20 October 2010

Inspirational stories from 2010 Lindau meeting of Nobel laureates

The annual Lindau meeting of young scholars with Nobel laureates concluded its 60th edition in 2010. To celebrate this milestone, Nature has come out with a supplement. The collections are a must read for young scholars and their mentors.

This is the cover page of the Nature outlook: Science masterclass, a supplement brought out to acknowledge the 60th edition of Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates with Young Scholars in 2010. © Nature.com

Nature Outlook in a supplement Science masterclass comes up with with stories that arouse curiosity. There are ten question and answer (Q&A) sessions put here. The questions posed to Nobel laureates were selected through an online voting process.

Arno Penzias, Physics, 1978, in runaway success advises youngsters to 'ask questions' particularly, those that illuminate, and not those that destroy. Gerardus 't Hooft, Physics, 1999, says that one should not fear from making mistakes, rather, one should make it a honour to be the first one to fine out ones mistake, but even if someone else does it, they must be happy for having asked the right kind of questions.

Peter Agre, Chemistry, 2003, the family naturalist, adds that a young scientist should not work towards prizes, but rather pursue towards making discoveries, earning the respect of peers and training next generation of scientists. Christian de Duve, Medicine, 1974, in joy of discovery, highlighted to youngsters the need to excel intellectually and technically, as the endeavour in science has to be 'unashamedly elitist'.

"In conducting your research, observe total rigour and intellectual honesty in the analysis of facts, consider all possible hypotheses, plan your approach to test those hypotheses, and submit your conclusions to the verdict of observation and experimentation without preconceived ideas. Never conduct research with the aim of proving a theory, but, rather, to invalidate it if it should be wrong. The best proof is failure to disprove."

Oliver Smithies, Medicine, 2007, response to the question on convincing public about relevance of fundamental research with no applications in sight refers to the Hubble telescope and its image revealing the universe that satisfies 'curiosity' which is a basic part of human nature that builds science brick by brick.

In politics and prophecy, John Mather, Physics, 2006, adds that the public should feel inspired from the many stories of fundamental research leading to world-changing applications. Co-recipient, George Smoot's, thought in aeons points out the relevance of interdisciplinary research but there is a need to understand the differences - the complex biological systems with a difficulty in measurement and observation call for high level and rough understanding whereas physicists are trained for rigour and precision.

The relevance of interdisciplinary research was also highlighted by David Gross, Physics, 2004 in the frontier physicist and Paul Crutzen, Chemistry, 1995. The latter was trained in civil engineering who moved to computer programming to work on meteorological models that got him hooked to atmospheric chemistry. He is the one who coined the term 'Anthropocene man', that is a nuclear war will lead to 'nuclear winter' with more people dying from starvation and diseases than the bomb. Harold Kroto, Chemistry, 1996, working at the coal face, argues a case to delink science funding from peer-review because of the difficulty to foresee important breakthrough.

The annual Lindau meeting which started in post-war Germany to revive science, health and economy has now become a global meeting that fosters the culture of science and with the coming of the digital age the way we do science. In turning the tables, where the expert panel comprises of young scholars and the audience are selected laureates, the lessons learned for young scholars are:

  • choose a supervisor who does not travel too much,
  • don't try to please your supervisor all the time, be prepared to challenge them,
  • put questions to your supervisor, but think of some possible suggestions beforehand,
  • assume your supervisor is wrong and develop your own way to approach the problem,
  • idealism regarding science in politics is good, but be aware that it will be a steep challenge, and
  • don't give up too easily.

And that for laureates, rather for mentors are:

  • reply to emails from students within twelve hours,
  • don't dictate a student's life,
  • give creative freedom,
  • foster relationship among students in the lab, not just with them,
  • let students develop their 'voice' when writing papers, and
  • communicate your science to the public by using the media.

The supplement also has links to some collection from past issues to help the young scholars in their career, on alternative paths and how to prepare. Equally inspiring is the collection from the archives that include inspiration from the life of Dorothy Hodgkin, a female Nobel laureate, and how to make mentoring and networking work.

A small disappointment about this coverage is that it has excluded the interactions and discussions with the laureates of Literature, Peace and Economics. On a personal note, this is somewhat made up by the guide for mentors.

(This write-up was first put up in Digital Journal, 18 October 2010, http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/299076.)

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