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Hanging Out With Nobel Laureates

Gerhard Ertl chats with a delegate

I’m on a seriously quaint but very humid island called Lindau in Germany’s Lake Constance this week, surrounded by more than 20 Nobel laureates, and nearly 600 young researchers who are lucky (and smart) enough to have nabbed a chance to mingle with these science celebrities. No advisors at the Lindau conference, just students and postdocs from 67 countries, from as far afield as Chile or Pakistan. (Harry Kroto told me he feels like the equivalent of a scientific rock star here…)

Besides talks and panel discussions by the laureates, students get to chitchat with their heroes in small groups. A Swedish count started the Lindau meetings in 1951 and each year the conference focus toggles through the different prize themes—last year the focus was on physics, this year it’s chemistry. His daughter Countess Bettina runs the show now, sporting a fetching hat.

The mood here has been super congenial—I ran across Bob Grubbs drawing structures on a notepad with a pair of delegates. But the weather has been ridiculously humid, with most delegates looking as cheery as they are moist. Somehow Poornima Rangadurai, a chemistry undergraduate from Chennai, India, managed to overcome the heat when she gave a super cool traditional Indian song and dance performance Monday evening.

But every morning, laureates speak about whatever their heart desires. Many have stuck to topics close to their prize-winning research—for example Gerhard Ertl spoke about surface science, Sherwood Rowland about greenhouse gases, Ryoji Noyori about synthesizing drugs.

Others have strayed from science during their presentations. For example, Richard Ernst spoke primarily about his passion for Buddhist Tibetan art, making only a few, brief references to NMR–“my little toy”—whose development won him the Nobel Prize. Ernst used his time on stage to tell delegates to diversify their interests, so as not to become “one-sided nerds.” He also mentioned a cool project that teaches science to Tibetan monks, and also the conservation chemistry he does in his home lab.

Today, Walter Kohn chose to show a movie about solar energy that he helped produce, which is strangely but wonderfully narrated by Monty Python star John Cleese. (Cleese has a perfectly authoritative voice, but as the guy next to me commented, during the serious documentary, “you’re always waiting for him to give the punch line.”) Kroto also only briefly mentioned buckyballs, amidst his energetic talk that touched upon everything from atheism, his web 2.0 projects and his love of design.

Besides chemistry, this year’s conference also has renewable energy and global sustainability as themes, and keeping with that, Peter Agre, spent his slot on stage giving a gorgeous slide show of several canoe trips he’s made with family and friends in the Arctic, “images of what we are losing as the current energy consumption patterns continue.”

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