Nobel laureates: often worth meeting, when you have the chance

With the announcement of the 2016 Nobel Prizes this week, I’ve been reflecting back on my experiences at the 2015 Lindau Laureate Nobel Meeting. These meetings are held every year and “are designed to activate the exchange of knowledge, ideas, and experience between and among Nobel Laureates and young scientists.”

Although I was skeptical going in, attending the meeting gave me a lot of food for thought. This past summer (one year later), being interviewed by a reporter for the Süddeutsche Zeitung gave me the chance to process and articulate some of that.

However, the interview was in English, and print newspapers have space constraints. Hence, for the resulting article (which published back in June), my answers to the interview questions had to be a.) severely abridged, and b.) translated into German. Therefore, I thought it might be worthwhile to post my original*, long-form responses here.

* with some links added and a few typos corrected

Why did you go to Lindau last year? What where your hopes/wishes/ what did you expect?

To be honest, though it probably sounds cynical or ungrateful or both, I went largely based on my postdoc advisor recommending that it would be a worthwhile thing to do, even though my expectations were actually fairly low.

Many people have been surprised when I’ve told them this and asked why I was skeptical. If I had been a bit snarkier, I would have turned the question around and asked in return, “What should one expect to gain from meeting Nobel laureates? It isn’t as though they go around shedding fairy dust in their wake that enables those it touches to be able fly to the Never Never Land of prize-winning work.”

Instead, however, I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to articulate my apprehension. There are several aspects to it:
* Being good at science doesn’t always correlate with being good at other things (e.g., teaching science, teaching scientific research, managing a research group, communication outside one’s field).
* Being good at science doesn’t always correlate with being a good human being.
* Having been successful in one area of science doesn’t prevent people from being highly unscientific about other topics.
* Science is an ever-changing field. Even if there was something that was key to one or more Nobel laureates’ successes, there is no guarantee that that same attitude/approach will work for young scientists today.
* Survivorship bias is real. There is a lot of luck and path dependence in scientific success and even more involved in getting a Nobel Prize.

It’s a wonderful thing to want to honor “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. It’s a wonderful thing to have a spotlight and a celebration for key scientific discoveries.

However, there are plenty of people out there without Nobel prizes who were just as clever, just as hard-working, just as revolutionary, even just as successful. The laureates are those who were recognized, who won races, who got lucky, etc. Although that means that latter group is easier to identify (it’s a short list, after all), it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have more insight or better advice to offer. In fact, recognition can sometimes be detrimental to having an accurate worldview.

So that’s my attempt to explain I was initially skeptical about the Lindau meeting. It also didn’t help that the process leading up to the meeting is a bit fraught. (There’s an application to be allowed to apply to the meeting, the application to be allowed to attend the meeting, the applications to attend various sub-sessions, to possibly present something of one’s own . . .) But I tried to go into it with enthusiasm and an open mind, nevertheless.

Where your expectations fulfilled? In what way? If not, why not?

My expectations in terms of the laureates were exceeded. I found almost all of the lectures and discussion sessions I attended to be interesting and worthwhile. The lectures are online, and there are several that I’ve already re-watched (at least in part) and/or recommended to others.

Amongst the young scientists, it was a mix. With some people, I had very enjoyable, very interesting conversations. Other interactions felt a little superficial, as though some people weren’t able to get beyond the professional image that they were cultivating by attending to engaging with the topics and the other participants in a more meaningful way.

The interdisciplinarity aspect of last year’s meeting was something that didn’t really match my expectations. The physics “master classes” seemed to me to be hard core solid state stuff (spintronics, photonics) and the rest similarly hard core biology or chemistry topics. The lectures from the laureates themselves on average did a good job of reaching a wider audience (albeit with a wide standard deviation), but the other sessions were still very specialized and compartmentalized. (In case you aren’t already familiar, their website has information about the different types of sessions they have there.) In my view, there are plenty of scientific topics that are themselves interdisciplinary, rather than just dividing things up along the same old lines, but I suppose there are constraints to the way the meeting is organized that I’m not aware of. I wonder if I might have gotten more out of going to this year’s physics meeting instead of last year’s interdisciplinary meeting.

A notable exception to that, though, was being there for the declaration on climate change. Whether or not the declaration actually has the impact that the signers hope, it felt like a historical moment at the time, and I really appreciated the sentiment of those who are signing not because they are experts in climate change but out of “a moral obligation to support the veracity of the scientific process.”

Which professors/experts/people did you want to meet and why? Was it possible to meet them? Why did you chose those people to meet?

Because I’m not that big into celebrities (even science celebrities), and because the week before was the big annual European plasma physics meeting, it wasn’t until I was on my way to the meeting that I started reading through the bios of the laureates who would be attending. There were several that caught my eye, including Eric Betzig‘s and Roy Glauber‘s, but there was no particular person whom I felt I really needed to be sure to meet in person.

A number of the questions I had would apply to many of the laureates equally well. (At what point did you know the work that you’d done might be Nobel Prize material? If you hadn’t done it, how long would it have been before someone else did? Why do you come to Lindau?)

Despite the inherent chaos due to the number of people involved and number of events, I found that the Nobel laureates were very accessible. I got to have a fairly in-depth conversations with Saul Perlmutter at lunch, and most of the discussions sessions I went to (e.g., those of Robert Wilson, Roy Glauber, Martin Chalfie) were excellent. I ended up having dinner twice with James Cronin and his wife Carol, and I really enjoyed my conversation with Roy Glauber and his companion on the boat to Mainau.

Was is good meeting those people? What did you think? Did they inspire you? Or where you disappointed meeting them?

