Their advice to young scientists at the annual summer Lindau meetings

How it all started: Alfred Nobel’s philanthropic legacy

Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, among other things. His philanthropic legacy of the Nobel prizes laid in 1895 when he wrote his last will and left much of his enormous wealth from 355 patents to be divided into five parts and to be used for prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, Literature and Peace to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

There is also the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which was established in 1968 and endowed by Sweden’s central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank on the occasion of the bank’s 300th anniversary. Although it’s not one of the Nobel Prizes established by Nobel’s will, it’s announced with and awarded at the same ceremony. Also like the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry and Physics, Laureates in Economics are selected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) and a Prize Committee similar to the Nobel Committees Is used.

Women outnumber men scientists for the first time this year in Lindau

For the first time in its 64-year history, this year’s prestigious, invitation-only 64th Lindau Meeting of young scientists and Nobel Laureates, held annually every summer since 1951 in the same picturesque Bavarian town of Lindau near the southern tip of Lake Constance in Germany, was made up of more women than men (52% to 48%, respectively). Between 3,000 and 4,000 graduate and post-graduate students in science representing almost 80 countries applied to attend this year’s 64th Lindau meeting in Physiology or Medicine. “This year, for the first time, more young women than men have qualified” for the coveted 600 spots, Countess Bettina Bernadotte told participants at the opening ceremony.

The Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings began organising this event in 1951 with the aim of encouraging the transfer of knowledge between generations of scientists, reinforcing international networks, and inspiring both young researchers and Nobel laureates. The meetings are dedicated alternately to chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. Every five years, the meeting is interdisciplinary in nature. Meetings in the economic sciences have taken place every two years since 2004.

Laureates demystify their path to glory and talk about what it takes to be a (responsible) scientist

What do the Nobel laureates have to say to the younger generations about how to stay the course over the decades it can take to achieve the greatest discoveries of mankind?

In the course of our research, we found this video of a panel discussion, “Being a (Responsible) Scientist”, that took place during the 61st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (Physiology or Medicine) in 2011. Here Laureates offer their best advice on how to successfully pursue a career of meaningful scientific discovery.

The following is a small sample of our favorite excerpts.

On how hard one has to work to be a scientist

I never found it work. I found it fun. When you are really excited on what you do, it is not work. You want to be in the lab. You want to be there. …So it’s very exciting. I never consider that work.
(Edmond Fischer, Physiology or Medicine, 1992)

You do have to have some time to relax and take off… I think you have to have a balance… If you find it hard work after 5 o’clock, you should find another job.
(Thomas Steitz, Chemistry, 2009)

Working hard is what we actually do and I think for me fun is having a glass of wine and watching Wimbledon or something like that (laughing). But it’s something else, I don’t think fun really encapsulates it as well, it’s the fact that you get into something that really interests you and everything else just disappears. You are prepared to work till midnight and further on, so I think fun is too trivial a word for it. I think it is fun after you’ve discovered something and it’s pretty miserable if you’ve spent 18 hours on a thing and nothing works. It takes a certain type of resilience to keep on and do that for a living… There’s something about the creative process which is the same in the sciences as it is in the arts and in other places, and that is there’s something in the human spirit which focuses on something… and everything else disappears, the hard work disappears, it’s no longer hard work and it’s fun when you win….But you have to have that resilience and I think that’s what scientists have more than anything else.
(Harold Kroto, Chemistry, 1996)

The case for basic science research versus strategic “translational” research

Think Mendel. He was growing peas in the garden, one day he wondered why they came out with white flowers, yellow flowers, pink flowers. People probably had observed that for a million years, nobody wondered why, he wondered why. And he succeeded by separating the grains by keeping track and finding the laws of heredity. Roentgen. He was interested in what was happening in electricity going in vacuum tubes, one day he saw that electrons bouncing against it could light up a fluorescent screen and he discovered the x-rays. Now if Mendel and Roentgen had applied for NIH grants, supposing it existed, there’s not a chance in a million that they would have received a cent, they would say what does growing peas and playing with electricity have to do with medicine? And yet they made the greatest discovery.

