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.

Life in Super-Resolution: Light Microscopy Beyond the Diffraction Limit

In 1979, South African Allan M. Cormack won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his development of X-ray computed assisted tomography (CT), which allows physicians to see internal bodily structures without cutting. A quarter of a century later, Sir Peter Mansfield of the United Kingdom was given the same award in 2003 for advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that led to scans taking seconds rather than hours.

Today, these two imaging techniques serve as essential diagnostic and investigative tools for both medicine and the life sciences. But one unique fact about Cormack and Mansfield stands out: Despite winning the most prestigious award in medicine, neither Laureate went to medical school nor had a background in biology — rather, they were both true-blue physicists.

Cormack spent most of his research career focusing on nuclear and particle physics, while his CT efforts remained an intermittent side project for almost two decades. For Mansfield, his postdoctoral work on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy in doped metals gradually transitioned into scanning his first live human subject with the newly invented MRI technique.

The tradition of physicists driving advances in biomedical imaging continues, as made evident by the lectures of Steven Chu and Stefan Hell at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Both showed visually stunning examples of their research using super-resolution microscopy, a method that transcends the diffraction limit of conventional light microscopes to probe on a nanoscopic scale.


Stefan Hell in discussion with young scientists at #LiNo16. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

“We learn in school that the resolution of a light microscope is fundamentally limited by diffraction to about half the wavelength of light,” said Hell, who gave his lecture on Thursday morning. “And if you want to see smaller things, you have to resort of course to electron microscopy.”

Hell, a physicist who currently serves as a director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany, accomplished what was long thought to be the impossible. Using light microscopy and fluorescent labeling of molecules, he invented a super-resolution technique called stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy — the work that won him the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“The development of STED microscopy showed that there is physics in this world that allows you to overcome this diffraction barrier,” he said. “If you play out that physics in a clever way, you can see features that are much finer and details that are beyond the diffraction barrier.”

A conventional microscope cannot distinguish objects — say, molecules — that are packed within a space of about 200 nanometers because they all become flooded with light at the same time. Subsequently, a detector will simply record the scattering as a blurry blob of light without being able to image any individual molecules.

Hell got the idea of highlighting one molecule at a time by using fluorescent labeling, while also keeping other molecules in a dark state through stimulated emission. With a phase modulator, he could then force molecules in a doughnut-shaped area to stay dark and in the ground state while those in the center would produce light.

With this discovery, biomedical researchers could now image objects as tiny as proteins on the outside of a virus. For instance, STED microscopy was used to observe a major difference in envelope protein distribution that can be used to distinguish mature HIV that can infect cells versus those immature viruses that cannot.

“The misconception was that people thought that microscopy resolution was just about waves, but it’s not — microscopy resolution is about waves and states,” Hell emphasized. “And if you see it through the eyes of the opportunities of the states, the light microscope becomes very, very powerful.”

Steven Chu referenced Hell’s groundbreaking research during his lecture on Wednesday morning, which focused on his recent efforts in optical microscopy — quite a departure from his previous work in energy during a decade-long sabbatical.

“I sat down fresh out of government with no lab, no students, no postdocs, no money,” said Chu, who served as U.S. Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013. “The only thing that I could do was think, and that turns out to be liberating.”


Steven Chu during his lecture. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

A venerable jack-of-all-trades, Chu received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics in yet another field — atomic physics — for his development of laser cooling and trapping techniques. His latest interest in microscopy grew out of a fascination with cell signaling and how dysfunctions in the process can lead to cancer.

“If you’re a cell embedded in an organism’s tissue, you don’t willy-nilly divide — that’s considered very antisocial behavior. You divide when the surrounding tissue says it’s okay to divide,” he described. “But if you willy-nilly divide and say ‘me-me-me,’ that is called cancer.”

