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Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Nobel laureates meet young researchers

Caroline Richmond reports from Germany's 'Riviera' on a meeting across the generations, and hears of an orbital laundry line
Every year, usually in early July, a dozen or more Nobel Laureates meet 500–600 young researchers at Lindau, an island and famed beauty spot on Lake Constance in south Germany. The south shore of the lake, Germany’s Riviera, is famous for its good weather, though this year it bucketed with rain.

I was lucky enough to be one of the 60 journalists at this year's Meetings of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, the 57th such gathering. This year's event was mainly on biomedicine. In 2008 there will be two meetings, on economics and on physics.

The Lindau meetings started in 1951. German scientists were trying to rectify their isolation from the rest of the world, which had started with Hitler in 1933 and persisted with post-war conditions. The meetings take place in English, with simultaneous translation into German.

About a quarter of the young scientists at the meeting were German. With participants from 63 countries and regions, it was the most truly international meeting I have been to, and probably the only one that was completely non-commercial. It was one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life.

The nature of the meeting means that you won't pick up any red-hot stories, though I did gather a few anecdotes (see later). It was a wonderful way to refresh myself in science, and, as an obituary writer, a unique opportunity to see in action scientists whose obits I might one day write.

The meeting’s format seems to be constant. It starts at 4 pm on Sunday, with opening addresses from various big cheeses and Countess Bernardotte who, with her late husband, has done much for these meetings. She is very committed and very nice, with a taste in sprauncy hats. The talks were interspersed with chamber music by young prodigies from various nations. There was also a panel discussion on the state of science and the world, with Sir Martin Rees and three laureates.

From Monday to Thursday, the programme consisted of, in the morning, either five lectures from laureates, or three lectures and a panel discussion. All the talks were good; the two stars of the meeting were Craig Mello (Medicine or Physiology 2006) and Sir Tim Hunt (2001). Mello had some good gags: “Here I am at the White House with Dick Cheney, believed to be 90% of the brains of this administration. Ever since the current occupancy of the White House, Americans have become more open to the idea that humans and monkeys are related.”

In the afternoons there were discussion groups for the young researchers only – each of about six laureates set up a stall and the researchers could join who they wanted. I would have liked to have gone to these as an observer, but the press were banned.

In the evenings there was one press reception, which I missed as someone forgot to put a notice in my press pack, one not-very-grand dinner sponsored by the local chamber of commerce, and a classical music concert. The week needed some light relief. Indeed, it needed the Ig Nobel road show, which tours Britain each March. I took part in the show this year, which is why I’m in favour of it.

On the Friday, all participants are invited to the island of Mainau, two hours' away at the other end of Lake Constance. A boat is provided and it is said to be a wonderful journey when not shrouded in rain and mist. The island is famous for its gardens, and we strolled though them to Countess Bernadotte’s castle at the top for the closing ceremony. This left most people a couple of hours to have lunch before taking the charter boat back to Lindau. But I had to miss lunch, as I had to get to Friedrichshafen airport by a complicated combination of boat, bus and train, to get my Ryanair flight back to Stansted.

Oh, and the anecdotes. Well, Henrik Larsen, a Danish hack, is fifty-ish and looks fairly distinguished – indeed, very distinguished by journalistic standards. He arrived at Munich airport, where he saw a man carrying a placard saying “Nobel Lindau”. He went over to him, asking whether they had provided a bus to the conference. (By now you will have spotted how this story is going to end.) “No”, said the man, “I have a car for you. Come this way please.” “Aren’t there any others?” asked Henrik. "No," said the man, as he showed him into a limo. Well, of course, when they were halfway down the motorway the driver’s cellphone rang. Professor G√ľnter Blobel of Rockefeller University wanted to know where his car was. And the best thing was, the driver couldn’t do a U-turn on the motorway to pick up Blobel, so he took Henrik to his hotel first.

The second story came from Simon Wiseman, now an Israeli, who was living in Windsor in 1957 when the first Sputnik was launched. Simon, a skilled photographer, photographed the satellite’s track from his garden. He then rang the editor of the Windsor and Eton Express to ask if he would like to publish it. “You bet” said the editor; I’ll put it on the front page”. So Simon delivered up the photographic plate.

Well, every photographic technician knows that a straight line on a negative is a scratch, to be carefully removed by retouching. Simon’s garden contained a washing line, which was duly, and proudly, featured on the front page as the cutting edge of space exploration.

For more on the Lindau meetings: http://www.lindau-nobel.de/