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Lessons from the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

The annual gathering of brilliant minds highlights the importance of networking for career advancement.

By Alaina G. Levine

Imagine a crucible of intelligence, a nest of innovation. What would it look like?

This summer I was privileged to attend the largest amassment of physics Nobel laureates at one point in space and time: the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. The annual conference of scholarly celebrities takes place in Lindau, Germany, a quaint little village on the shores of Lake Constance near Austria and Switzerland. The subject of the meeting changes every year and brings together the laureates from a specific discipline and related areas. This year, with physics on the program, 29 physics and chemistry laureates attended, along with approximately 300 students and postdocs from 80 countries who had applied for and received travel grants.

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings
Nobel laureates Brian Schmidt and Bill Phillips enjoy some time out on the water with
Lindau meeting attendees. Credit: Alaina Levine

 The Lindau meetings were last dedicated to physics in 2012, when I also had the pleasure of attending. When I started writing about it, I couldn’t help but refer to Lindau as “nerd heaven.” It is an enchanted gathering, where laureates and ambitious young scientists come together to engage in stimulating dialog about deep and weighty scientific topics; where Nobels and even nobles (read on) mingle and share war stories of what it is like to heart science. It is a nexus where collaborations are launched, friendships are crafted, and inspiration is born.

My participation in both Lindau meetings was as a journalist, but not simply as a solicitous observer. In many cases, I was an active participant. I greatly enjoyed speaking with laureates, students, and special guests. This year’s prominent non-Nobelists included Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, who was there on an exchange program with another nerdy conference, the Heidelberg Laureate Forum.

Not surprisingly, we can learn a lot from partaking of the intelligence buffet that is Lindau. Here are some career tips that I gained from my time in nerd heaven:

  • Opportunities are fleeting and should be treasured. During the conference, while the town of Lindau is bursting at the seams with Nobels, it may seem that having a laureate at every session and dinner table is no big deal. But those who attend know that this chance to have open conversation with brilliant minds is fleeting. So attendees take advantage of every opportunity to engage the laureates and learn from them. And guess what? The laureates feel exactly the same way. They come year after year to interact with each other and the up-and-comers. They also recognize that moments to chat with rising stars are ephemeral. So they seize the opportunity when they can. Your takeaway: Take advantage of transitory moments to converse and interface with others.
  • Networking is expected at conferences. Lindau’s theme is “Educate. Inspire. Connect.” The organizers work tirelessly to follow through on this mission. The conference is designed for networking, with many opportunities for the young scientists to talk to the Nobel laureates. There are official speeches during which students get to sit near the laureates to have quick access after their remarks. There are afternoon master classes in which the aspiring scientists share their own research and have the laureates provide feedback. Then come the late-day private group meetings. Every night there are also parties, which allow the laureates to mingle with attendees. The students even networked with the conference organizers, including Countess Bettina Bernadotte, president of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, whose family launched the Lindau meetings in 1951. Your takeaway: Remember that all conferences are made for networking. They are created precisely to optimize opportunities for people to come together and collaborate.
  • The Nobel laureates are human beings. They laugh, they cry, they tell jokes, they make mistakes, they fail. Knowing this is vital to working in science, or any profession. So treat them as leaders who are actual living, breathing people, as opposed to creatures of the heavens. Your takeaway: The laureates are just older versions of you, and you’re human, aren’t you?
  • And yet, a little fandom is OK. At Lindau, you can’t help but feel giddy when you see a parade of physics stars take the stage for a panel on the standard model. It’s similarly exciting to hear 2011 chemistry laureate Dan Shechtman talk about the beauty of soap bubbles, or 2011 physics laureate Brian Schmidt tell a joke during a casual encounter in a lounge. And the laureates are fine with this. They know they will be asked to pose for selfies and to sign autographs. They seem to enjoy it, as long as students are respectful—and from what I observed they always were. Your takeaway: If you find yourself interfacing with a leader in your field, it is fine to acknowledge their expertise and contributions, and to engage them in a dialog about their experiences. Be as respectful and dignified as possible. And don’t engage in cosplay.
  • Science is important. It seems silly to say this, but in today’s world, with people thinking that global warming isn’t real and investment in fundamental physics has no value, it is always a good idea to step back and remember that science is important. At Lindau, it’s not just that scientific contributions are celebrated; science is specifically tied to critical issues facing the world today. The young scholars in attendance don’t simply witness a cheerleading section for science. Rather, they are taught that scientists are critical in informing humanity’s decision making. I saw this at Lindau during panel discussions on artificial intelligence, women in science, climate change, energy, education, and quantum information. Your takeaway: When you are having a bad day and wondering why you chose science, remember that whatever you do with your degree matters greatly.
  • There is enormous value in diversity. There is always value when diverse minds come together. Whether that diversity lies in educational backgrounds, nationalities, cultures, genders, or even areas of physics, the more diverse an aggregation of people, the more opportunities for innovation and novel solutions to pressing problems. The organizers of the Lindau meetings know this, so they ensure that a diversity of students attend. Your takeaway: Welcome, encourage, and foster diversity in your teams, your field, and your institution. You will grow as a scholar, you will find better and more complete answers, and you will enjoy friendships and alliances that you never thought possible.
  • Failure is always a factor. At Lindau, failures aren’t hidden; rather, they are spotlighted, because it is important for early-career scientists to understand that they will never be 100% successful. There will be times when they will want to run away or scream or punch a hole in the wall. There will be times when they don't get that fellowship or this grant. Yet it means absolutely nothing in the standard model of success. Your takeaway: Roll with the punches. If you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough. Nobody is perfect.

Beyond the aforementioned career tips, Lindau demonstrates that with great physics comes great responsibility. Over and over, the young scientists at Lindau were told that the future of the world is in their hands. From Countess Bernadotte to the laureates themselves, speakers sent a continuous, central message that early-career scientists have a platform to make a difference. Physics-educated professionals have access to the kind of knowledge that is the gateway to making a positive difference for humankind. And that’s a big deal. Help humanity by using your physics superpowers for good—and maybe, sooner or later, you’ll meet the king of Sweden.

The author expresses appreciation to the organizers of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings for a partial travel fellowship to attend.

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. She is the author of Networking for Nerds, which was named by Physics Today as one of the top five books of 2015. She can be reached through her website, www.alainalevine.com, or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.