Using imaging techniques, the cell signaling pathway can be investigated in detail to target areas that could prevent cancer from developing. Taking Hell’s work in super-resolution microscopy a step further, Chu discussed his use of rare earths embedded in nanocrystals to replace fluorescent organic dyes. A nanocrystal can be doped with 5,000 to 10,000 impurities so it emits a certain color in the near-infrared with a very narrow spectral peak. If each class of nanoparticle is synthesized to produce a different ratio of colors, this creates a spectral barcoding of probes.

The next step is to use nanoparticle probes to image molecules through tissue in a living organism without cutting. Adaptive optics — a technique that originated in astronomy — has been employed in order to take light scattering into account, enabling high-resolution microscopy of mouse brain tissue through an intact skull.

“The question is if you go deeper into the infrared, can you look not through 500 microns but maybe 5 millimeters?” said Chu. “This is an open question we’re working on this. We’ve gotten down to a millimeter but we’ll see.”

One of his ideas involves inserting nanoparticles into cancer cells and watch them over time in order to track which cells metastasize, with the ultimate goal of developing future therapies.

Smartphones, Energy-Efficient Lamps, and GPS: How Nobel Laureates’ Work Impacts Today’s Technology

Particle physics and cosmology make up the big topics of interest for many young scientists at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, with lectures by the pioneering researchers who won Nobel Prizes for their work in the cosmic microwave background radiation, neutrino mass, and the accelerating expansion of the universe. These fields embody the inquisitive and fundamental nature of physics as a discipline driven purely by a curiosity about what makes the world tick.

However, let’s not forget about the importance of more applied topics in physics, such as research in semiconductors, optics, medical physics, and nanotechnology. Physicists in these fields have contributed to groundbreaking developments in technology that impact not only society as a whole, but often affect our individual lives on a day-to-day basis.

Their work often teeters on the fuzzy border between science and engineering — a place Nobel Laureate Hiroshi Amano remains very familiar with. As one of the inventors of the once-elusive blue LED, Amano had a direct hand in the realization of full-color displays that grace our beloved smartphones, as well as the energy-efficient LED lighting quickly replacing incandescent and fluorescent bulbs.

“First of all, I’d like to mention that I’m not a physicist — I belong to the engineering department. So today, I’d like to emphasize the importance of not only the science but also the engineering,” said Amano, who kicked off the meeting’s Nobel Laureate lectures on Monday morning. “Maybe my field is not the major in this meeting, so I’d like to mention the importance of the minority.”



Hiroshi Amano during his lecture. Photo: J. Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Amano began his lecture by describing his poor academic performance from primary school to high school. Since it seemed to him that the only reason to study hard in Japan was to get into a good high school or university, he lacked sufficient motivation. A former professor changed this mindset by describing the purpose of engineering as a discipline that connects and supports the people. From that moment on, Amano had no trouble finding the inner drive to study hard.

Despite his title as a Professor in the Department of Engineering and Computer Science at Nagoya University in Japan, Amano won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics along with Isamu Akasaki and Shuji Nakamura for the invention of high-brightness blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs). For three decades, the creation of a commercially viable blue LED remained a slow-going and difficult endeavor for researchers despite the previous success of red and green LEDs.

“Unfortunately, all the efforts in the 1970s failed,” said Amano, citing issues with growing crystals in the material of choice for blue LEDs, gallium nitride, as well as creating p-type layers. “So many, many researchers abandoned this material and started the new material research such as zinc selenide. Only one person could not abandon this material: my supervisor, Isamu Akasaki.”

In 1985, Akasaki and Amano successfully created their own crystal growth system by using a buffer layer of low-temperature-deposited aluminum nitride that sat between the gallium nitride and sapphire substrate. After a few more tweaks involving the p-type layer, the two presented the world’s first high-brightness blue LED in 1992.

The flashy new blue LEDs could now be combined with their classic red and green counterparts to produce full-color displays for smartphones, computer screens, and televisions. Energy-efficient and long-lasting lightbulbs that emit white light use blue LEDs along with yellow phosphor, and have already started to replace incandescent and fluorescent lighting around the world. By year 2020, the total electricity consumption in Japan could drop about 7% by swapping existing lamp systems to LEDs — a savings of 1 trillion Japanese yen.

