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.

#LiNo16: A Retrospective

The 2016 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting was a  week full of knowledge, experiences, fun moments, and inspiring people.



Photo: Irene Alda

It was great to receive tips from David Gross (discovery of asymptotic freedom, 2004) on being creative: be interested in more things outside physics; and dealing with frustration: work always with more than one problem at a time. Although not surprising, did you know who his favorite Nobel Laureate is? It’s Albert Einstein. I loved that Kurt Würthrich (developed NMR, 2002) used to practice high jump (there is a picture on Nature 520, 2015) and that Bill Phillip’s (laser cooling, 1997) secret to happy life is a positive attitude and finding balance in the different phases of your life. His description of a good day: “a good day is when I learn something new”.  One of the most shocking things I learned at the meeting was that we burn 50-75 of ATP daily, pretty rad, right? On a day-to-day level, we learned that a great way to organize workload is Eisenhower’s urgent and important principle.


“Scientists are the grown ups that remain as curious about the world as when they were children” – Carl E. Wieman (first BEC, 2001).



Klaus von Klitzing during his lecture. Photo: Irene Alda

It was unique to see the more “human” side of such bright and inspiring scientists. Stefan W. Hell (developed super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, 2014) was motivated to break the diffraction limit and wanted to do something that would be useful for future generations; and Klaus von Klitzing’s (discovery of integer quantum Hall effect, 1985)  three things you need to get a Nobel prize are: to cross lake Constance, eat chocolate, and buy yourself a Nobel prize medal (which you could go touch if you asked him). And did you know that George F. Smoot (discovery of black body form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation, 2006) appeared on the TV series the Big Bang Theory?

We discussed how the metrics (h-index, etc) in Science are needed and dangerous. Oh, and not to get frustrated if you are initiating a field: it is hard to publish in high-impact journals.


“If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research” – Brian P. Schmidt (evidence of accelerated expansion of the Universe, 2011).


One of the big tasks for science is to improve teaching and education in physics. I’ve been fortunate to see different teaching methods and in Spain we need to address many issues. Some books recommendations by Carl E. Wieman are “How learning works” and “How people learn”. In the last the discussion of the meeting there were 4 conclusions about improving education in science: to motivate and pay teachers well (primary and secondary levels), to promote science via the media (government back up),  to inspire leaders to start the change, and to develop a good mentoring system so the student can study at home and go back to the professor with questions.


“Every scientist should have a secret garden” – Martin Karplus (development of multi-scale models for complex chemical systems, 2013).


#LiNo16 last day took place on Mainau Island. Irene took the chance to visit the island's butterfly exhibit. Apparently, butterflies like science, too. Photo: Irene Alda

#LiNo16 last day took place on Mainau Island. Irene took the chance to visit the island’s butterfly exhibit. Apparently, butterflies like science, too. Photo: Irene Alda

The social aspect was amazing. I got to meet so many different and unique minds. It’s outstanding and beautiful to be surrounded by such diversity. The peak moment for the week for me was on the trip back from Mainau island when we all danced “The Macarena” (I think that dancing is one of the best ways to let go).

Attending to this meeting has been a continuous exposure to be “wowed”.

8 Female #LiNo16 Participants that will convince you to apply for a future Lindau Meeting

The 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (26 June – 1 July 2016) dedicated to the field of physics is over, but the planning of the next Lindau Meeting has already started. Here you can find several impressions of young women in physics who participated in #LiNo16.

Hopefully they will convince you to apply for next years’s 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (dedicated to chemistry) taking place from 25 to 30 June 2017.


Winifred Ayinpogbilla Atiah, 25, from Ghana

Winifred (second from left) with Nobel Laureates

Winifred (second from left) with Nobel Laureates Daniel Shechtman (second from right) and Martin Karplus (center)

My experience at the Lindau Nobel-Laureate Meeting is one I term as an unforgettable experience. First and foremost the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting afforded me an opportunity to having a one-to-one interaction with Nobel Laureates I only before saw on the internet and also meeting with colleagues who are working similar or close to my research study. I loved the exposure, the atmosphere and the discussions so much. I had the opportunity to be involved in panel discussions and attended the leadership breakfast meeting which has really enlightened me in various prospects. In summary: The LNLM is a must go meeting.

I encourage young women who have no knowledge of this meeting to attend because this meeting opens many opportunities for you as a young women in research to broaden your horizons in diverse ways and also help broaden your networks.

Read more about Winifred.


