Stories from the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

They say when you meet the love of your life, time stops, and that's true. What they don't tell you is that when it starts again, it moves extra fast to catch up.

 -Edward Bloom in Big Fish

What they also don't tell you is that this can happen when you live a moment, or a series of moments, so unique, so engaging, that all your senses come alive, and for just a little bit, life seems to slow down. Although this story, unlike Edward Bloom’s, is not about love, time stopped for me this summer on a small island in Germany in Lake Constance. Here’s my experience at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

View of a lighthouse from Lindau

View from Lindau (Bodensee) on the eastern side of Lake Constance in Germany.

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting takes place once a year where 30-40 Nobel Laureates meet a new generation of scientists. They are dedicated to the three natural science Nobel Prize disciplines: physiology or medicine, physics, and chemistry. Every year the topic rotates and an interdisciplinary meeting is held every five years. In physics, the likes of Neils Bohr, Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Born, and Felix Bloch have all, one time or another, attended these meetings. This year the 66th meeting (the first meeting was in 1951) was on physics and 31 Nobel Laureates convened in Lindau along with 400 young scientists, which I had the privilege to be a part of. 

The meeting was packed - lectures, discussions, master classes, and panel discussions- all designed to flourish exchange and discussion between us and the Nobel Laureates. The morning lectures were fascinating. We got to hear:

  • Hiroshi Amano (2014 Prize) discuss his invention of the blue LED, which revolutionized the lighting industry by allowing the production of white light 19 times brighter per watt of electricity than conventional light bulbs;
  • Klaus von Klitzing (1985 Prize) detail how his discovery of the quantum Hall effect will likely be used for the development of a new international system of units starting in 2018;
  • Stefan Hell (2014 Prize) explain how he beat the diffraction limit in optical microscopy by selectively turning on and off certain atomic states in a region of interest; and
  • George Smoot (2006 Prize) reveal the long and winding road (40 years) to detecting gravitational waves.

In the afternoons, there were "offline" discussion sessions where we could speak in person with the laureates, ask them questions, or get their opinion on a topic. During these, I

  • Witnessed the charisma and strength of character of a fellow Canadian, Arthur McDonald (2015 Prize), who led a project to build a massive detector two kilometre underground in Sudbury, Ontario to measure solar neutrinos,

Arthur McDonald giving a speech

Arthur McDonald explaining how the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory was used to solve the solar neutrino problem.

  • Had the opportunity to discuss my research with Serge Haroche (2012 Prize), who pioneered the first experiments for measuring and manipulating individual quantum systems, and
  • Was inspired by Steven Chu  (1997 Prize), who talked about his time as US Secretary of Energy under President Obama from 2009 to 2013, advocating for renewable energies and bringing awareness of climate change to the country.

One of my favourite moments during these discussions was listening to Roy Glauber (2005 Prize) recount his experience working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos when he was 18 years old.  As the last surviving person of that era, listening to Glauber's personal story and insights was a historical gem. He addressed the difficulties they had in dealing with the aftermath of the events that followed and being confronted for the first time with the significant ethical questions that entailed. He also talked about his experience at Los Alamos, travelling to New Mexico with directions only to a PO box in the middle of the desert, bumping into John von Neumann as he walked off the train, listening to Richard Feynman recount his stories at lunch, and all the while working hard to calculate nuclear scattering cross sections.   

Roy Glauber giving a speech

Roy Glauber remarking how Niels Bohr, one of the most famous individuals at Los Alamos, went by the pseudonym Nicholas Baker in order to remain unrecognized.

The spirit (and motto) of the conference was threefold: Educate, Inspire, Connect- and while all three were achieved brilliantly, in the end, it's the third that will be memorable. I met countless remarkable individuals from around the world, both interesting and interested, during the many social events.  Through these encounters, I learned first-hand about the research my scientific peers were doing in cosmology, biophysics, condensed matter, and my own field of quantum optics. It was also an opportunity to hear about their many non-academic interests. One evening, after my initial disappointment of arriving late for a slightly more formal dinner, scrambling to find the last chair available, I ended up sitting down next to Dominique Gisin, Olympic athlete and gold medallist in the women's downhill ski event at the 2014 Sochi games, and I got to hear her story and the long and difficult road to gold. Gisin later gave a talk on the physics of alpine skiing and the similarities between achieving excellence in sports and in science. She is now starting her second year BSc in physics.

Researchers on a boat trip to Mainau Island

On the final day, we took a boat trip across the lake to Mainau Island, the same place where the Mainau declaration on climate change was signed during the 2015 Lindau meeting.

The 67th Nobel Laureate Meeting will be held in June 2017 on Chemistry, and Physics will come around again within the next three to four years. The maximum age to attend is 35 and I encourage anyone who is interested to apply. In the meantime, you can see the Laureate's conference presentations from all previous meetings on the Mediatheque. I also highly recommend watching the Heidleberg Lecture given by Vincent Cerf. While not a laureate himself, he is considered one of the "fathers of the internet" for developing the TCP/IP protocol which you are using to read this blog. Now working for Google, he wants to put the internet on Mars.

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