Outside of cosmology and particle physics, another fundamental field of physics lies in studying the strange and often paradoxical quantum world. Many quantum phenomena were thought to exist only in a theorist’s mind, since direct experimental observation would destroy the individual quantum systems.

However, the work of Nobel Laureate David Wineland proved otherwise. In 2012, Wineland and Serge Haroche shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their independent discovery of experimental methods that enable the measurement and manipulation of individual particles without destroying their quantum-mechanical nature. His research has enabled the creation of extremely precise atomic clocks, with more than 100-fold greater precision than the cesium-based clocks in standard use.



David Wineland

“Certainly one of the applications of precise clocks over many centuries has been in navigation, and that’s still true today,” said Wineland during his lecture on Tuesday morning. “One system we take for granted is the [Global Positioning System (GPS)].”

Signals from satellites orbiting the Earth transmit their position and current time, which are then picked up by a GPS receiver. Given that the signals travel at the speed of light, the calculated time delays between the clocks of multiple satellites and those on the ground can be used to pinpoint the GPS receiver’s location on the surface of the Earth.

“There can be errors in the clocks, so for example if the clocks are synchronized to the nanosecond, then that gives an uncertainty of about 30 centimeters,” he said.

The standard atomic clocks in satellites today use an electronic transition frequency in the microwave range as a periodic event generator or frequency reference. Earlier examples of periodic event generators include the rotation of the Earth and the swing of a pendulum.

As Group Leader of the Ion Storage Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the U.S., Wineland began working on building a better clock in 1979 when he started to do experiments with atomic ions. The group trapped beryllium ions by surrounding them with electric fields and used tuned laser pulses to put the ions in a superposition state, or a simultaneous existence of two different energy states. A single ion trapped in this way could also be used to create an optical clock, based on optical rather than microwave transitions.

An optical clock’s precision can be better than one part in 10^17 — meaning that if you started the clock at the time of the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, it would only be off by about 5 seconds.

At the end of his lecture, Wineland described using his clocks for navigation at a scale of less than one centimeter. Not only would GPS calculations become much more accurate, but such clocks could even measure the dynamics of relative locations on Earth for earthquake prediction.

All our hopes and fears: Why the Lindau meeting needs to include psychologists

Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic and Michael Shermer; all experts in the psychology of belief and risk perception and potentially valuable additions to the Lindau Meeting (Images: Wikipedia Commons)

When I visited Lindau this year I experienced a mix of hopes and fears. The hopes came from the Nobel Prize winners and the young students and researchers gathered there. As a supposedly unbiased observer it was my job to provide skepticism and express fears.

What was the source of the fears? The problem was that I could not help but feel that I had heard it all before. When the laureates were talking about improving science funding, about inspiring young people to go into science, about strategies to combat climate change and solve the energy crisis, I could not help but feel a pronounced wave of deja vu wash over me. I had heard much of this in 2009. And I had heard it being expressed in the interim in news sources, on blogs and in interviews with experts across the spectrum of science and technology.

I heard Steven Chu, Mario Molina and Richard Schrock talk about how important solar power, next-generation nuclear power, energy efficiency and better mileage standards are. I heard Brian Kobilka, Harry Kroto and others talk about the increasing lack of focus on basic research, about basic science education and the march of irrationality. I heard them and nodded my head, as I had nodded my head back in 2009.

My feeling was that we have reached, in terms of technical solutions, if not a plateau, at least a point of diminishing marginal returns. The technology for cutting carbon emissions, for storing nuclear waste, for supporting forays into Alzheimer’s disease research and for taking science education to students in the developing world already exists. Although technological innovations can still have a tremendous impact on the energy crisis or the problem of curiosity-driven research, the major problems that we face do not lie at the technical level. They lie at the political, social and psychological level. The cardinal issue confronting us is not how to deploy this or that technical fix but how to change people’s minds. And when I realized this I could not help but feel despondent. Because while technological solutions can be challenging enough, changing people’s minds is a truly herculean task, often spread over several generations and entire social movements. On some level everything that the technical experts at Lindau were saying did not matter, because all those solutions would not make an iota of difference if we were unable to convince the politicians and the general public about their value.

