I enjoyed Dr. Veltman’s presentation style in the morning session so I decided to go to his discussion section in the afternoon.  He was using a microphone, but unfortunately the combination of his slight accent and the terrible echo in the room meant I could hardly understand what he was saying.  He seemed to get a lot of tough questions from the audience.  No one asked about his inspiration, or hobbies or anything.  Mostly people just seemed to want to challenge his views and argue with him.  He took it well, though, and argued right back.  He seemed like a sarcastic and funny guy, and I would have liked to speak with him one-on-one.  As it was, I didn’t get much out of the discussion section and was frankly surprised at the tone of some of the students addressing him.

One of the extra events I was invited to was a lunch Tuesday with about half the American delegation and all of the students from India.  I sat with three boys and one girl from India and one boy from the US (not everyone is in the picture below).

I was surprised to learn that most of the Indian students at the Lindau Meeting were the equivalent of undergrads in their school progress.  My first go-to question for meeting another student at a conference is “What’s your research?”  As undergrads they’re not doing any research yet, so we had to find other things to talk about.  I learned some about the different states of India and their food.  Although the guys weren’t doing research themselves, they talked about what they might go into and what research is more popular in India.  I guess some people do experimental research, but it is much more common to do theory work.  In particular, India has a lot of the experts on string theory.

Tuesday I got to sleep in a little and have a nice breakfast at the hotel before heading over to the Inselhalle for the talks.

Since I got there a bit earlier than Monday I had time to look for a good seat.  I took one in the front row.  A few minutes later Dr. Kohn came and sat by me.  This was two days in a row getting to sit by a Laureate!  Before the Lindau Meeting I wanted to memorize all the Laureates that were going to attend so when I ran into them I would at least know their name and topic of their prizewinning research.  However, there are only so many hours in the day, so I did not actually get everyone memorized.  So, sitting by Dr. Kohn, I sneakily opened my program book to Dr. Kohn’s page for a little refresher.  He won a 1998 Physics prize for his work that lead to the density functional theory.  He’s one of the older Laureates that was at the meeting; he was born in 1923.

Links to the morning talks are below.

Dr. Martinus J.G. Veltman “The LHC at CERN and the Higgs”  Dr. Veltman is a good speaker and a funny guy.  I like his skeptical approach to explaining the Standard Model, Higgs, etc.  He didn’t have time to go through all his slides but was planning on talking more about the connection of particle physics to cosmology and the problems of it.  He ended with saying, “Theory would say the universe should be like hand sized, but this goes against experimental data.”

Dr. Carlo Rubia “Neutrinos: a Golden Field for Astroparticle Physics”  Dr. Rubia spoke very quickly but was almost perfectly on time with his talk.  He gave an overview of neutrinos and the many experiments that are trying to detect them.

Dr. David J. Gross “A Centruy of Quantum Mechanics”  Dr. Gross’ talk was an overview of how quantum mechanics was developed and all the successes it has had.  It works over huge time and space scales, explains things inside the nucleus as well as large systems, it works with Maxwell’s equations.  Still there are some things it doesn’t explain well, and we may be at a transition point to a new theory–just as 100 years ago they transitioned from classical to quantum.

Coffee Break

During the break I introduced myself to Dr. Kohn and asked about his talk on Thursday called “Blindness and Physics.  A Progress Report.”  I asked something like, Have you switched to more of a medical area of research?  He responded by basically saying, No, it’s just math.  Come to the talk and you’ll find out.

I got up to stretch my legs and get some water.  When I returned to my seat, Dr. Kohn was not next to me, but I hoped he would come back.  Another student asked if the chair was free and I said, No, a Laureate is sitting there.  As the second set of talks was about to start, Dr. Kohn still hadn’t come to sit and it seemed clear that he had moved.  Just as I started to feel silly for waving away the other student, Dr. Rubia sat next to me.  Awesome!  Just announce confidently that a Laureate is sitting next to you, and it shall be so.

I introduced myself to Dr. Rubia and asked him if he was relieved his talk was over.  He said not really because he still had several other things to do this week–he’s in the panel about CERN tomorrow and also was on the energy panel on Friday.  It would have been nice to talk more with him.  He was quite talkative, made gestures with his hands, and touched my arm at a couple points in the conversation.  He was one of the two Laureates scheduled to do the Nature filming with me on Wednesday, so I was definitely looking forward to interacting with him more.

More talks

Dr. Albert Fert “The Present and Future Impact of Spin Electronics on the Information and Communication Technologies”  Dr. Fert’s talk was quite technical.  I didn’t grasp all the details, but the idea of using spintronics in electronics and thus reducing their power consumption is exciting.  Dr. Rubia, who was sitting next to me, seemed agitated (he was sighing and making hand gestures) that Dr. Fert went over time.