Ana Isabel Maldonado Cid, 30, from Spain

Ana at the harbor in Lindau

Ana at the harbor in Lindau

The 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting has been an extremely good opportunity to meet excellent scientists at all levels, ranging from Nobel Laureates to undergraduate students.

I’ve had the pleasure to meet and discuss with some of the Laureates. I’ve also had the opportunity to talk a bit with Prof. Klaus von Klitzing, who is now working at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, where I have worked as a postdoctoral researcher about a year and a half ago. I also found it very inspiring to talk to Prof. Brian P. Schmidt about science leadership and to Prof. Carl E. Wieman about teaching in university.

Of course, the talks, panels and discussions with the laureates were all very interesting as they dealed with very important aspects of science, such as gender. In particular, I had a very good experience when participating in the press talk about migration and science presented by Physics World. I believe that through the exchange of experiences with the laureates in chemistry, Professors Dan Schechtman and Martin Karplus, I’ve learned a lot.

I also had the real pleasure to meet and talk not only about science, but about life itself, with many of the selected young scientists who were attending the meeting last week. I think I have made many new friends and I hope I will be able to stay in touch with them from now on.

In conclusion, attending to this Meeting has been an intense and wonderful professional and personal experience for me and that’s why I strongly encourage other women in science to apply for attending to it.

Read more about Ana.


Katarzyna Tych, 29, from the U.K.

Katarzyna Tych (second from right) with other #LiNo16 participants and Nobel Laureate Kurt Wüthrich (second from left) in a German beer garden

Katarzyna (second from right) with other #LiNo16 participants and Nobel Laureate Kurt Wüthrich (second from left) in a German beer garden

Before attending the meeting, I was excited and a little nervous, unsure as to whether I would have the confidence to speak to any Nobel Laureates – or even have the opportunity to do so. I knew that I would see some incredible lectures, and I hoped that I might meet some fellow young scientists and learn some new science.

As it turned out, the meeting vastly exceeded my expectations. From day one, everybody was so friendly and open – introducing themselves, asking about each other’s work, keen to learn and make new friends – and this led to a really warm and engaging atmosphere. We had many opportunities to speak with Nobel Laureates, in a relaxed and informal setting, which made it much less intimidating to do so, and meant that we could learn a lot from these inspiring people.

One of the great things about the meeting, that many people remarked upon, was that we had the impression that female participants were well represented. This meant that we had the opportunity to speak to many other women in science, share our experiences, and discuss how to encourage more women to go into the physical sciences.  This made us feel more welcome, and more confident in our positions as female scientists. 

Read more about Katarzyna.


Charlotta Lorenz, 22, from Germany

Charlotta Lorenz

Charlotta with Nobel Laureate Johann Deisenhofer in Lindau

When I arrived in Lindau I knew the conference was a huge event, but it took me a week to realize that I felt like everybody could just stay another week to get to know all the participants I had not met and to talk even more to those ones I had just met. But everybody was already exhausted from the great, but full program, so that it’s good that we got a rest.

It’s hard to name one moment as the most memorable one; I guess it’s more the “Lindau spirit”, i. e., many highly motivated and interested young people and Nobel Laureates at the same place exchanging research ideas, but also general, society-concerning thoughts.

During one dinner I sat next to Johann Deisenhofer and we talked about research, the American society and many other topics. Another young researcher worked on the same setup I am going to work on, so I was happy to hear a talk from her during one of the master classes. But it also turned out that there are many parallels between different specializations, e.g. image processing in bio- and astrophysics.

I can only encourage women to apply to the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings as there will be many other women with the same motivations, interests and future plans. It’s very inspiring to talk to everybody and share experiences!

Read more about Charlotta.


Irene Alda, 23, from Spain

Irene Alda (second from right) with new #LiNo16 friends

Irene (second from right) with new #LiNo16 friends on Mainau Island

The 2016 Lindau Nobel Meeting was a  week full of knowledge, experiences,  fun moments, and inspiring people. It was great to receive tips from David Gross on being creative: be interested in more things outside physics; and dealing with frustration: work always with more than one problem at a time. Or seeing that  Kurt Würthrich used to practice high jump and that Bill Phillip’s secret to happy life is a positive attitude and finding balance in the different phases of your life.

Everyone should apply to this meeting: be ready to be “wowed”! Perhaps, because of how society shapes “our thoughts and beliefs”, there are less women in Physics: women should definitely apply. In most cultures it is difficult to find women in Physics (compared to other fields like Biology or Medicine). Events like these are inspiring and give you energy to achieve whatever you set your mind to.

