Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wine, wisdom and wish-fulfillment at Lindau

This cannot get any better. There's everything here; the opportunity to interact with dozens of Nobel prizewinners in a very informal setting, spectacular views of the alps bordered by three countries (Germany, Switzerland and Austria), nice bicycle rides, a charming hotel to stay in, polonaises to dance to, great banquets with varied food and drink and a festive atmosphere, really nice people to interact with (my co-bloggers are super-friendly and helpful) and dinner with small groups of students and Nobel laureates. I could not have asked for anything more. Here's me with my wunderbar fellow bloggers. I also ran into Bora and PZ Myers of Pharyngula and had a nice walk with them around town. Both of them are attending and vigorously blogging as usual and Bora was also part of a panel discussion on open science access.

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This year India is a partner country and has sent the third-largest delegation of students, about 43. Guests included the minister for human resources Kapil Sibal and the minister for science and technology S. E. Chavan. As a partner country India hosted a wonderful banquet yesterday with lots of Indian food, followed by an Indian dance performance. This was followed by a Lindau tradition; a polonaise in which the ladies and the gentlemen form lines and ascend the stage from both sides. The gentlemen pick up a flower and present it to whichever lady happens to be in front of them in the center of the stage. The polonaise then breaks into a waltz, and the dancing continues late into the night. There is purportedly ghastly photographic evidence of a certain individual trying to waltz.

Most importantly, you cannot help but be taken in by the picture of hundreds of students from every possible country interacting so enthusiastically with each other, underscoring the global nature and brotherhood of science. Indians interact with Belorussians, Americans interact with Poles, Chinese interact with Russians, Zambians interact with Germans. And Nobel Prize winners participate in the dances and interact with everyone else. The atmosphere is truly international and sparkles with verve.

Today I had the opportunity to conduct an informal interview with Prof. Peter Agre whom I had also met last year. But this year it was one-on-one for 40 mins and was truly enjoyable since Prof. Agre is an exceptionally witty and nice person. You can read about the interview here.You can find the rest at the official Lindau blog, including all my posts (my name is right below each). Updating will continue all week long. Keep watching that spot for more!


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blogging from ground zero- day one

I have finally arrived in Lindau, Bavaria to offer my thoughts on the meeting of minds between 500 students, 23 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and the handful of acting scientific journalists such as myself. The journey itself was uneventful but very long. It took me almost the same time to get from Frankfurt to this little island as it took me to get from New York City to Frankfurt. I had to change trains twice, first at Mannheim and then at Stuttgart. Plus I think I am still to savor the punctuality of German transport since my train was delayed by more than half an hour at Stuttgart and then twice more at miscellaneous stops. However I have to admit that this still beats driving or any form of personal transport.

I cannot yet offer my thoughts on the environment Lindau provides, but one thing stuck out as I passed over a bridge; a spectacular view of the Alps on the other side of the Bodensee. Again, I have yet to see around, but an island at the base of the alps which is located in Germany, Austria and Switzerland cannot exactly be dull and ugly, can it?

I have already started blogging on the Lindau blog website and I would prefer not to cross-post that material in other places. Here is the link to the website and to my first three posts:

Lindau blogs website

Exemplifying apprenticeship; The Lindau meetings

Diversity of talks; diversity of science

Surfaces, ammonia, ozone and scientific destiny

Live-blogging starts tomorrow! Here is the program for tomorrow:

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

"The partisans have ampicillin". Really?

The Russian covert antibiotic program must have been hugely successful

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In an effort to stave off the boredom that inevitably accompanies adjustment to a new environment, I was watching the WW2-era movie "Defiance" yesterday. The movie is based on an astounding true story about two Jewish brothers (played by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) who hide and lead a band of Jewish refugees through the forests of Belorussia for two years and thwart the Nazis' plans for their extermination. Surviving on food killed and obtained in the jungle, defending themselves with stolen small firearms and occasionally seeking the help of partisans from the Red Army, the Bielski brothers and their group provide one of the most exemplary stories of resistance against the Nazis during the war.

So far so good, and the movie is not bad at all. But during one scene my ears suddenly perked up. There is a winter epidemic of typhus threatening to wipe out the population. A nurse tells Craig that the disease is spread by lice and without medical attention the patients will certainly die. To prevent this, she says, Craig and his group must borrow ampicillin from the Red Army. "The partisans have ampicillin", she says with hope and concern.

Which is all fine, except that ampicillin was not even known in 1942. It was introduced only in 1961. Even penicillin was a closely guarded secret in 1942. Plus I am not even sure if typhus is properly treated with beta-lactam antibiotics of the penicillin type.

I was further chagrined when in order to confirm this I visited the Wikipedia page on penicillin. While it otherwise looked ok, it also said that the first total synthesis of penicillin was achieved by the legendary chemist Robert Burns Woodward at Harvard. Again, not true. Woodward synthesized cephalosporin. It was John Sheehan from MIT who synthesized penicillin after a mammoth effort of 15 years. The error is now rectified.

Seems the directors of Defiance and the editors of the Wikipedia penicillin page have the same problem of fact-checking.