Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Guest Post: Jacinta Delhaize on Meeting Nobel Laureates

i have the pleasure of working with a very clever astronomy PhD student based in perth, australia, jacinta delhaize.  her research involves using radio telescopes to uncover the mysteries of galaxy evolution.   jacinta was chosen as one of 8 australian physics PhD students who got to attend the annual meeting of nobel laureates in germany in july this year.  i'm thrilled to host this post by jacinta, as she tells a very entertaining and enlightening story of her experience hanging out with winners of science nobel prizes.   enjoy!

The 62nd Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates

What happens when you put 27 Nobel Laureates and over 500 young researchers on a small island together for a week? I recently had the chance to find out when I attended the 62nd Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany.

Lindau is a small Bavarian island on Lake Constance in southern Germany. The locals sometimes refer to the island as ‘Disneyland.’ I can only assume this is because of its beauty, and probably the fact that it is packed with tourists in the summer. Indeed, walking down the cobblestone streets between heavily decorated old European buildings and gazing out across the shimmering lake at the snow-capped Austrian Alps makes you feel like you have stepped into a fairy tale.

Jacinta's chariot awaits ;)

Once a year, hundreds of early-career researchers from around the globe descend on this idyllic town to attend a meeting with some of the world’s most prominent scientists – winners of the Nobel Prize. This year, I was extremely fortunate to be one of the eight Australian students chosen to attend and it was certainly something to remember.

The motto of the Lindau meetings is “Inspire. Educate. Connect.” Over the next five days, this is exactly what we experienced. In 2012 the meeting focused on Physics and there were 27 Nobel Laureates in attendance. Each morning we had lectures by the Laureates, on whatever they chose to talk about. Some spoke about the work they won their prize for, some about the work they are currently doing, and some on a completely different topic. The lectures that I got the most out of were the ones in which the Laureates shared their experiences before and after winning the Nobel Prize, and then gave us some advice for our own lives and careers.

Physics Laureate John Mather. Photo Credit: Rolf Schultes

One of my favourite examples of this was by Dan Shechtman. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for his discovery of quasi-crystals. He described how he faced fierce opposition by parts of the scientific community who did not believe in the existence of quasi-crystals, and how he overcame this.

He advised us to “have tenacity. . . like a Rottweiler dog, bite and don’t let go. Believe in yourself.” While this might sound a little aggressive, he delivered it in such a calm, passive manner that I think he was simply saying that if you know you are right, you must not give in.

In the afternoons there were discussion sessions with each of the morning’s speakers, and you could choose which Laureate you most wanted to learn more from. I often found it challenging to choose, but the session that inspired me the most was with Mario Molina who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for showing that CFCs are harmful to the Earth’s ozone layer. The morning session had focused on climate change and sustainable energy options. Some controversial statements had been made which sparked much discussion among the early-career researchers. So I wanted the opportunity to hear directly from a leading climate scientist.

Jacinta Delhaize and Mario Molina
As a young scientist, I am sometimes asked for my opinion on climate change issues. I am an astronomy student and so while I have no expertise at all on climate science, I do know how extremely unique and precious our planet is. I asked Professor Molina how a non-specialist scientist could respond to such questions. He suggested that the best way would be to explain the scientific process. If you understand and value the way that scientific discoveries are made and verified, then you will trust the overall consensus of experts in the field above the opinion of non-experts. He said that 97% of climate scientists agree that human-induced climate change is occurring. To me, that was a very powerful statement.

There were some other moments during the week that were just plain awesome. The timing of the meeting happened to coincide with the CERN announcement of the discovery of the Higgs-like boson.  We were extremely fortunate to have a panel discussion about the significance of the discovery with CERN staff that afternoon. I remember sitting there and thinking how ridiculously lucky I was to be so involved with the international scientific community while it celebrated what was possibly one of the most triumphant moments in the history of modern physics.

Panel discussion about the Higgs Boson at the Lindau Meeting.

Other fantastic moments definitely included the three lunches with Laureates that myself and the eight other members of the Australian delegation had the opportunity to attend. The first lunch was with John Mather and George Smoot (who characterised the Cosmic Microwave Background) and Brian Schmidt (who shared last year’s Prize for discovering the accelerating expansion of the Universe.)  They entertained us with recollections of the Nobel Banquet with the Swedish Royal Family and how they were terrified of falling over or making a mistake.

The second lunch was with Sir Harry Kroto, the discoverer of ‘buckyballs’ (C60 to chemists). He pressed upon us the importance of communicating your science effectively. He also urged us, particularly as young scientists, to “question everything” - to apply critical thinking in every situation. Our final lunch was with Paul Crutzen, who investigated the causes of ozone depletion along with Mario Molina. We discussed issues surrounding what he calls the ‘anthropocene’ – the era over which human activity has impacted the atmosphere.

These lunches made me appreciate the human aspect of the Laureates. Although we tend to think of them as super heroes, they really are just normal people who strove for excellence and had the good fortune (and talent) of making remarkable discoveries that changed the world. It is for this reason that they really are the very best people to advise and inspire the next generation of scientists, as they are proof of what is attainable.

Australian delegates with Physics Laureates (L to R: Andy Casey, Melissa Ness, Mike Dopita, John Mather, Sarah Beavan, Grace Shepherd, George Smoot, Andrew McCulloch, Brian Schmidt, Minnie Mao, Jacinta Delhaize, Adele Morrison.)

Lastly, I’d like to mention an unexpected theme that arose during the meeting. This was the concept that science and music/art are intertwined and each enhances appreciation of the other. This was first mentioned by our hostess, Countess Bettina Bernadotte as she welcomed members of the Vienna Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra to play during the opening ceremony of the meeting. Later in the week, Peter Gruenberg used his lecture to explain the harmonies of Alpine Folklore music, and treated us to live examples. Laureate Dudley Herschbach likened what he calls ‘chemistry wizardry’ to "Beethoven composing his symphony” and then concluded his lecture by playing a song with the refrain “Experiment; make it your motto day and night.” It was a nice reminder that while we all value the importance of science, there are many other ways to describe the world around us and we should embrace them all. On the last day we had the opportunity to put this in to practice and express ourselves through dance! Here’s a pic of Brian Schmidt getting his groove on with the Countess.

Brian Schmidt and the Countess

Of course, there were many opportunities to mingle with the other early-career researchers at the meeting, all of whom were very enthusiastic, outgoing and open-minded people. We came from all over the world yet our passion for science connected us all. I also particularly enjoyed the various social events in the evenings when we could meet the local people of Lindau. Despite the fact that we had completely overrun their island, they were very welcoming, excited and proud to be hosting us. Thank you for having us and for stuffing us full of delicious pretzels!

So in summary – I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the 62nd Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates. I was inspired in so many ways, gained a better education of important issues in science and I now feel well and truly connected to the international scientific community and very proud to be part of it. I definitely recommend it to anyone thinking of applying for next time. My whole-hearted thanks to the Australian Academy of Science, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research and all the organisers of the Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates for giving me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

all photos provided by jacinta delhaize.  you can follow her on twitter here: @jdelhaize

1 comment:

Sakib said...

It's so nice to see someone feel such joy about astronomy, I can almost feel your happiness from seeing your beautiful smile! Astronomy is good for your health!