Issue Date: July 31, 2017 | Web Date: July 26, 2017
What Nobel laureates are talking about
Every summer, the medieval island town of Lindau, Germany, is packed with tourists. But for a week every June, the historic spot, sitting on Lake Constance at the border of Germany and Switzerland, is a little quieter. This is when about 400 young scientists from around the world fill up Lindau’s conference center—rather than its cafés and day-tripper boats—to learn what they can from a gathering of Nobel laureates.
The meetings first began here in 1951 when two German physicians invited scientists from the rest of Europe for a symposium in an attempt to foster international research after World War II. With the backing of the Nobel Foundation, the meeting has continued annually but has evolved into an event designed to inspire young scientists.
More than 400 hand-picked scientists under the age of 35, nominated by academic partner institutes and organizations, arrived in Lindau this year to listen and learn from 28 laureates. Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine were on hand to give scientific lectures, guide tutorials, join in panel discussions, and answer questions posed by the young scientists.
Key topics discussed at this year’s meeting included how to use large data sets to describe or predict the structure and behavior of molecules; efforts in green chemistry to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals and the amount of energy needed for chemical processes; and ways in which molecular machines could contribute to new materials, detectors, and energy storage devices. A fourth topic the laureates grappled with was science in an era of “post-truth,” when personal beliefs and emotions can have a larger influence on public opinion than objective facts can.
Themes that emerged during the laureates’ lectures and discussions included the potential benefits of researchers publishing their research in online forums before peer review. Both Martin L. Chalfie, a biological sciences professor at Columbia University who became a chemistry laureate in 2008, and Stefan W. Hell, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry who became a chemistry laureate in 2014, advocated for young scientists to share their unedited work online via preprint servers. Their suggestions were met with extended applause.
The usefulness of automated chemical synthesis machines, such as the one reported in 2015 by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign’s Martin D. Burke (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa5414), also sparked debate among laureates on stage and young scientists in the audience. The attendees pondered whether such machines might one day take over the role of chemists.
As is traditional for the annual Lindau meeting, the event kicked off with a lecture by a new laureate. This year’s honor went to Ben L. Feringa, one of three scientists to be awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on molecular machines.
Feringa gave the young scientists in the audience a flavor of his research in the field of molecular switches and motors, pointing out how the molecular machines might one day be used in capsules that release drugs into the body or materials such as self-repairing car paint.
The newly minted laureate also offered career advice: “Always look for a challenge and find teachers who challenge you. Persevere, follow your intuition and your dream—but walk on two feet,” Feringa told attendees, encouraging them to listen but also to be independent.
Feringa wasn’t the only laureate offering choice quotes in Lindau. The following are other notable words of wisdom and observations from the award-winning scientists at the meeting.
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