Published 9 June 2011

Treasures in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings Mediatheque

When I glossed over the list of Nobel laureates that attended the Lindau conferences in the first few decades, I was ashamed to discover that I only recognized a few. And when I did, it was rarely because I was familiar with the laureate or his work. I only knew the Nobel laureate Otto Warburg from the biochemical process that carries his name, for example (the Warburg effect).

These people are yesterday’s greatest scientists. They spent years uncovering the knowledge we now take for granted. And yet all I know of them today is what happens to be written in Wikipedia.

To remedy this lack of familiarity with past Nobel laureates, I turned to the Lindau Meetings’ Mediatheque, which you can find here. This Mediatheque holds a selected set of recordings, chosen from six decades worth of Nobel Laureate Meetings.  Most of the older lectures are available in audio only, but they still are well worth listening to.

Browsing the Mediatheque feels like rummaging through your grandmother’s attic, where you never know which treasures the next box might hold. One such surprising treasure was the Lindau lecture given by Ragnar Granit, in 1972.

In the crisp recording he comes across as a kind man with a sharp mind. This is in part because of his delightful British-Scandinavian accent, but even more so due to his carefully formulated thoughts on the nature of the scientific process, which still remain relevant today.

Ragnar Granit

I knew nothing about Ragnar Granit before I heard his lecture, but several online biographies proved helpful. Granit was born in 1900 in Helsinki, where he also studied medicine. From his earliest years as a student Granit was fascinated by human vision. As a physiologist he performed many bioelectric experiments on the visual nerve and retina, eventually proving  the theory of trichromatic vision in 1937, which was first put forward by Helmholtz half a century earlier. In 1967 Granit received the Nobel Prize for his work on the physiological and chemical origins of visual processing by the human eye.

By the time Granit gave his lecture (titled ‘Discovery and Understanding’) in 1972, he was already a retired scientist with a whole career behind him. In his talk, he looks back at his younger self and sees a passionate, impatient researcher who is eager to leave his mark on science and the world (Granit’s words are more poetic. In his talk, he refersto the joys of ‘courting Minerva’).

Thirty years later he has a different attitude to the scientific process. The younger Granit was always on the hunt for the next, big discovery, whereas the older Granit longs for understanding. His passion is a different one: he even looks back at his research in a mood of detachment. This is not a bad thing, he explains, since this detachment is accompanied by a feeling of understanding that is deeper than that provided by single discoveries. Discovery and understanding are two different, unrelated processes. he remarks:

“There is in discovery a quality of uniqueness, tied to a particular moment in time, while understanding goes on and on from level to level of penetration and insight, and thus is a process that lasts for years.”

It is easy to understand the overemphasis of groundbreaking discoveries in science, Granit says. Discoveries provide ‘instantaneous excitement’ and can count on ‘the immediate reward of appreciation of colleagues, laymen and donors.’

Scientific understanding,  in contrast, takes many yearsto develop. But we should not forget that understanding is the true goal of thescientific endeavour, Granit says.

The development of the theory of evolution via natural selection by Darwin is the strong example that Granit puts forward. The idea of evolution was not new when Darwin first proposed it, and he certainly did not come to his conclusions thanks to some flash of insight. It was only because he had spent 20 years collecting a body of evidence that was so comprehensive that he could convince his peers. Understanding trumped discovery.

The slow ripening of the fruits of science brings about the development of deeper, richer flavours:  “What we read, what we actively remember and what we ourselves contribute to our fields of interest very gradually build upto a living and creative structure within us.” Acquired originality exists, it only requires time to develop.

This longer take on science process has come under pressure. That is true now, but it wasa lready true in Granit’s days.“The long and narrow and winding road to real knowledge has become harder to follow”, he laments. Young scientists are obliged to ‘fill journals with preliminary notes.’ Instead of fulfilling their full creative potential, they are becoming ‘great producers of small things.’ Granit remarks that “there should not be too many people within a field who care merely for the technically solvable, and not about what is worthsolving.”

After hearing Granit’s lecture, it dawned on me that this man was still as passionate about science as he was in his younger days.The fire might have burned less fierce and more controlled, but it burned still. Here is a man who has learnt not to care about the first discovery or the origin of an idea, but cares about the science itself. I couldn’t agree more with Granit’s last words: “The long range program[…] fosters insights of the kind that makes disputes about intellectual ownership meaningless.”

But really, you shouldn’t read those words of wisdom here, where I can barely do them justice. Go over to the Mediatheque, and listen to them for yourselves!