. A planet with geoengineering will very likely look disturbingly artificial, with abnormally high levels of CO2 being sustained in a delicate balance with a sulfate-laden atmosphere, algal blooms in the ocean, an armor of mirrors in outer space, and landscapes dotted with CO2-eating plants with silicon leaves and behemoth CO2-sucking machines. All will look nice and cozy, until the very delicate balance is inevitable perturbed by our ignorance of complexity.

As the old proverb says, we need to be careful about what we wish for. Our wishes might come true.

Größenordnungen und Tellerränder

Jetzt hat das Treffen wirklich begonnen, und ein Nobelpreisträgervortrag folgt auf den nächsten. Natürlich bin ich auf die großen Themen gespannt, die Querverbindungen zu meinem eigenen wissenschaftlichen Hintergrund haben — Teilchenphysik, Astrophysik, Kosmologie —, aber an diesem Morgen habe ich mich auf den Blick über den physikalischen Tellerrand eingestellt. Molekularbiologie steht auf dem Programm, und damit für mich als biologischen Laien die Frage: Wie allgemein zugänglich sind die Lindauer Vorträge?

In Jack Szostaks Vortrag, meinem ersten für heute, fühle ich mich am Anfang ganz unerwarteter Weise wie zu Hause. Szostak (Medizin 2009) spricht über “Learning about the Origin of Life from Efforts to Design an Artificial Cell” und beginnt dabei mit Bildern, die auch aus meinem Heimatinstitut stammen könnten, dem Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie. Da haben wir sie, die Querverbindung über 15 Größenordnungen hinweg, von wenige Mikrometer großen Zellen bis hin zu den Exoplaneten, also zu Planeten, die ferne Sterne umkreisen und derzeit ein Haupt-Beobachtungsziel der Astronomen darstellen (bislang entdeckte Anzahl: 464, Tendenz rasch steigend). Ungewohnt und reizvoll, das Thema einmal von der anderen Seite beleuchtet zu sehen: In den astronomischen Vorträgen, die ich ja nun mit einiger Regelmäßigkeit höre, wird die Suche nach Leben auf anderen Planeten zwar selbstverständlich, da wichtigstes Fernziel der Exoplaneten-Untersuchungen, erwähnt (“Suche nach der zweiten Erde”). Aber solche Vorträge steigen typischer Weise nicht tiefer in die Biologie ein, sondern gehen recht rasch zu den astronomischen Beobachtungen über. Bei Szostak ist es anders herum: Etwas Astronomie, und dann geht es ab zu den Zellen.

Nun bin ich also wirklich jenseits meines üblichen Tellerrandes, und ich bin positiv überrascht. Gut erklärt und illustriert (und durch Probleme, die Saalbeleuchtung zu dimmen, nur temporär behindert) erzählt Szostak von jüngeren Ergebnissen seiner Arbeitsgruppe so, dass auch ein nicht-Biologe wie ich gut folgen kann.

Mein erstes “Aha” ist bei Szostak nur eine Nebenbemerkung. Dazu muss man wissen: Der (noch lange nicht realisierte) Plan der Astronomen auf der Suche nach Leben auf Exoplaneten zielt auf den Nachweis ganz bestimmter chemischer Signaturen in der Atmosphäre erdähnlicher Planeten ab: Wasser und Ozon, in bestimmter Konzentration eine Kombination, die sich nur durch die massenhafte Anwesenheit von Organismen erklären lässt, die Photosynthese durchführen. Dass Szostak in seinem Vortrag kurz Möglichkeiten für nicht-wasserbasiertes Leben erwähnt (konkreteste Hoffnung: Leben auf Methan-/Ethanbasis auf dem Saturnmond Titan?), lässt mich dementsprechend aufhorchen. Das hört sich so an, als ob Astronomen und Molekularbiologen noch einigen Spaß miteinander haben dürften.

Dann kommt der eigentliche Kern des Vortrags. Darüber wird Lars Fischer hier noch ausführlich berichten — eine für mich faszinierende Welt zwischen physikalischer Chemie und Biologie, mit Fast-schon-Zellen, die für ihre Teilung noch arg auf Schütteln oder äußere Temperaturschwankungen angewiesen sind, aber schon erkennen lassen, wo dann das Evolutions-Wettrennen anfangen wird. 

Zumindest dieser Stichprobe nach zu urteilen, kann ich bestätigen: der Blick über den Tellerrand ist in Lindau mehr als nur ein Schlagwort. 

Hier als Nachtrag meine jeweils aktualisierte Liste dafür, wie es mit meinem Blick über den Tellerrand weiterging:

  • Harald zu Hausen (Montag), Human cancers linked to infections:  Bis auf einige Details gut verständlich.
  • Luc Montagnier (Montag), DNA between Physics and Biology: Anfang OK, danach für mich weniger verständlich und zu technisch; habe dann abgeschaltet und, Bastian’s Beitrag nach zu urteilen, einiges verpasst.
  • Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Montag), HIV und Retroviren: Interessantes Gesamtbild des Zusammenspiels von Forschung, Klinik und Politik zum Thema AIDS und Retroviren
  • Roger Tsien (Dienstag): Designing Molecules and Nanoparticles to Help See and Treat Disease: Wow! So sollte ein gehoben allgemein verständlicher Vortrag sein! Interessante Grundlagen, beeindruckende Bilder, praktischer Nutzen, und direkte Einblicke, wie man seine Chancen auf eine erfolgreiche Karriere erhöhen kann (nicht nur, aber auch “Try to find projectts that give you some sensual pleasure or put your neuroses to constructive use”)
  • Oliver Smithies (Mittwoch): Chance, Opportunity and Planning in Science: Furiose Tour durch Jahrzehnte von Laborbüchern — eine tolle Mischung aus Molekularbiologie, Medizin, mit viel Aha-Effekt dazu, was es konkret heißt, gute und erfolgreiche Wissenschaft zu betreiben.