Published 12 July 2022 by Benjamin Skuse

Constellations of Nobel Laureates and Young Scientists

In anticipation of the Bavarian Evening

At a TedxBerkeley event a few years ago, science comedian Brian Malow (who also produces videos for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings) gave a talk equal parts funny and profound. “’Constellate’ is a real word, it’s in the dictionary, but no where else, no one’s used it in a sentence,” he joked, before using it in multiple sentences and basing his whole routine around the word. “It means to form or to cause to form into a cluster or a group – to gather together.”

‘Constellate’ is also an apt verb to describe what the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings do. The 71ˢᵗ Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting has constellated (hmm, maybe Brian was right – it does sound like a made-up word!) 32 Nobel Laureates and about 600 young scientists from 90 nations across the globe. Through Lectures, Panel Discussions, Agora Talks and Next Gen Science Sessions, the Meeting has provided a forum for exchange between Nobel Laureates and young scientists. But it is in between and after these formal sessions – during the coffee breaks, dinners and informal events – that the ‘constellating’ has been happening, where new professional networks and friendships have started to form.

A British Knees-up

Scottish musicians
British weather and scottish music in front of the “Inselhalle”

Monday 27 June’s International Get-Together, hosted by the United Kingdom, was a prime example. Greeted at the entrance to the Inselhalle by traditional British weather and Scottish music – performed by the First Leiblach Valley Pipes and Drums band from Austria, – Laureates and young scientists enjoyed an evening of English cuisine, brief talks from the likes of Sir Peter Bruce, Physical Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society, and a Sherlock Holmes play by the Bodensee Players, a German amateur theatre group that performs plays in the English language. The message from the night that the UK organisers clearly wanted to convey was that, despite Brexit, the UK remains inclusive, international and innovative when it comes to science.

Venki Ramakrishnan
Venki Ramakrishnan and a young scientist

“I would leave Brexit to the politicians and not let it interfere with scientific decisions,” remarked former President of the Royal Society Venki Ramakrishnan (2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry).

“The UK has several characteristics that make it a great place for science: one is that young scientists are allowed a great deal of independene – and this has really created a kind of tradition of innovation and creativity; another aspect is that it’s an amazingly international place to work.” But the talks and entertainment merely served as a backdrop for the true purpose of the event: providing a space where scientists from all over the world can meet and talk informally, where they can begin to constellate.

The Best of Bavaria

a traditional Schuhplattler folk dance
A traditional Schuhplattler folk dance

By the time of Thursday 30 June’s Interactive Bavarian Evening, many of these constellations had formed, others were about to bloom. As with the International Get-Together, the evening began with traditional music at the Inselhalle entrance, this time alpenhorns. Inside was complete Bavarian cultural immersion. Bavarian folk music from an accordion accompanied a traditional Schuhplattler folk dance by a troupe of dancers. Attendees ate Bavarian cuisine and drank Bavarian beer. And many German attendees were dressed in lederhosen or dirndls.

But looking a little closer, the traditional dress was not only from Bavaria – a huge diversity of people in varied attire from around the world were dotted around the room, including Countess Bettina Bernadotte, President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Malow, who was scheduled to host the Bavarian Evening for all online participants asked a number of young scientists in their culture’s customary dress about what they were wearing and their experience of Lindau.

“I think when someone asks me ‘what is the greatest days in your life?’, I will say to them the visit to the Lindau Meeting with the Nobel Laureates,” said Qaisar Khan from the University of Malakand, Pakistan, dressed in smart traditional Pashtun garments.

“I had a small tiny dream to wear this dress one day and when I heard that in Lindau people are inspired to wear their traditional dress, it was a big honour for me to represent not only my university here in Germany, but also my home country,” said Gaukhar Khassenova from the University of Münster, sporting colourful and intricate traditional Kazakh attire. “I have seen the Bavarian dress and national dress from many Asian countries and also from Africa – it’s a great event, scientifically and culturally.”

Away from the video cameras, those who had dressed up had the ideal conversation starter to chat with people from other parts of the world potentially working on similar scientific topics or facing similar challenges. Connections formed, constellations emerged.

And for those who didn’t dress up for the occasion? Well, there was still Bavarian beer to bond over. A tweet by Katerina Stefkova from Cardiff University in the UK summed up the spirit of togetherness many attendees drew from the event:

Shrinking the Distance

As with any event in these challenging times, the spectre of COVID-19 has hovered over the Meeting throughout. Malow was one of several speakers to deliver talks remotely, and around 100 young scientists could only participate from home.

Both Monday and Thursday’s evening events were streamed live for these participants, with an online space exclusively dedicated for them to chat and connect. In addition, several Online Open Exchange took place throughout the week via Zoom, and Tuesday evening’s event Networking Through Proactivity was dedicated solely to these attendees. The interactive Zoom workshop allowed remote young scientists to rapidly connect with each other in a fun and entertaining way.

Though these attendees unfortunately did not get to experience Lindau in person, the online programme at least gave them a flavour of the Lindau spirit, and hopefully provided them with the chance to start their own new constellations.

Benjamin Skuse

Benjamin Skuse is a professional freelance writer of all things science. In a previous life, he was an academic, earning a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and MSc in Science Communication. Now based in the West Country, UK, he aims to craft understandable, absorbing and persuasive narratives for all audiences – no matter how complex the subject matter. His work has appeared in New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Physics World and many more.