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,
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
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
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
“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.