Concomitant with this realization was a more practical one. In the cast of outstanding thinkers and doers at Lindau one category was conspicuously missing. The august group of experts this year included physicists, chemists, biologists, doctors, mathematicians, computer scientists, neuroscientists, a bishop, a president and a secretary of energy. Not one psychologist or sociologist. I realized that what we really need at Lindau is a group of crack psychologists to tell us how we can actually convince people to adopt the solutions that the physicists, chemists, doctors and energy experts are proposing. Without psychologists’ recommendations it is likely that all the technological recommendations offered by the experts will hit a roadblock.

What kind of psychologists would the Lindau meeting benefit from? What we need most of all are experts on the psychology of belief. Three names immediately come to my mind. One is a Nobel Prize winner so it should not be difficult for the organizers of the meeting to include him in their ranks. Daniel Kahneman has spent his whole career demonstrating why people react in certain ways to stimuli, fears and incentives, and why they keep on making decisions based on gut feelings that inadvertently turn out to be flawed. Kahneman would be a very valuable addition at Lindau because he can teach us how people react to signals about sources of energy and policy decisions. Kahneman has also investigated how the more rational side of the brain can often circumvent its primitive, knee-jerk counterpart and how we can channel this side to make sure that we suppress decisions based on gut reactions. We need Kahneman’s advice to understand how we can appeal to people’s rational side in convincing them about energy or climate change.

Another valuable expert to have at Lindau would be Paul Slovic who is internationally renowned for his work on the psychology of risk. Almost every new technology or scientific solution proposed by the experts carries with it an element of risk, and people are going to perceive this risk in their own way. The public’s perceptions of risk to things like climate change or nuclear power are often flawed since they arise from emotional and preconceived beliefs rather than from rational analysis. Whether it is fear of nuclear power, “chemicals” or government control of our lives, our world is filled with risk perception that is disproportionate to reality. The Precautionary Principle, reaction mechanisms in the primitive brain and a heightened perception of sensationalized events at the expense of far more prevalent but low-grade events are all constant features of the general public’s assessment of risk, and this assessment often leads us to make wrong choices. Whether it’s the introduction of solar power, the expansion of fracking or the widespread deployment of nuclear power, it is imperative to appreciate how people will react to the perceived risk from these technologies. The wrong perception of risk can lead them to squelch promising technical solutions through political maneuvering. Experts like Paul Slovic can teach us to present risk in an honest and sensible way so that people have an accurate idea of the reality which it represents.

Finally, the basic source of all our fears and reactions is the belief system that evolution has engineered in our brains. That belief system served us well when we were hunter gatherers eking out a living on the savannah, but it often does more harm than good in our modern, complex human world. Michael Shermer has not only spent years investigating the psychology of belief but he has also managed to present his findings and thoughts to the public in the form of informative and entertaining books. Much of Shermer’s writing has focused on exploring the primitive pattern-seeking mechanisms in our brain that make us see conspiracy theories and mistake noise for signal in general. Ultimately, whatever technology we are trying to sell people will be limited by how people perceive its risks and benefits based on their preconceived beliefs. If their beliefs tell them that the technology cannot be trusted, then they won’t embrace its benefits no matter how sensible or unambiguous they are. Shermer can tell us why people believe certain things, and especially strange things, and perhaps by knowing this we can pitch the technological solutions to them in such a way that they appeal to the rational beliefs in their heads.

Science and technology can only take us so far. Ultimately nothing changes until people and politicians’ thought processes change, and no number of sound technical fixes will work if people refuse to believe in their benefits and change their behavior. And for doing this we need not chemists and physicists but psychologists and sociologists. I humbly suggest that the Lindau meeting should henceforth make sessions with psychologists an integral part of its agenda.