It was good. I was impressed by how considered their answers were to the questions that I (and others) asked. Some laureates were more up for recalling or reflecting on their experiences; some were more interested in getting to know young scientists; some were more interested in discussing current research, or whether how science and society have changed over the years. But I didn’t have any conversations from which I came away feeling that they hadn’t been worthwhile.

What happened with the contacts you made in Lindau? Do you still have contact with them? Are they important for your research? In what way?

I haven’t had a whole lot of back-and-forth discussion with the other young scientists after the meeting, though I am connected with people on Facebook and LinkedIn, and I still have all the business cards I collected. Maybe I’ll used the one year anniversary as an excuse to ask what everyone is up to.

What is your research about? Why do you need Lindau for your research?

I study the physics of plasmas — the fourth state of matter (in addition to solid, liquid, and gas) that, as plasma physicists like to remind everyone, composes 99 percent (or perhaps 99.999. . . percent, depending on whom you ask) of the visible universe. This is also the stuff inside fusion devices, the machines that, which each new development, bring us closer and closer to fusion as an abundant energy source.

Specifically, I am currently a postdoc in a research group with the goal of making a novel type of plasma that, instead of being made out of electrons and ions, is made out of electrons and positrons (the antiparticles of electrons). For decades, theoretical and computational plasma physicists have making all sorts of interesting predictions about these plasmas, which don’t exist naturally on earth but were definitely present in the early universe and almost certainly still exist out in the universe today. They are predicted to have some very different features from “normal” electron/ion plasmas, and we want to test some of these predictions. The results will have implications not only for understanding our universe, but also for verifying the plasma physics theories and methods that led to those predictions –- some of the same theories and methods used for developing fusion.

Lindau wasn’t so important for influencing the direction or content of my research itself (nor did I expect it to be); plasma physics and positron conferences have a much greater impact on my work in that regard. Lindau was valuable, though, for getting perspective about scientific life, science communication, science education, and science policy and politics. If you ever need to be reminded about motivations for and the value of fundamental science, just talk to astronomers/astrophysicists/cosmologists like Saul Perlmutter or Brian Schmidt. Martin Chalfie gave some really concrete advice for early career scientists (about stuff like applying for a postdoc position and starting out as an assistant professor).

One major take-away, and something that was mentioned by multiple laureates, was the importance of sustained, concentrated, intense work on one’s project. These don’t have to be especially long — many of the people who won Nobel Prizes got them for work that was done in a relatively short amount of time, often after multiple unsuccessful or unfinished projects –- but they need to be intense. Keeping this in mind makes me more determined to prioritize focused work, potentially by skipping or postponing other tasks, when I feel this is what is needed. I’ve been happy with the results, so far.

What fascinated/inspired you most in Lindau and why?

I was fascinated by the diversity of their stories, the “take aways” from which often contradicted one another. Some got the Nobel prize for something they had been deliberately working toward, sometimes for years or decades; others got it for a surprise. Some were leaders of huge teams of researchers; others were building things in living rooms. Some were in a race to get their results or were otherwise worried about competition; others didn’t know they were in a competition at all (but learned about “near misses” later) or were just doing the natural “next step” and were surprised nobody else had already done it. Some work was rejected initially; some was in limbo for decades before it could be verified; some was revolutionary as soon as it was published.

It was also inspiring how relatable many of the laureates were. They told stories about not getting into the research group they planned to or choosing a research group because it was on the first floor of a building. They talked about some of the great ideas they had that didn’t work at all, or some of the work they did that they were really proud of that never got much attention. They talked about the projects they quit and the times they decided science wasn’t for them . . . and then found something else that worked out for them.

I was also impressed by how often and how earnestly laureates credited other scientists who didn’t weren’t included in the Nobel as being essential to the work for which they got the prize. (A few examples: Francois Englert began his talk with a moving dedication to Robert Brout. Eric Beitzig made sure to discuss competing microscopy methods and said that he thought the Nobel prize for super-resolution microscopy was given out 10 years too early. Martin Chalfie’s bio began with the sentence, “The Nobel Prize has several rules which often leave great work unrecognized” and went on say that “the vital contribution of Doughlas Prasher [who isolated the gene for green fluorescent protein] was overlooked by the committee”.) Of course, being magnanimous comes more easily when you have a Nobel Prize, and nobody has ever actually declined the Nobel on the basis of someone being left out whom they feel should have been included, but it’s still not nothing.

What do you suggest to young researchers? Is Lindau worth going there?

Yes, it’s worth going.

It can be a good opportunity to exercise and potentially expand one’s perspective. Try not to let the hype get you too worked up. It might be the opportunity of a lifetime, but almost everything in life is, one way or another.

Just because someone has won a Nobel Prize doesn’t necessarily mean that everything they say will be brilliant and advisable, but it doesn’t guarantee they won’t have valuable things to say, either.

What would you like to add?

Another theme of the week was the struggle for support of one’s science, in terms of coming up with the money and time needed to get the the bottom of a question. Quite a few of the laureates did their work at Bell Labs, which no longer exists (at least, not in the same sense it did then). Another (Saul Permutter, whose team was one of the two that discovered that the expansion of the universe was accelerating) said that the funding climate has changed even since they did their work; today, they would probably have to try to get private money to do the same thing.

It’s not just young scientists who need to hear about all the false starts and dead ends and things that didn’t work (even though the same people who ended up winning Nobel prizes thought they were good ideas) . . . the public and the politicians do, too, because funding models also need to take into account the inherent messiness and uncertainty of scientific research. As Saul Perlmutter put it, “If you get people to try to solve a really impossible problem, they invent things.” There’s a need to invest not just in incremental work with clear technological applications, but also in basic science whose applications are not immediately realizable. Surprisingly often, “the greatest benefit to mankind” is something that couldn’t have been predicted in advance.