Read more about Irene.


Ayesha Azez, 24, from Pakistan

Ayesha Azez (left) with Nobel Laureate William Phillips on Mainau Island

Ayesha (left) with Nobel Laureate William Phillips on Mainau Island

When it comes to describing my impressions of the meetings, I believe I’m now more educated, inspired and motivated by the work of Nobel Laureates and was able to make a lot of connections with other young scientists doing some exciting science. 

My favorite Nobel Laureate at the meeting was William D. Phillips, in every coffee break both me and my friend were looking for him to talk. Most of the time he was already talking to some students and we just stood there and listened to him. Sometimes, we as students feel like our questions are kind of stupid and not worth asking a Nobel Laureate but I was very impressed by his behavior that no matter what type of question we asked, he always had an answer and sometimes even a quite detailed one. We just needed to stand near him and felt like a river of knowledge is flowing. 

And this was not only with Prof. Phillips but I felt this with every Nobel Laureate. In general, every time I listened or talked to a Nobel Laureate it was a moment worth remembering. 

The Bavarian evening was an unforgettable night obviously, so many beautiful people wearing their cultural dresses. Countess Bettina gave me a Thumbs Up for my dress which I can’t forget. 

Although women do study science but not many of them get a PhD and pursue their carrier as a scientist. I think women should apply and attend these meetings if they get a chance and I would recommend all my friends and class fellows to apply for this meeting. I personally didn’t feel myself to be tooo important for science before attending this meeting. But at the meeting everyone was talking about the importance of Women in Science. I found the atmosphere so inspiring and encouraging there. 

Read more about Ayesha.


Lola Fariñas, 29, from Spain

Lola with a Nobel Prize Medal in Lindau

Lola with a Nobel Prize Medal in Lindau

In my daily life, I am mostly surrounded by people who work in industry, education, restoration, consulting, etc. Being a PhD student in my world is not very common. As years go by, and more people ask me THE QUESTION: “this weird thing you are doing your PhD in… what is it for?” I become more skeptic about my career and my future. Many times during these past years doing my PhD, I experienced this feeling of rarity and discouraging solitude. Having the chance to attend the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting was the perfect medicine to fight against these thoughts. That’s why I really want to encourage you – young scientist – to apply for this event.

If you are lucky enough, you’ll have the chance to meet hundreds of people like you, who feel really passionate for what they do and look at your research with curiosity and empathy. Also, you will meet a bunch of inspiring people who won a Nobel Prize (You’ll even be able to drink some beers with them, like if they were your buddies!).

And all these things will happen during one week in a scenic city where you’ll be treated as someone kind of important. To sum it up, I can assure you that you will hardly have such an amazing opportunity like this again. Please, don’t let a little bit of paperwork stop you from enjoying it.

Read more about Lola.


Lena Funcke, 21, from Germany

#LiNo16 participates Lena Funcke (right) and Christiane Lorenz (left) at the harbor of Lindau

#LiNo16 participates Lena (right) and Christiane Lorenz (left) at the harbor of Lindau

Might quantum mechanics emerge from an underlying deterministic theory and what is the physics behind soap bubbles? Which challenges are presidents of universities or large science societies faced with? What motivates the greatest minds of contemporary physics to do research?

The six days I spent in Lindau gave me an exciting insight into fundamental issues like these and many more. The lectures in the morning and the discussion sessions in the afternoon dealt with various topics ranging from physics, politics, personal anecdotes, and science education to tips for becoming a good scientist. In addition, the meeting comprised several informal events such as an international get-together in Austria, a dinner organized for the fellows of the Max Planck Society, and a boat trip to the flower island Mainau. These events gave me a platform for inspiring personal discussions with the Laureates and other young scientists.

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting offers a unique possibility to informally meet some of the best researchers of our current science community. It gives you exceptional insights into specific scientific debates and into the complex development of scientific knowledge.

Apart from these general points, the meeting can also be very stimulating for your own research. For example, I was given the chance to present a poster about my own work and also approached several Nobel Laureates to discuss specific questions related to my research. The discussions with Laureates like Arthur McDonald, Brian Schmidt, and Gerardus ‘t Hooft and with other young scientists gave me new research ideas and even resulted in a new collaboration. Therefore, I strongly recommend everyone to apply for this meeting, whose guiding principle “Educate. Inspire. Connect.” hits the nail on the head!

Read more about Lena.