Auch Lehrer können euphorisch sein

und sind auch begeisterte Forscher sowie Experimentatoren.

Lindau 04.07.2013

Aber jetzt erst einmal von Anfang an:
Ja gestern war wohl der turbulenteste Tag meines bisherigen Reporterlebens.
Ich stand sehr früh auf -obwohl ich kein ‚Scientific Breakfast‘ hatte- und war um Punkt 8.30 Uhr in unserem Konferenzgebäude in der Lobb, wo ich wie üblich für eines der vereinbarten Interviews vor dem ‚Laureate Desk‘ wartete. 8.40 Uhr erblickt mich ein Orga-Mitglied und fragt, ob mein Interview mit Prof. Brian Kobilka gut war. Erstaunt sage ich, dass ich noch warte und vernehme promt ein leises F…; da steht doch wirklich auf meiner ‚persönlichen Agenda für Aktionen und Interviews‘, dass ich bei Brian Kobilski in der Hotellobby sein sollte. Da aber die Organisation hier exzellent ist, war das F… und mein Ärger über mich auch schon wieder vergessen und ich bekam freundlicherweise einen neuen Termin um 14 Uhr.

Aber ein Titel bleibt an mir jetzt wohl hängen: Der Nobelpreis-Versetzer.
So wie er es mir später sagte, steht er sowieso früh auf um ‚Lindau am Morgen‘ zu erleben und so war sein Groll auch nicht ganz so groß.

Naja, ich ging dann in den Vortrag von Mario J. Molina – schliesslich komme ich aus der Umweltanalytik – und anschließend gleich wieder an das ‚Laureate Desk‘, um meinen nächsten Interviewpartner zu treffen. Vierzig Minuten später war klar, dass nun ich wohl versetzt worden bin, eine Verwechslung im Terminkalender (kann ja mal passieren).

So durcheinander der Vormittag auch begann, umso toller wurde dann der Nachmittag. Denn um 14 Uhr hatte ich ein Gespräch mit Brian Kobilka über seine Erfahrungen aus jungen Tagen und der Situation seit einem halben Jahr als ‚Mann des öffentlichen Lebens‘ und um 15 Uhr ein ebenso spannendes Gespräch mit Kurt Wüthrich über seine Erfahrungen aus jungen Tagen und Anderes. – Interviewberichte folgen in Kürze-.

Teaching Spirit 2013 Mittagessen

Zudem waren Kurt Wüthrich ebenso wie Richard Ernst und Gerhard Ertl zum Mittagessen im IMPULSPROGRAMM „TEACHING SPIRIT“ mit 22 Lehrern geladen. Und ich war dabei, um als bloggender Autor vom Teaching Spirit zu berichten.

Teaching Spirit 2013 Mittagessen

Auf dem Programm standen neben den Vorträgen der Nobelpreisträger  am Vormittag und dem Mittagessen die Einführung in die Lindauer Nobelpreisträger Mediathek sowie ein Vortrag und Workshop des IPN – Leibnitz-Institut für Pädagogik der Naturwissenschaften und Mathematik.

Beim Mittagessen waren die Nobelpreisträger über die lange Tafel verteilt und unterhielten sich angeregt mit den Lehrern. Fast hatte es den Anschein als wären da keine Lehrer sondern junge Wissenschaftler.

Dieser Enthusiasmus hielt sich auch dann noch als für die Lehrer das Seminar begann und die Nobelpreisträger wieder mit den schwarzen Autos abgeholt wurden.

Teaching Spirit 2013 Seminar


Teaching Spirit Seminar Experimente 1

Anschliessend wurde fleissig experimentiert und diskutiert; wie den Bildern zu entnehmen mit viel forscherischem Fleiß.

Ich finde es eine tolle Sache, dass Lehrer mit dieser Veranstaltung geehrt werden, das ist es auf jeden Fall Wert weitergeführt zu werden, damit Lehrer ihre Motivation zu forschen und experimentieren noch erhöhen können.