Roentgen was not the first to observe x-rays. Crookes, he designed superb vacuum tubes, and he used to run them, and one day one of his students came running to him and said, “Professor, I had a whole bunch of photographic plates and they were all exposed.” And he got held by his professor, who said, “You know how much those photographic plates cost, put them away the next time.” He never wondered why.

So not only do you have to make an observation, you have to realize that it is important.

As Harry (Kroto) said, you cannot buy a discovery at whatever cost. Because you never know when it will come and from where it will come.
(Edmond Fischer, Physiology or Medicine, 1992)

On the definition of good science

It depends, you know, for a young scientist his success will depend a lot on his imagination and on his intuition. Very much like an artist, who finds himself in front of a blank canvas, he must see things that don’t yet exist. I think his success will depend a hell of a lot on that.
(Edmond Fischer, Physiology or Medicine, 1992)

It all depends what you mean by “good.” And if with “good” you mean winning a Nobel Prize, think again. Because, as far as I’m concerned, the science that I’m most proud but satisfied with, you’ve never heard of. It turns out the experiment that uncovered the Nobel Prize was a very mundane experiment that really was a starter experiment. It didn’t look very interesting. …It has to be a personal thing, not what other people think.
(Harold Kroto, Chemistry, 1996)

I think the only way you can really tell is to be having conversations with your colleagues constantly….and getting that sense of whether it’s a good idea, and more importantly, getting additional ideas as to how you could do your experiment better.
(Thomas Steitz, Chemistry, 2009)

On the vital importance of collaboration

[Collaboration] is absolutely indispensible if you want science to develop. And in this respect, you play a very important role, you are the people who have to collaborate with us, you know, with your youthful imagination, your enthusiasm, and one day carry the ball when we’ll stop. So that’s your position in the collaboration in science.
(Edmond Fischer, Physiology or Medicine, 1992)

Balancing short and long term priorities

We have to have a balance. I have a 50-yr type project, long ranging. On the other hand, I have today’s plan, a weekly plan, a monthly plan, and a seasonal plan… and a yearly, 3-year, 5-year, 10-year plan. (Ei-ichi Negishi, Chemistry, 2010)

At the end of the day, I loved the back burner. Always have something on the side. (Harold Kroto, Chemistry, 1996)

On doubt, being right, being wrong, and making mistakes

Einstein said it beautifully when he said, “No experiment will ever prove that I’m right, but an experiment at any time can prove that I’m wrong”.

This element of doubt is a very, very important one in science. …Science teaches you that you might always be wrong. It’s always a possibility, and if everyone could agree to this premise, if everybody could agree that they might be wrong, it would be the end of fanaticism, all kinds of fanaticism.
(Edmond Fischer, Physiology or Medicine, 1992)

One of our responsibilities as scientists is to get things correct. And I’m finding it increasingly becoming politically incorrect to point out that someone has made a mistake. Well, it isn’t nice to tell somebody that they just screwed up. But you know in the end, I feel our mission as scientists is to get to the truth.

If you never make mistakes, you will never make an important discovery.
(Thomas Steitz, Chemistry, 2009)

When you are in doubt, when you are lost, seek a fine mentor.
(Ei-ichi Negishi, Chemistry, 2010)

The most vital thing for scientists, you will make mistakes, that’s human nature, you will make mistakes. If you are going to do science, or if you are going to do anything, you make a proposal, it’s your responsibility to ensure that it’s right. It’s only in the sciences that you can actually be right. Everything else is garbage. Science is the one thing where the Universe will be the final arbiter. And as Max Perutz said, in science, the Universe always wins.
(Harold Kroto, Chemistry, 1996)

The Laureates do selfies too
Check out Sidney University’s science ambassador and self-proclaimed geek Adam Spencer’s series of Selfies with Nobel Laureates.

The lectures and panel discussions of this year’s 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, as well as earlier meetings, can be found in the Mediatheque. You can also see latest pictures on FlickR, read blogposts from the meetings on the Lindau Nobel Community blog, and check out the twitter craze.