If thoses statements are not inspiring and convincing enough to make you apply for the next Lindau Meeting, just look at the last photo of this post with the beautiful harbor of Lindau, then grab a pen to fill out the application form!

See you in Lindau next year! :-)

Lindau Harbor

What is Coherent Light?

Since I started my PhD, 11 years ago, I have been collaborating with different laboratories all around the world with one objective in mind: creating a table-top, intense source of coherent X-rays. X ray sources are well known since its discovery by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895. We use them in medicine (radiography and CT scan), airport security, material science (the structure of DNA was discovered thanks to an X-ray image) and even to unveil the secrets of the universe: the Chandra X-ray observatory is a satellite that takes images of the X-rays emitted by supernovae, neutron stars and black holes.

If we know how to build intense X-ray sources and apply them, why do we continue funding research in the field? Let me answer this question in two sentences: All the previous examples make use of what is called incoherent X-rays. If we manage to create intense, coherent X-rays we will be able to make images of diminute objects, of the order of several nanometres like viruses or proteins (1 nanometre = 0,000 000 001 metre) and in times of the order of femtosecond or even attoseconds (1 femtosecond = 0,000 000 000 000 001 second; 1 attosecond = 0,000 000 000 000 000 001 second).

So, what does mean coherent? I will use an analogy that came to my mind reading René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo comic “Astérix chez les Belges” (Asterix in Belgium) [1] to explain this. As you probably know, the light and thus the X-rays can be thought to be composed by particles known as photons. We will represent each photon by characters of the comic.

The last battle of the comic between the Belgian and the Romans takes place at Waterloo. We can think of the Belgian as being incoherent photons. They run in a loosely defined direction (towards the Romans) so they steadily spread through the battlefield. Moreover, when running, each Belgian does not care of the rest when deciding its direction or speed.


Fig 1. Attila and his Huns posing as incoherent Belgian photons running towards the Romans. Picture photographed by iStock.com/Craig Mc Causland

Fig 1. Attila and his Huns posing as incoherent Belgian photons running towards the Romans. Picture photographed by iStock.com/Craig Mc Causland

Still, these Belgians can do a lot of things. For example, we can use them to detect where in the battlefield are the Roman legionaries. The technique is simple: We stay in the other side of the battlefield, so the Belgians are running towards us. When a Belgian finds a Roman legionary, he stops to give him a bash. If no Roman legionary is in his path, the Belgian continues running. Now, we only have to count where and how many Belgians arrived at the end of the battlefield. The places where no or fewer Belgians arrived are the places where Roman legionaries were in the battlefield. We just achieved a projection at the end of the battlefield of the position of Roman legionaries, just in the same way as a radiography is done. This method has two drawbacks. If a bunch of Belgians stop to bash some Roman legionaries and consequently do not arrive at the end of the battlefield, some Belgians can arrive at these points, since they do not run parallel to each other. Thus, we find some Belgians in a place where no one should have arrived. We will think that in that place there were less Roman legionaries than in reality and the image will be blurred. The second drawback is that we cannot use this method to detect small things. For example, if some Belgian find in their path a shallow pond or marsh, they will continue running in the same direction. We will detect the same pattern of Belgians at the end of the battlefield, whether the pond or the marsh is there or not. We cannot detect it.

On the other hand, Roman legions are a well trained army under the command of one of the best strategist the mankind has known: Julius Caesar. The roman legions move in an ordered way. The relative position, direction and speed of one Roman legionary is the same as the others, even at the further end of the army. Roman legionaries can be thought as being coherent photons.


Fig 2. Coherent Roman legionaries marching towards the Belgians. Photo: iStock.com/1001nights

Fig 2. Coherent Roman legionaries marching towards the Belgians. Photo: iStock.com/1001nights

When they find some Belgians, some Romans will stop to combat them, while the rest will continue marching  with different patterns so they can surround the Belgians, help other Roman legionaries or even take some military objectives in the battlefield. These patterns depend on the orders that Julius Caesar gave to the legionaries. We can think of the orders that each legionary received as the phase of the photon. If we place ourselves at the other end of the battlefield and count where and how many Roman legionaries arrived, we will find a complicated pattern that cannot be directly related to the position of Belgians and obstacles in the battlefield. But, if somehow we know the orders given by Julius Caesar, the phase of each photon, we can trace back all the movements of all the Roman legionaries, finding where in the battlefield were the Belgian and even small obstacles as marshes and ponds. We will have an image with much higher resolution and detail but at the cost that we have to somehow guess Julius Caesar’s orders. This can be done iteratively: we can guess some inital orders, trace back the movements of the legionaries and use the information we have (i.e. the Belgians and the obstacles must be inside the battlefield) to guess some new initial orders. If we do it correctly, we will have an image of the distribution of Belgians and obstacles in the battlefield.