Dr. William D. Phillips “Creating Artificial Magnetic Fields to Act on Neutral Atoms”  At the beginning of Dr. Phillips talk, one of the Lindau photographers came and stood directly in front of Dr. Rubia so that he could get a close up of Dr. Phillips presenting.  Dr. Rubia did not appreciate someone standing in front of him blocking his view, so he swatted the camera man out of the way.  Dr. Phillips talk was a bit hard for me to understand as it’s something I really haven’t heard about before.  I could tell Dr. Phillips was excited about his work.  As he presented he walked on the stage instead of just standing at the podium and made a lot of emphasizing gestures with his hands.  I got the feeling that if I had the chance to ask him personally, he would be able to explain his research so that I understood.  I found out later that the tie Dr. Phillips is wearing shows Luke Skywalker’s view as he is about to blow up the Deathstar.

Dr. Brian D. Josephson “The Real M-Theory”  Now this was an interesting talk.  Not very easy to follow, but definitely different.  From what I gathered, Dr. Josephson is working on a non-math based theory that encompasses more than traditional physics.  For example, ways of explaining biological systems, brain activity, organized movement of flocks of birds .  I certainly can agree with the overall idea that there are many systems and phenomena in the universe that we can’t explain well with our current physics system.  However, Dr. Josephson’s presentation was hard to follow–not because of its technical depth but because of the organization and presentation.  His last slide was a painting his wife did of a sheep all by itself, and it symbolized Dr. Josephson being separate from the rest of the physics community.  Not really surprisingly, Dr. Rubia also seemed agitated during this presentation.

Each year at Lindau the first day is an international day that is hosted by one of the attending countries.  Last year the US hosted.  This year it was Singapore.  The Science Breakfast featured three Singapore researchers, and lunch was Singapore food.  The most exciting event during the day was the dinner hosted by Singapore.  It was held in the Inselhalle, which had been converted from rows of seats to many dinner tables surrounding a small dance floor area.

Each Laureate had an assigned table, but the students could sit anywhere they wanted.  I chose to sit at Dr. Molina’s table.  I was only sitting one person away from Dr. Molina, but didn’t get to talk to him at all during the dinner because the guy sitting next to me monopolized his time.  There wasn’t much time to chat anyway because of the Singapore presentation.

First we heard an introduction from Singapore President Tony Tan.  Then Dr. Ekert and Alexander Ling, both researchers in Singapore, talked about their research and how much they like being in Singapore.  Interspersed with their talks were several well made videos about the research centers in Singapore and Singapore culture.

The last part of the presentation was a song and dance done by a group of Singapore performers.  Their costumes were really colorful and they were energetic, but it was really more of a commercial for Singapore rather than a stunning cultural display.  Still, I enjoyed it.

Some things about working in Singapore sound great.  The President has really pushed the country to become a technology and education leader.  It sounds like they are heavily recruiting talented scientists, and it’s a place where science is actually valued and funded.  One of the things they announced during the dinner is that there will be a young researcher conference in Singapore in January 2013.  I’ll definitely look into that more as it could be a unique experience and good chance to see the country and its research facilities.

After the official program we finally got dinner.  It was a variety of Singapore food.  Lacking much experience with fine food from that region of the world, I would say it was tasty and similar to what I would call “Asian” or “Chinese” food.

Then there was a Lindau tradition, a polonaise dance.  The gentlemen lined up on one side of the stage and the ladies the other.  When a lady and gentleman walked to the center of the stage he handed her a red carnation and then escorted her down the central stage steps and around the room.  This continued until we ran out of ladies.  Once everyone was paired up that could be, there was a dance tune played, much like a waltz.  It was fun and out of the ordinary.  Almost no one knew how to actually waltz, but almost everyone I saw was giving it a try, or at least doing their own improvised dance in good spirits.

This concluded the formal events for the evening, and then the band played more “popular” songs and a bunch of us danced for a couple more hours.  The songs were a mix of German ones no one had heard of and covers of American songs done in a special German way.  It was tons of fun, and I was so happy to see other people just letting go and dancing, no matter their skill level.  Another great evening at Lindau.

In the afternoon each day at the Lindau Meeting, the Laureates who gave presentations that morning each had a discussion section, and students were free to attend any of them.  The Nature team had asked Vicky and I to try to avoid discussing energy issues with Dr. Molina or Dr. Rubia before the filming Wednesday to make sure our discussion was fresh.  I was somewhat tempted to attend Dr. Giaever’s discussion and see if students would ask him hard questions.  But I also thought his section would probably have a ton of people and maybe I didn’t want to encourage him by attending.

I decided to go to Dr. Smoot’s discussion; it was a good choice.  I must have been right that some of the other sections were huge because less than 15 people were at Dr. Smoot’s.  Now maybe from Dr. Smoot’s perspective he would have liked to have more students interested in his talk, but from my perspective it was awesome to have a small group.  I got to ask several questions and feel like I really got to interact with him.

My first question to Dr. Smoot was a technical one dealing with why the composition of the universe changes over time.  He gave a good answer that made me understand the concept, but to type it out here with enought background to make it clear what I was even asking about would take way too long.  If you’re really interested in the technical work that Dr. Smoot does, listen to his talk from the morning session (and you could also listen to Dr. Schmidt’s talk for more technical detail on a similar topic).  I’ll focus my account here on the nontechnical part of the discussion and try to convey a bit of Dr. Smoot’s personality.

