In the Light of a Noble Experience

I wonder and picture the scene. I wake up in the morning and look out of the window to see hills, greenery, and the sun shining on a beautiful lake. Later on I find myself sharing a grand hall with at least 23 Nobel Laureates, and 609 young researchers from all over the world. Where am I? I could only be on Lake Constance for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings provide a globally recognized forum for the exchange of knowledge between Nobel Laureates and young researchers since 1951. The uniqueness of the Nobel Laureate Meetings: “It is about people, not papers”. They inspire scientific generations and build sustainable networks of young researchers from around the world. The Nobel Laureates give lectures and attend informal discussion with young researcher aiming: “educate”, “inspire” & “connect”.

In 2009 the meeting was dedicated to Chemistry. Textbook and web page “chemistry celebs” will be within the eyes focal length! – I dared to dream and applied through Bangladesh Lindau Council. Amidst back and forth uncertainty, I got the e-mail from Lindau council informing of my preliminary nomination. Final decision is under process! Fingers Crossed! Time was running out. Almost, I left the hope. Suddenly, yes, I received the mail form Lindau with final nomination. It was no less than “early morning call from Stockholm” (at least at my position)!

I was honoured to have the opportunity to attend the meeting in 2009 as one of the three participants from Bangladesh. My experience was nothing but the reflection of my mind inspirited with great motivation I gathered through mingling with great scientific minds. This is the memento I preserve in me, which will certainly boost me to furthering my research pursuit in future.

The start of the Lindau Meeting was made by the sole Nobel winner of 2007, German physicist Gerhard Ertl. He encouraged young scientists to follow several of curiosity, even with the risk of failure. “It is the privilege of a researcher to be allowed to make mistakes”. One should not believe what others say, just as new can be explored. What a privilege!

Anyone who ever had doubts that the Nobel Prize winner can maintain any interest beyond the science, who ever thought, for scientists the world was a purely rational matter, was informed that morning better, while Richard R. Ernst, Nobel laureate of 1991, took the stage to a plea for a look beyond the scientific plate boundary. We witnessed Ernst, more than a Scientist, and a great Philosopher!

“Curiosity and creativity”- so serious – and ideally go hand in hand. The world is wide open for new surprises and discoveries. Here is only one piece of advice: “Keep your eyes open. Do not become one-sided nerds. Never forget your passion; Profession and Passion are complementary!” – Ernst saying! I just wondered one lecture that nicely combining science and arts was delivered by Richard Ernst. The main message of his talk was that to be a complete and well-rounded individual, one should explore interests beyond the boundaries of science by looking to the arts and humanities.

I didn’t want to miss the chance to take some moments with this great philosopher. He was amiable enough to talk and perhaps, having kind of philosophic mood. The summary of his points (of course, beyond science!!) towards me gave me a thought about the significance of being a good human rather than being a good scientist!

Next lectures were covered by Martin Chalfie, Osamu Shimomura and Roger Tsien, the trio awarded Nobel Prize in 2008 for the discovery and development of green fluorescent protein (GFP), which is now an integral part of the life science. The “synergistic effect” of at least three lectures made me “little bit understandable” of the term GFP, while those lessons were given by the three Spotters of this GFP!!!

Disregarding the GFP term, I can contemplate that Tsien, Chalfie’s and Shimomura’s talks held many notable lessons:

1. “You should take risks and work on big problems; even if you don’t succeed at least you would have tried and learnt something.”

2. “Learn to make lemonade from lemon, sometimes persistence pays off.”

3. “Accept that your best papers may be rejected from fashionable journals, or may be accepted for the wrong reasons.”

This was Tsien referring to the fact that his groundbreaking Science paper containing the crystal structure of GFP was initially going to be rejected after two bad referee reports, and was only accepted after the editors heard that a similar paper was to be published in another journal. Chalfie had similar problems when he wanted to have the word ‘new’ in his 1994 Science paper title, and then one of the editors thought the green-colored journal cover he had designed would look better in another color!

Ernst, just after his “beyond science” Presentation!

4. “Try to find important problems that put your neuroses to constructive work. Try to find projects that give you some sensual pleasure.”

5. ‘Prizes are ultimately matter of luck, so avoid being motivated or impressed by it.’

Here comes the tale of a Nobel laureate! “Chemistry definitely was not one of my favorite subjects”, Paul Crutzen admitted! But, his destiny had something different in store. Though, started his career as a civil engineer, longing for an academic career, Crutzen gained a job as a computer programmer at Stockholm University’s Department of Meteorology. He used his spare time to gain the equivalent of a Master’s in mathematics, mathematical statistics, and meteorology and a PhD in meteorology. While much of the work at Stockholm was aimed at acid rain, Crutzen says he was given free rein, and much help, in his ozone studies. He discovered that nitrous oxide (N2O), produced naturally by soil bacteria, rises into the stratosphere, where solar energy splits it into two reactive compounds, NO and NO2. These remain active for some time, breaking ozone (O3) down into molecular oxygen (O2). This is his research made him to get a phone call from Stockholm! This is the tale of how a chemistry phobic turned to a Nobelist in chemistry!