Moreover, since Roman legionaries are perfectly ordered and move at a constant velocity, we can use them to measure distances (by counting the number of Roman legionaries from one point to another) and time intervals (roughly, by counting how many Roman legionaries pass through one point and dividing it by their velocity). Something similar but more complicated has been used recently to detect gravitational waves at the LIGO experiment [2]. Coherent (almost) light propagated through 4 km of vacuum chambers to interfere (i.e. to form the complex pattern induced by the phase of each photon) and measure distances 10,000 smaller than an atomic nucleus!

These two cases, totally incoherent and coherent photons are extreme cases. In the real world, light and Roman legionaries are partially coherent. When commanded by centurions instead of the great strategist Julius Caesar, the orders are not so clear and sometimes different groups of Roman legionaries follow different orders. Since each legionary in a group is following the same orders as the others in the same group, they are coherent between them, but not with other groups that follow different orders. Still, we can apply the same methods used in the case of coherent light to make images with  partially coherent light.


Fig 3. Partially coherent Roman legionaries, following different orders: while at the left of the image the Roman legionaires are tightly packed, the ones at the right seem to have orders of forming groups of two. Photo: iStock.com/Sue Colvil

Fig 3. Partially coherent Roman legionaries, following different orders: while at the left of the image the Roman legionaires are tightly packed, the ones at the right seem to have orders of forming groups of two. Photo: iStock.com/Sue Colvil

In conclusion, Julius Caesar military successess were possible thanks to a well organized army capable of following complex strategies. In the same way, we want to use coherent light because we can obtain better resolved images of small objects, as virus and proteins and measure short distances with an inconceivable precision.



[1] R. Goscinny, A. Uderzo Astérix chez les Belges

[2] https://www.ligo.caltech.edu

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.

Carl Wieman: Teaching Science More Effectively

In the late 1980s when Carl Wieman was conducting his research at an atomic physics lab in Boulder, Colorado, he had many graduate students working in his lab. And repeatedly he would make the same observation: they came with excellent grades, had passed many physics courses and tests – but when given a research problem to work on, they were clueless how to proceed. They couldn’t think like scientists, i.e. they couldn’t break problems down, weren’t able to evaluate data, couldn’t question their own assumptions, etc. But “after just a few years of working in my research lab, interacting with me and the other students, they were transformed. I’d suddenly realize they were now expert physicists, genuine colleagues,” Wieman writes in his own blog on teaching science.

A passionate researcher by nature, Wieman was so puzzled by this persistent phenomenon that he approached it like any other research problem. One preliminary explanation he and his colleagues came up with was the ‘butterfly model’: Maybe the brains of all graduate students had to pass through a 17-year caterpillar phase before it could spread its butterfly wings and fly. But this explanation neither satisfied Wieman’s inquisitive mind nor was is very scientific. That’s when he started to approach this phenomenon with scientific methods: teaching several groups of undergraduate students with different methods and testing the outcome with a standardized test.


Wieman during his 2016 lecture at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laurate Meeting in Lindau. He's just explainin how taking notes actually distracts students from following the lecture. Photo: LNLM

Wieman during his 2016 lecture at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laurate Meeting in Lindau. He’s just explaining how taking notes actually distracts students from following a lecture. He received the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics together with Eric Cornell for the first Bose-Einstein condensate. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nonel Laureate Meetings

Last week at the 66. Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Carl Wieman outlined some of his findings in his lecture. According to his studies, students have the best test results if they learn a subject at home for one hour with good material from their professor; the second best if they listen to a lecture but don’t take notes. Interestingly students who revert to the classical learning method of attending lectures plus taking notes have the worst test results. What first seems surprising gets clearer when we think about this for a moment: note taking means you have to concentrate on at least two things at the same time: on the production of the notes (and their content will always lag behind the lecture) plus trying to follow the lecture that is proceeding regardless of the note-takers’ pace. Wieman calls this situation ‘cognitive overload’: if you try to memorize too many things simultaneously, in the end you will remeber very little.

