ANU Physics students attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in physics

Wednesday 7 August 2019

By Janet Zhong and Tim Hume

From the 30th of June to the 6th of July, we attended the 2019 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in physics. It was a meeting that invited 39 Nobel laureates in physics and 580 young scientists (from undergraduate to post docs) from 89 countries across the world to Lindau, Germany, to discuss the emerging topics in physics and how science can address important global challenges. We feel incredibly privileged to attend, and so in order to make the most of the experience we hope to share everything we learnt to you.

Here are some of the main lessons we learnt:

  • Nobel Prize winners are not that much different to other scientists.
    All the Nobel Prize winners had very different personalities. They were regular people, like you and me and they were not infallible people. Many suggest that winning the Prize was pure luck! It is why following your curiosity is essential as you never know what results you will find - nature may surprise you! For this reason, the difference between a Nobel prize winner and other scientists is not as large as you might expect.
  • The scope of the physics (and science) world is big!
    We met researchers and Nobel laureates spanning all fields in physics, from astrophysics, cold matter physics, biophysics, topological physics and more. It allowed us to appreciate how much bigger the physics world is than our own specialised fields. This is actually very inspiring news - there are so many interesting open problems out there!  It was also interesting to speak to other young scientists about how scientific problems are approached differently around the world in different cultures and institutions. We also learnt that Australia is a very privileged place to do science. In developing countries such as Venezuela, young physicists can only do theory because their institutions don’t have the funding for big experiments.
  • Fundamental research is important for society.
    Many of the laureates emphasised the importance of curiosity-driven research, because this forms a pipeline of knowledge that fuels the innovation and applications of science decades into the future. The marvels of modern electronics owes its success to the development of quantum mechanics, Wi-Fi arose from CSIRO scientists studying black holes and focussed laser beams have enabled the invention of optical tweezers used in medical research. Some of the Lindau Aussies travelled to Berlin after the meeting to explore how the German research system translates fundamental research into real-world outcomes with dedicated research institutions at each stage of the process. We visited some of them, where we saw experiments pushing the frontier of pulsed lasers and how new semiconductors will advance our smartphones ten years from now.
  • No path to success is linear.
    Wolfgang Ketterle (2001 Nobel Prize) bounced from theory to experiment and switched fields completely several times before his ground-breaking results on Bose-Einstein Condensates. “General skills and the ability to learn are much more important than specific knowledge,” he said. Donna Strickland (2018 Nobel Prize) temporarily gave up the idea of an academic career and took up a position as a technician for several years before becoming Assistant Professor at Waterloo. Brian Schmidt (2011 Nobel Prize) was actually fourth on the list for an ANU job and only got it because the other three people turned it down. Eight days into his new position, he discovered the expansion of the universe was accelerating. It is easy to feel like we need a particular life trajectory to be successful, but the reality is that it is often in unexpected routes of life that we discover the best things.

Here are some of our best memories during the meeting:

  • Janet’s favourite memories
    The field I am studying (topological photonics) was invented by Duncan Haldane (2016 Nobel Prize), so seeing him just wandering around and getting to ask him questions was pretty surreal. I really enjoyed hearing the perspective of people who did things outside of physics, such as Brian’s experience as Vice-Chancellor. My favourite memories are often with the other young scientists. I loved hearing about different countries and it was really powerful to hear both struggles and successes others have had in science and life. It was especially fun being around the Aussie delegation. I am socially driven and I have met so many more physicists that I want to be like! Being somewhat sceptical of prestige and fame, the meeting affected me more than I expected. It planted the seeds for future ambitions by making me think of big picture physics as well as the roles we may play in society. It is a privilege to attend, and I only hope I can pay this forward by contributing back to the communities I am a part of in the future.
  • Tim’s favourite memories.
    I especially recall being inspired by 2018 Laureate, Gérard Mourou, while talking with him about nuclear physics experiments that could be made possible with (VERY) high energy lasers! This could completely transform my field in the decades ahead, and it was incredible to have this conversation with one of the scientists who has led the way in advancing the frontier of this technology. It is hard to pinpoint the highlights because the great value of the meeting was in every conversation with the other young scientists. I heard about working in a US National Laboratory or a Max Planck Institute, I discussed what particle colliders should be built next and whether nuclear fusion will solve our energy problems, and I learned how politics, culture and geography influence how science is done around the world. I am confident the experience will continue to shape my future in ways I am yet to realise, and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to attend.

Here are some key questions from this meeting. How would you answer them?

  • If you had the power and influence of a Nobel laureate, what would you do with it?
    Winning a Nobel prize transforms your life and opens the gateway to many other opportunities. “You could spend your time just meeting kings and queens,” after winning a Nobel prize. However, it also carries a weight of responsibility, as in many ways the Laureates are expected to serve as representatives of scientists from their country, their field and around the world. The Prize provides a platform for affecting change in science and policy or tackling global challenges. Some have used this to venture beyond research into other leadership roles. Steven Chu (1997 Nobel Prize) became Secretary of Energy for the Obama administration, and our very own Brian Schmidt (2011 Nobel Prize) became Vice-Chancellor in 2016. As a Nobel laureate you have a much louder voice. What would you want to say with it?
  • What is the key to success in science?
    Michael Kosterlitz (2016 Nobel Prize) said that winning a Nobel prize was 95% luck and 5% smarts. However, there are some Nobel laureates that have consistently proven ground-breaking results and while many discoveries were unexpected, some Nobel laureates knew exactly what they were searching for and had to convince their supervisors to let them try their ground-breaking idea. Some of them have been consistently ground-breaking. In that sense, is success luck? Or is success in science more about picking the right problems?
  • Should you dare to dream? Is a Nobel Prize a good thing to aim for?
    Winning a Nobel prize is statistically improbable. Even continuing in academia is statistically improbable. Is it a fallacy then, to believe you can win a Nobel prize? More importantly, is it a good thing to aim for? Donna Strickland (2018 Nobel Prize) actually said there were several times when she wanted to give the Nobel Prize back. But a Nobel prize is one of the few extravagant things in science. Perhaps it is not the award itself that is most fulfilling but the idea that you can produce results that can fundamentally change society or our knowledge of the world. This is something that we, as scientists, can aspire to achieve through our research. If there’s one thing we gained from the meeting, it is a sense of excitement at the thirst for knowledge, vision to solve problems and willingness to work together that exists among young scientists around the world. It is perhaps in the pursuit of dreams that we achieve most highly.

How do you get to attend one of these meetings?

All of the young scientists apply to the Lindau Council and applications are assessed by their Review Panel. Anyone can apply directly, but you can also be invited to apply with a nomination from a partner institution or a Nobel Laureate. The Australian Academy of Science nominates up to ten PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers. Every year the discipline theme of the meeting changes. It is good to keep in mind the year when your discipline will have a meeting. One of the Lindau Aussies knew of the meeting four years ago and even set an alarm a year in advance to remind herself to apply! We were chosen because of both academic merit and our community involvement. So if you work hard and get involved, you never know how this might come back around in the future. An important takeaway is that there are plenty of cool opportunities in science! We are just two undergraduates lucky enough to already travel and meet amazing people through physics.

We thank the ANU Research School of Physics and the Australian Science Academy Science and Industry Endowment Fund for supporting us.

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