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.

Casey Schwarz’ nominator for the Meeting

The University of Central Florida nominated Video Diarist Casey Schwartz to attend the 62nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (Physics). Dr. Elena Flitsiyan of the Department of Physics explains why the interaction between generations of scientists at the Lindau Nobel meeting is important for the University of Central Florida and for young researchers like Casey. Continue reading