Published 1 July 2010 by Akshat Rathi
Alexander von Humboldt dinner at Lindau
‘Welcome to the dinner everyone. We are very lucky to have the highest density of Nobel laureates in any of the parallel academic dinners happening tonight’, announced Prof. Michael Schreiber the host for the grand dinner. We had 7 Nobel laureates and 11 young researchers who had been invited by the Alexander von Humboldt foundation at the Valentin restaurant on the Isle of Lindau.
‘The Humboldt foundation provides fellowships for young researchers from around the world to come to Germany for work and vice-versa. It also provides fellowships quite flexible funding to senior researchers. This dinner is for the Humboldtians to meet and for non-Humboldtians to be inspired to apply for this prestigious fellowship’, continued Prof. Schreiber. After this short introduction, we all got drinks and sat down. Almost all of us had at least one Nobel laureate sitting besides us.
My first Nobel encounter was with Rudolph Marcus (Chemistry Nobel 1992) who proved to be a remarkably humble man. Marcus received the Nobel Prize for his work on the electron transfer theory which explained numerous reactions in biological systems like photosynthesis, respiration, and detoxification routes amongst others. He came a few minutes after I arrived and found an empty seat beside me and within a few minutes the four students around him had made their introductions. What followed were funny stories about all the places that the students came from. He seemed to be a very well travelled gentleman. He probed me on the origin of the names of Indian metro cities and asked about the official status of Catalan to a Spanish student from Catalonia.
He has maintained a research group of only six people including postdocs throughout his research career spanning more than 50 years. He felt that as a theoretician he needed more time to think and do his work rather than take on administrative load due to more students. He spoke of his students with passion and knew exactly where who was. He shared one story which went on to show his humility. “I had an Indian student who graduated two years back. This man was remarkable because he was always full of ideas. He always had more in store than anyone in the group. One day I asked him about how did he do that and his reply was so simple: he read the literature from common journals every morning.” A Nobel laureate being amazed by how many ideas his graduate student had and willing to share this story? It epitomises humility for me.
After the main course, Nicolaas Bloembergen (Physics Nobel 1981 for laser spectroscopy) approached Marcus and asked him if he would like to exchange seats with him ‘because others had’. No longer did he take his seat did he begin talking about the four months he had spent in the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore. “It was such a beautiful place with tall trees. During that time I also had a position in the Indian Institute of Science but I enjoyed the Raman campus much more.” He said he travelled through Kashmir despite the unrest after the war. “From Kashmir to Bhubaneshwar to Trivandrum & Madurai, we enjoyed travelling in India.”
Later on in the dinner I got a chance to talk to Sir John Walker (Chemistry Nobel 1997 for the understanding of the working of ATP synthase) who proved to be a typical Englishman especially a branded product of Oxbridge education. Of course he knew all about my supervisor and my college, but more importantly, I took this opportunity to discuss with him some issues related to science in the UK. His worry about the science funding was as real as that of any scientist in the UK. “Had we not funded the trident programme, we would not have to worry about science funding.” I could not agree less and I went on to ask about how scientists’ play a role in promoting world peace. He pointed towards Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Medicine Nobel 2008 for the discovery of HIV) and said “We should cure the diseases in the third world countries. I am myself involved in some tuberculosis research.”
Barré-Sinoussi had a superbly thick French accent which was a little hard to grasp, especially because she was speaking really fast (you may read more about her lecture at Lindau here). She narrated her most recent encounter with Indian agencies and it proved to be the sad old story. Negotiations began and lasted two years, at the end it was decided that the project will only go forward if the Indian counterparts are able to put in the place certain things by the end of six months. “They could not and I felt sad because the Indian scientists were brilliant but were let down by bureaucracy and corruption.” After exchanging a few more thoughts on science the laureates left as it was a little after 10.30 pm.
I spent the rest of the evening with an organic chemist Kerrie Austin, a New Zealander who is doing her postdoc at the Munich Technical University. We shared our fascinations and frustrations for this field and it was quite relaxing to not have had the ‘slight’ pressure I had while the laureates were around. Before we called it a night, Prof. Schreiber having read my blogger profile offered me some ice-cream. Of course I could not deny the offer but to our bad luck no place that served ice-cream was open.
It was quite an experience to be in the company of so many laureates and discuss everything from research to science policy to travelling to recipes. I don’t think I would get this opportunity any time soon and would like to thank the Humboldt foundation for the invitation.