Thursday, July 01, 2010

Lindau 2010: Island Full Of Ideas

I am very fortunate in being invited again to blog for the 60th Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany. This year's interdisciplinary star cast features more than 60 Nobel Prize winners from physics, chemistry and medicine and more than 600 young students and researchers from around the world. It's been a pleasure blogging for this one-of-a-kind meeting. Below are listed some of my posts with excerpts. You can click on the titles to read the full posts.

1. Reflections on Nobel City

Cities, just like human beings, have character. The character is frequently defined by little things as well as big. For instance New York is The Big Apple, Paris the city of fashion, Sydney the city with the Opera House and Rio de Janeiro the carnival city. Small cities are also known for their own accomplishments. For instance, last year I visited the the little German city of Magdeburg which is known for Otto von Guericke, the man who established the physics of vacuums through a famous experiment involving horses...

2. Microwaves, Magnetism and Machine Grease: A Paean to Tool-Driven Science

John Turton Randall was trying hard, real hard. For some time now, the University of Birmingham physicist was focusing on trying to improve the features of a machine which transmitted and received electromagnetic waves. A few years back this would have been just another intriguing academic problem for a physicist to crack, but this time it was a matter of life and death for thousands. Literally. It was 1939, and an ominous menace loomed large over Europe in the person of Adolf Hitler. The machine Randall was working on was designed to thwart Hitler's attempts to invade the British mainland. It sent out electromagnetic waves of meter wavelength and tried to deduce the position of an object based on its reflection of these waves. The operating principle of this humble machine later turned into a household name- Radar...

3. Pigeon Waste, Cosmic Melodies and Noise in Scientific Communication

There it was, that darned noise again.

Nobody could possibly be happy cleaning pigeon droppings. Yet Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were being forced to do it. As good scientists they simply could not avoid it, since they had to discount the role of this "white dielectric substance" in the noise that was plaguing their equipment. When they finished with the cleaning and dispatched the pigeons by mail to a faraway place, the noise still did not disappear. And it seemed to come from all directions. The implications of this annoying constant background hum, corresponding to a temperature of only 3 degrees above absolute zero, signified one of the most momentous discoveries in twentieth-century physics, notable even among Nobel Prize-winning discoveries...

4. Paul Crutzen's Other Big Idea

Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen will be at Lindau this year, along with his fellow recipient F. Sherwood Rowland. The two along with Mario Molina contributed to one of the most significant intersections of science with politics and public policy in the twentieth century when they discovered the effects of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemical compounds on the all-important ozone layer. Crutzen is well-known for that contribution...

5. Mountains Beyond Mountains

The scientist, by the very nature of his commitment, creates more and more questions, never fewer. Indeed, the measure of our intellectual maturity is our capacity to feel less and less satisfied with our answers to better problems.- G.W. Allport, Becoming, 1955

Science in the popular mind consists of a series of "Eureka!" moments. Such moments are supposed to suddenly propel scientific fields ahead at accelerating rates. Many anecdotes from scientific history seem to confirm this belief. It all begins with Archimedes jumping out of the bath after discovering the principle of buoyancy. Other examples include the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, August Kekule waking up from a dream and realizing the structure of benzene, Enrico Fermi discovering slow neutrons by ‘randomly’ substituting a block of paraffin for a tabletop, Alexander Fleming ‘accidentally’ discovering the action of a famous mold on bacteria, and Werner Heisenberg discovering the awesome structure of the quantum world after an all-night session on the island of Heligoland in the North Sea...

6. Heisenberg and Dirac

Beatrice's story about Heisenberg possibly inspiring the "Schunkelwalzer" dancing tradition at Lindau reminds me of an ancedote about Heisenberg and Paul Dirac. Both were two of the most accomplished scientists of the twentieth century who made foundational contributions to quantum mechanics. But while Heisenberg loved song, dance and wine, Dirac was a very quiet man and a singularly unusual character who generously extended his abstract thinking to interpreting the world literally. This inevitably led him to being an anecdote generator throughout his life and many stories about him abound. Here are a few, concluding with the story about him and Heisenberg...

7. Infections and Disease: The Golden Age

Harald zur Hausen's discovery of the link between infection and cancer provides a window into what may turn out to be one of the most fascinating lines of inquiry in twenty-first century medical research: the link between microorganisms and what have been traditionally considered chronic diseases.

This line of inquiry is founded on an evolutionary truth. Bacteria and viruses have been human beings' most constant companions, existing on this planet billions of years before we did and greeting us as we climbed out of the trees and walked out of Africa. Since the very beginning we have been engaged in an arms race with microbes. The conventional wisdom is that these arms races have led to an essentially benign co-existence between us and "them". But recent thinking has challenged this widespread belief and the truth appears to be more complicated...

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