Teaching Spirit 2013 Experimente 2




[hr] Eine Reihe der Berichterstattungen von Florian Freistetter und Joachim Pietzsch aus dem letzten Jahr gibt einen ausführliches Überblick von ‚Teaching Spirit‘ in 2012:

Sehr empfehlenswert.

Núria’s Video Blog Post 2013

In today’s Lindau Video blog, Núria Sancho Oltra of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne explores the many aspects of learning at Lindau – what researchers learn from the Laureates, from each other and what learning at Lindau will mean for their ongoing research.

More videos by attendees at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2013

Statements by Lindau’s 2013 Video Bloggers

Avram Hershko’s lessons for doing good science

Avram Hershko at Lindau

Avram Hershko – an amiable, mild-mannered Israeli biochemist – shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his co-discovery of the body’s protein waste disposal system along with Aaron Ciechanover and Irwin Rose. At Lindau Hershko delivered a succinct summary of the discovery of ubiquitin – a protein that essentially tags unwanted and defective proteins and transports them for recycling and destruction to an efficient molecular compactor called the proteasome.

But it was Hershko’s list of lessons for being a good scientist at the end that really caught my attention and that I thought provided a cogent and general offering of advice for young scientists. Here’s his slide:

Hershko’s lessons for doing good science

Valuable lessons, every one of them.

1. Let’s start with the first, the importance of having good mentors: This touches on my thoughts in a previous post on the verbal tradition that has been such an integral part of the training of young scientists for centuries. The responsibility of a mentor goes far beyond simply providing scientific advice and facts. A truly valuable mentor inspires through his passion for science, his uniquely idiosyncratic way of thinking, the informal teaching that goes on outside the lab or classroom, his general interactions with students and colleagues and his guidance for future career directions.

When I was in graduate school I was blessed to have two mentors who were not just world-class scientists but also warm and thoroughly decent human beings. The human lessons I learnt from them – treat everyone from an undergraduate student to a Nobel Laureate with the same degree of respect, make sure that your co-workers and students are acknowledged, give yourself and others the freedom to explore your ideas – perhaps surpass even the very valuable scientific lessons that I imbibed. I continue to be rewarded with outstanding mentors who inspire both scientifically and otherwise, and it is these people who often provide bright spots of light that help me tide over the ups and downs of research which inevitably dot the everyday landscape of science. There is little doubt that a good or bad mentor can make or break your career.

2. Wade through yet uncharted waters that are still shallow enough to navigate: This is another important lesson which echoes through the careers of world-famous scientists. Linus Pauling provides a good example. In the 1920s Pauling travelled to the great centers of physics research in Europe to learn the new revolutionary theory of quantum mechanics. There he met formidable thinkers like Heisenberg, Pauli and Dirac, scientists who were his own age but who had already done Nobel Prize winning work. Pauling was an excellent mathematician, but his skills were surpassed by the mathematical sophistication of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. Pauling wisely realized that while he probably would not be as great a theoretical physicist as Heisenberg or Dirac, he could apply the principles of quantum mechanics to chemistry, a field that was still virgin territory and had few wooers. The rest is history; Pauling provided the first modern theory of chemical bonding and revolutionized chemistry.

But the key lesson to recognize here is the value of applying talents which may not be superlative in one field but which may be unique in another. Pauling’s mathematical sophistication may have been found wanting in theoretical physics, but it was more than adequate to revolutionize chemistry. Pauling’s approach should teach something critical to young students: Identify a field of science where your particular talents have yet to be applied. If you are a mathematician, work in biology and not theoretical physics. If you are a computer scientist, work in neuroscience and not computer science. You are much more likely to make unique contributions to a field where your specific brand of knowledge has still not made a dent.

