August 6, 2004  


How Many Nobel Laureates Do You Know Well Enough to Nickname?

By Kate Metropolis

For Mark Allen (EC), a member of the BaBar collaboration and a graduate student of Aaron Roodman (EC), the answer is now 18. Allen was one of 64 young scientists from the U.S. to attend a five-day symposium of Nobel prize winners in the cobblestoned medieval city of Lindau on a tiny island in the south of Germany. Most of the laureates and researchers who attended this year are, like Allen, physicists.

Each laureate had half an hour to give a talk on the subject of his choice. Then the microphones were opened up and the young scientists could ask questions on the subject of their choice. Even more interesting for Allen were the laureates’ round-table discussions on such topics as what the appropriate emphasis should be between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ physics. (That particular discussion ended, Allen said, without much controversy: “You know, all physics is applied. If you call it pure, you’re just too impatient.”)

The laureates also mingled informally and shared some meals with the graduate students and postdocs—all 567 of them. The majority of the young scientists were German, but participants came from other European countries, Asia, the Middle East, and North and South America.

The young scientists increased their understanding of the structure of university departments, of what earning a doctoral degree entails in different countries, and of other countries and cultures. One highlight for Allen was the evening the Greek soccer team surprised almost everyone, including themselves, by beating the Czechs in the semi-finals of the European Cup. The island has a significant Greek population, and the impromptu celebration that followed was slightly more Dionysian than Apollonian.

For Allen, the human connections were the most valuable part of the experience. He got to hear what laureates think, not only about scientific matters, but also about funding agencies and international politics and ESP and cold fusion.

“It was really great talking with [Masatoshi] Koshiba,” Allen said. He paused, then, to convey the reverence he and his peers felt for the scientist who has done such important work on neutrinos, Allen revealed the nickname they’d bestowed on Koshiba. “He was Yoda,” the wise and noble Jedi master in Star Wars.

The annual gatherings were the idea of a German physician from Lindau. To help end the isolation of German science that began when the Nazis came to power and continued after the war, he started organizing medical conferences. Recognizing that a Nobel laureate or two would boost the prestige of the event, he approached a member of the Swedish royal family living on a nearby island, who helped convince a few German laureates to attend. Later, the scope of the meetings broadened. Typically the focus rotates each year among physics, chemistry and the medical sciences.



The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is managed by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy

Last update Wednesday August 04, 2004 by Emily Ball