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Learning from Lindau: A Physics Meeting Like No Other

By Alaina G. Levine

In early July, more than a score of physics and chemistry Nobel Laureates and nearly 600 students from all over the world gathered in the little lake town of Lindau, Germany for the 62nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. The subject of the conference changes annually, and this year it was dedicated to physics. Over the course of a week, laureates gave formal lectures and interacted with the young researchers in intimate settings, even giving some of the students the opportunity to present their research directly to the established scientists. As many of the participants pointed out, 27 Nobel laureates aggregating at nearly one point in time and space is nothing to sneeze at. Add to this science soirée the brouhaha over that newly discovered boson, and you get a Shangri-la of physics. But don’t take my word for it.

“It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before,” said Aaron Landerville, one of nearly 100 American “Young Researchers,”as they are called, to win a coveted spot to attend the Meeting. Brian Dorney, who is pursuing his doctorate at Florida Institute of Technology but has been at CERN since last October, echoed this sentiment: “The experience blew my mind,” he says. “I couldn’t believe I was there the whole time. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to gain real insight into being a scientist, a researcher and doing something important.”

Each of the 69 countries that sent student delegates to Lindau has their own selection process. The US program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for DOE and NSF, and is sponsored by the DOE Office of Science, the NSF Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Science, Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), and Mars, Incorporated. American students who are selected have their travel expenses paid for by one of these organizations, and meet in Washington, DC prior to flying to Germany for orientation and a chance to get to know one another, explains Sam Held, who oversees the US participation.

It was in DC that Landerville first recognized the significance of the program. “Instantaneously, I realized how wonderful it was to be in the delegation, with students from all over the world,” he recalls. The U.S. sent the second largest number of students, just behind Germany.

Landerville is pursuing a PhD in computational modeling and shockwave physics, with an application towards materials characteristics for explosives at the University of South Florida. He found out about Lindau through his advisor, who one day informed him that he had taken the liberty of nominating him. He was funded by ORAU.

The Lindau week was jam-packed with activities, including one-hour lectures by laureates in the morning, and afternoon sessions that consisted of small groups of students meeting with individual prize winners, and “Master Classes,” in which some pupils gave ten minute research talks to the laureates for feedback. There were also mandatory breakfasts, lunches and evening affairs, which usually consisted of various cultural opportunities that encouraged students and laureates to get to know each other.

The Nobel prize winners were very approachable, notes Dorney, especially Brian Schmidt, the youngest and newest laureate in attendance. In fact, one evening, while Dorney was having dinner with other students, Schmidt “came out of nowhere and sat down and spent the next 3-4 hours talking with us.” He gave the emerging scholars advice about pursuing what they love. During an afternoon chatfest, “Schmidt said ‘we don’t do physics to win a Nobel Prize, we do it because it’s interesting.’ He truly believes he was doing what he was doing because it made him happy,” recounts Dorney. “On my own, I have struggled because …I thought my research was not very novel. But going to Lindau inspired me that no matter what happens, I am going to be ok and it won’t be the end of the world if I have to switch fields.” And regarding Schmidt’s advice, “I may never see him again but for that week he was like a mentor,” he says.

This year’s conference was punctuated by the Higgs Boson announcement. The Lindau leaders arranged for the CERN press conference to be broadcast live during the conference, and then later in the day organized a special panel discussion with several Laureates and a live feed with LHC scientists to discuss the significance of the discovery. The panel consisted of David Gross, George Smoot, Carlo Rubbia and Martinus “Tini” Veltman, all of whom trumpeted the discovery as a triumph for physics, theory, and humanity. Dorney recalls a specific message from the panel: “there is much more to do, there are more Nobel Prizes to be won.”

Lindau’s leitmotif of “Educate. Inspire. Connect.” was certainly amplified by the students who attended, who praised the experience as life-changing. “It made me question my career goals tremendously–whether I want to stay in academia or do something to affect policy and attitudes in science,” said Landerville. “I am more open…that there might be connections between my field and others…It revitalized my interest to get out on my own from grad school and explore these possibilities.”

As for the laureates themselves, many of whom have participated in the conference more than once, they enjoyed the opportunity to meet and speak with students from all over the world. “That’s the best part of being in Lindau,” said Bill Phillips. “That’s the reason to come here. I don’t come here to meet the other Laureates.” He noted that he finds inspiration from the students, perhaps as much as they do from him. “One of the things I learn here is how little I understand, and how much I need to deepen my knowledge, about certain things.”

But the fact that his Prize-winning peers are also present does make a positive impression. “I have had [the] experience a few times, of meeting physicists who were already legendary long before I started studying physics, and that’s really quite remarkable to meet these people who I viewed as legends of the past,” described Phillips, with a chuckle. “One of the things that was really remarkable about Lindau the first time I went was I met Mössbauer. Now, I thought Mössbauer was dead.”

Alaina G. Levine is a science writer and President of Quantum Success Solutions, a science career and professional development consulting enterprise. She attended Lindau on a travel fellowship from the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, administered by the National Association of Science Writers. She can be contacted through www.alainalevine.com.

© 2012, Alaina G. Levine


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