3. Serendipity: While the value of serendipity in science has almost become a cliche, what is less appreciated is the value of persistence in improving the probability of making a serendipitous observation. When we interviewed 2012 Nobel Laureate Brian Kobilka yesterday, we asked him how he could have possibly hit upon the idea of using antibodies from llamas, of all animals, to stabilize the proteins whose structures got him the prize. Kobilka’s reply was that before he tried llama antibodies, he was already trying out antibodies from virtually every animal, including chickens. Thus, not only was he well-versed with the literature on antibody stabilization of proteins, but he had also made his interest in the technique widely known among friends and colleagues. Thus when he ran into a colleague who was experimenting with llama antibodies at a Gordon Research Conference, his mind was already primed to seize upon the idea. Alexander Fleming’s quip about chance favoring the prepared mind is also a cliche, but it is still exemplified every day by outstanding scientists like Brian Kobilka. Kobilka’s approach also exemplified Pauling’s pithy advice: “To have a good idea, first have a lot of ideas”.

4. Do what is necessary rather than what sounds cool: The value of this lesson in today’s age of technological obsession cannot be overemphasized, and I predict that it will become even more important as we keep on falling in love with the latest technological tools. In his new book, the Russian-born American writer Evgeny Morozov calls this fondness to harness particular technologies mainly because they are available and look attractive as “technological solutionism”. Hershko is in part warning against technological solutionism in the progress of basic science.

A few months ago I wrote about an article by Michael Yaffe of MIT who criticized the use of genetic sequencing tools to address cancer simply because they are increasingly cheap, easily available and fashionable. Hershko’s advice is similar: Don’t use the most state-of-the-art technology to approach a problem simply because it is state-of-the-art. Instead do a careful investigation of available techniques and use that which is most likely to yield results, no matter how primitive or elementary it may seem. The chemist Harry Gray once deflated the results of a sophisticated investigation by simply asking what the color of the resulting compound was, validating the value of that most elementary of all techniques – visual inspection. The 2010 Nobel Prize in physics provides another example of the primacy of primitive techniques; it was awarded to physicists who isolated and studied graphene by using a version of Scotch tape.

Hershko and others’ advice is clear: Don’t be technique-oriented, instead be problem-oriented.

5. Curiosity drives everything: Many Nobel Laureates in this year’s Lindau meeting have driven home the great dividends that curiosity-based research has paid in the annals of scientific discovery. Sadly the current environment of funding in both academia and industry has denigrated curiosity-driven research at the cost of research with immediate practical benefits, unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that the latter critically depends on the former. Fortunately the young minds at Lindau this year have not yet been marred by the mandates of funding overlords, and we can only hope that they will follow their hearts and do what they find exciting rather than what others find practical.

6. Doing is more important than talking and thinking: If we were to rate scientists by the ratio of words said or written to importance of discoveries made, Fred Sanger would undoubtedly be the greatest scientist of all time. The intensely quiet and self-effacing Sanger has been a scientist’s scientist, working obsessively at the bench for three decades and winning two Nobel Prizes for what are undoubtedly two of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century – protein sequencing and DNA sequencing. In the only memoir he ever wrote, a perspective in Annual Reviews of Biochemistry in 1988, Sanger said that “of the three activities of thinking, talking and doing, I am best at the last one”. While working at the bench until the end of one’s career is not a prerequisite for doing great science, many of the best scientists exemplify this tradition. Hershko himself still works at the bench, and so did Max Perutz who was literally working in the lab until the last day of his life. Even if you are not actually working at the bench, it is still wise to stay in touch with the nuts and bolts of science since it is after all these that make the great machine hum. Amazingly, for all his spectacular achievements and absolute dedication to actually doing science, Sanger retired in the 80s and has since spent his days quietly tending his rose garden. For him it was all in a day’s work; loose ends wrapped up, and two Nobel Prizes in the bag.

Edson’s Video Blog Lindau 2013

In today’s Lindau Video Blog, Edson Medeiros Filho of the University of Chieti-Pescara, Italy explores three aspects of the theme “Connect” … learning what “connecting” is all about at Lindau, the best methods to make connections among the researchers and Laureates, and finding out why getting connected is important both in science, and in life.[hr]

More videos by attendees at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2013

Statements by Lindau’s 2013 Video Bloggers