Knowing this, it’s not surprising that Prof. Wieman and colleagues regularily encountered 50 percent drop-out rates from introductory science lectures, and over 10 percent failing rates of those who persisted. Furthermore, many students – among them many future teachers! – left college believing that physics and math were “uninteresting, irrelevant and unnecessarily hard to learn”, as Wieman writes in the New York Times. He continues: “After they take the typical undergraduate basic-science courses, they have more negative feelings toward the subjects than they did before.”

Wieman set out to change this: he donated his Nobel Prize money to his PhET initiative. In fact he had started to study ‘learning physics and how to improve it’ long before his Nobel prize, “it’s just that people didn’t pay attention to me until then,” he writes in Nature. From 2010-2012 he even served as associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He currently holds a joint appointment as Professor of Physics and of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.



After studying not only his own test results, but projects and tests from other researchers in the field of education psychology, Wieman designed a novel method to teach science: If students have to solve scientific problems in groups, discuss the tasks with each other and get frequent feedback from an instructor – they will start to think like scientists, they won’t drop out, and they will do much better in tests. “A key element involves instructors designing tasks where students witness real-world examples of how science works.” In his 2016 Lindau lecture Wieman explains that for building this kind of competence, “the brain needs to work really hard” to build up the relevant synapses – just reading notes isn’t enough for that. It’s like “building up a muscle”.

Teaching science in a way that basic concepts and approaches are understood and can be applied in various contexts isn’t only crucial for having better researchers in the future. “We need a more scientifically literate populace,” Wieman writes in a 2007 article, “to address the global challenges that humanity now faces and that only science can explain and possibly mitigate, such as global warming, as well as to make wise decisions, informed by scientific understanding, about issues such as genetic modification.” So teaching better science to a broader, more diverse population is also an inherently democratic approach to promote informed decision making, in contrast to political decision making that is mostly based on traditions or emotions.

The last event at the 2016 Lindau Meeting was the panel discussion ‘The Future of Education in Sciences’: Carl Wieman discussed his favourite subject with Nobel Laureates Dan Shechtman and Brian Schmidt on the beautiful Mainau island in Lake Constance, where Countess Bettina Bernadotte, Council President for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, grew up with her father, Count Lennart Bernadotte, one of the founders of the Lindau Meetings and also founder of the botanical gardens on the Mainau island.



#LiNo16 Daily Recap – Friday, 1 July 2016

On Friday, 1 July the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting concluded with the traditional boat trip to Mainau Island, home of the Bernadotte family.

Video of the day

All lectures available now!

Head over to the mediatheque and relive all of the wonderful lectures held by Nobel Laureates.

Picture of the day

Nobel Laureate Bill Phillips with young scientists during the picnic on Mainau Island. Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Nobel Laureate Bill Phillips with young scientists during the picnic on Mainau Island. Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting


Blog post of the day

To search for dark matter with the help of antimatter sounds like something from a science fiction movie. But that’s what the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer AMS was designed to do – the unique instrument is the brainchild of Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting.

Read article: How Positrons Can Help Explain the Universe

Tweets of the day

#LiNo16 Daily Recap: Thursday, 30 June

Please find below some of the highlights of Thursday, 30 June at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Video of the day:

Browse through our mediatheque for more videos of #LiNo16.


Blog post of the day:

“Scientists as modern nomads in a globalised scientific world” – The question facing individual countries is: brain drain or brain gain?


Picture of the day:

Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman has dedicated himself to improving the way natural sciences are taught. Here interacts with one of the young scientists participants from #LiNo16.

Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

For more pictures from the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, past and present, take a look at our Flickr-account.


Tweets of the day:

#LiNo16 Daily Recap, Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Please find below some of the highlights of Wednesday, 29 June at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.


Video of the day:

Browse through our mediatheque for more videos of #LiNo16!


Blog post of the day:

Large-scale quantum computing will change our lives as much as the internet revolution and cell phone revolution – when it materializes.

Read the article: “Quantum Computing: How, What, and Why”


Picture of the day:

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany’s premier broadsheet papers hosted a very interesting press talk on artificial intelligence.


66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, 29.06.2016, Lindau, Germany,  Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Participants of the press talk on artifical intelligence, from left to right: Yuan-sen Ting and Arrykrishna Mootoovaloo (young scientists), Turing-Award winner Vinton Cerf, Joachim Müller-Jung, head of the FAZ’s science/nature division, Prof. Rainer Blatt, 1 of 2 scientific chairmen of #LiNo16 and Mario Krenn from the Vienna Center for Quantum Science and Technology.

For more pictures from #LiNo16 take a look at our Flickr-account.


Tweets of the day:


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.