Next, Mario Molina is no less! During the post-doctoral research he went to work with F.S. Rowland at the University of California, Irvine, where he found a new challenge in investigating the behavior of certain industrial compounds; CFCs – in the atmosphere and, beyond that, in the environment as a whole. It took just three months for Rowland and Molina to develop a theory predicting that these compounds would cause depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, a theory that was subsequently shown to be correct and which led to an international agreement banning the use of the industrial compounds causing the damage. This phenomenal work leads them towards Nobel Prize in 1995!

In the quest of solution of Climate Change and Global warming, his saying, “People have to follow the Red Light”! According to Molina, “unless we inculcate personal habits and social responsibilities, use energy more efficiently, control population and reach out to others in improving the state of our world, we may indeed end up playing with our planet, and that we don’t want to do.” This is Molina who was trying to point some solution towards Climate change. Beyond this crucial fact, I found him as a modest personality at the evening discussion session.

with Maria Molina at the Discussion Session

He is a chemical engineer! I came across him with a big grin as if I found someone from my field. He didn’t disappoint me either. We had a healthy conversation, even regarding the Climate condition in developing country like Bangladesh. I found him so knowledgeable about these contemporary burning issues!

Sir Harry Kroto won the Nobel Prize for discovering the soccer-ball-shaped fullerenes, strangely-structured carbon molecules also known as bucky balls. One of the star speakers at the 59th Lindau Nobel meetings, Kroto had the audience in raptures while talking about ‘Science, Society and Sustainability’. His talk epitomized how science has to be made attractive to be appealing to lure young students. Kroto entertained some 600 people in the audience, convincing them that merely doing Nobel-class science is not enough: “Remember humanity and forget the rest.”

I was most touched by Dr. Kroto’s thought instigating lecture. Not only did the great talk encompass ease of understanding but it also embodied insights on how he came to his discoveries as well as how he is using his position to help improve society. He reminded me that we as scientist need to bridge the gap with non-scientists as well as prepare and encourage our youth that science is important and it is nothing to be afraid of.

His fame was better understood seeing the jam-packed audiences during the discussion session. At the end of this informal discussion (‘chatting’, I better say!), I introduced myself to this “Chemistry Celeb”, and had the most cordial conversation including serious issues of Bangladesh. Once again, I found the Nobel Laureate “clued-up” of my country Bangladesh! I am honored!

Sir Kroto, this chemistry celeb exploited his stardom while posing with young researchers!

I couldn’t but mention one thing! I witnessed it in Lindau Meeting seeing lively large participation of female researchers. 609 young researchers from 67 countries attended the meeting where female participation was 44%. Day by day, the increasing proportion of female participation in such meeting as young researcher shows a ray of hope of women’s foot stepping in the field of natural science and research activities. A different experience I gathered there. We, five female researchers from different countries, had a Television interview on “Women in Science” by European Broadcasting Union.

Last, but not the least, I am a young researcher myself and I thought that there are many invaluable take-home messages to be learnt from the life and work of the scientists who participated in this wonderful gathering. Some modest thoughts:

1. Don’t try to win a Nobel Prize!

2. Don’t count on serendipity, but be prepared for it!

3. Work on big problems!

4. Collaborate!

5. Persevere!

Lindau Meeting was full of happening. Not only attending lectures of Nobel Laureates, but also discussion with them informally and warm interaction with young researchers are the essence of such rendezvous. What I truly realized after the Lindau Meeting is the answer to one question: What actually is science? To me science is education, communication, comm.-itment and great responsibility for the society.

The Meeting at Lindau provided an incomparable stepping-stone towards the rest of my studies and the start of my career. It was a once in a life time experience where I was blessed with the wonderful opportunity to meet numbers of greatest minds of time. My interactions with the Nobel Laureates provided an excellent perspective on life and a life in science. In some ways, the Nobelists are the ambassadors from the scientific futures of the younger delegates — showing them what they can achieve and what they can become. The Nobel Laureates were careful to temper any delusions of grandeur, however, with those such as Ernst pointing out that “your goal should not be Stockholm”, and Tsien commenting that “prizes are ultimately a matter of luck, so avoid being motivated or impressed by them”. Their shared experiences and insights inspired me to think about what I want my life in science to be. These interactions also motivated me to pursue goals beyond personal achievement and work toward bringing science further into the consciousness of society as a whole.

 

 

To cite this article, please use following information:

(use the given format or any standard citation format)

Mimmi, K.M.T., In the Light of a Noble Experience, ChE Thoughts 1 (1), 14-16, 2011.

 

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