I take furious notes and try to write everything I hear as accurately as possible, but still I must shorten and paraphrase things.  In writing Dr. Smoot’s answers to some questions here I do my best, but any mistakes or misrepresentations are my own unintentional fault.

My question:  When you were doing the work that led to your Nobel Prize, did you realize at the time how important it was?

Dr. Smoot’s paraphrased answer:  Science is timely.  You should pick a problem to work on that is important and can completed in around 5 years.  Just because you are the only person in the world that can make a measurement, what you’re doing is not necessarily important.  While you’re spending years and years on the experiment for that special measurement, science will flow around you and find another way.  I can think of many important problems, for example quantum gravity, but after 30 years the people working on it are still doing the same thing.

One of my mentors had a design for a new experiment, but told me to take a break and see if there is already a method available that could be applied to this problem instead of taking the time to build a new experiment.  So I read a lot and got some good ideas.  I picked working on the cosmic microwave background (CMB) because I thought it was important, it was doable, and if you’re going to look at the early universe you will surely find something important, and it was likely that more discoveries would follow in this area.

My summary:  No, he was not thinking of winning the Nobel Prize when he decided to work on the CMB project, but he picked that project specifically because it seemed like it could be completed in a few years and would likely give important information about the early universe.  He encouraged us students to select our research projects carefully too.

My question:  Is there something else you’re interested in?  Another area of science that you would investigate if time was not an issue?

Dr. Smoot’s paraphrased answer:  There are several Laureates who switched to research where the end use is really important rather than just basic understanding.  The previous generation had the cold war going on and people were grateful to science for developing atomic bombs, radar, etc and this made science funded very well.  When I started there was more freedom to research a new area.  After the cold war, science funding began to go down.  This is a problem for CERN and future machines.  Now it is even more important to have good reasoning for your research.

There are three categories of research:

1.  Pure research-where you just solve physics problems and don’t have much economic impact.  For example Einstein.

2.  Applied-Think of Thomas Edison who had tremendous economic impact

3.  In between-research that can be used directly.  I support this a lot, where there is interesting basic research but the end use is clear and advantageous.  For example, my colleague Steven Chu received a Nobel Prize for atomic beams, but then moved his research into biofuels because he thought it was such an important topic for the world.  He created different divisions like climate and also had a focus on industry and commercializing.

Certain countries are still supporting all kinds of scientific research.  For example, Singapore decided to invest heavily in science with 3-5% of its GDP whereas most countries only invest more like 0.5%

Another student’s question:  Can you talk about when you were on the show “The Big Bang Theory”?

Dr. Smoot’s  paraphrased answer:  I thought it was a good show that showed scientists in a semi-ok way, not just in lab coats.  Early on the goal of the show was to make fun of nerds and non-nerds and show how each group could be funny or normal.  Now the focus seems to have shifted to more focus on making fun of the nerds.  I had my secretary contact them and see if they would be interested in me being on the show and they were.  It was interesting and fun being on the set.  The actor that plays Sheldon is not a science person at all in reality, but does a really good job of memorizing all the technical things required.  Since I was in the episode I’m in the Screen Actor’s Guild.  Every time my episode is played I would get a check for around $76 but the SAG takes about $30 so I’m only left with $46.

When it was about the end of the scheduled time for the discussion Dr. Smoot got to talking about some really interesting topics like the holographic principle for black holes, the future not existing, space not being continuously 3-D, and what might have happened before the Big Bang.  He talked for at least 15 min after the supposed end time and I think would have kept going except for the reminders from the Lindau staff person that was there to escort him to his next event.  Despite the staffer trying to herd him away, Dr. Smoot was kind to all us students and stayed even longer to do some photos and autographs.  I was lucky enough to snag an individual photo with him.

Since the science breakfast was all the way down in the harbor across the island from the Inselhalle, I had to hurry to make it to the opening of the meeting at 9am.  I raced into the Inselhalle looking for any available seat, especially one close to the front.  I spied a seat near the center of a row that was only a few rows back from the stage.  Perfect.  I excused myself past all the other people who were already seated and dropped into the seat.  I looked to the person sitting to my left and it was Dr. Mather, one of the 2006 Nobel Prizewinners.  I think I said “Hi” but I really did just get in at the last moment and the talks were starting.

The Lindau Meeting does many great things, but one of them is that they videorecord all the Laureate presentations and make them available online to anyone.  I took a lot of notes during all the talks because that’s what I do, but I’ll try not to summarize the talks here.  If you’re interested, please follow the link to the Lindau Mediatheque and watch any of the talks from any of the meetings yourself.  I put individual links to the presentations I mention too.

The first presentation was given by Dr. Brian Schmidt, who I believe is currently the youngest Nobel Laureate in physics and who won the 2011 prize for showing that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.  His talk was pretty technical and dealt with his prize area of the expanding universe.  I liked how he ended his talk by saying basically the current model we have for the universe is pretty great except that we have to invent 95.5% of the universe’s contents.

Next was Dr. John Mather who gave the talk “Seeing Farther with New Telescopes.”  Dr. Mather won one of the 2006 Physics prizes for measuring the cosmic microwave background.  He is now working on the James Webb Space Telescope which is scheduled to launch in 2018.

Dr. George Smoot gave the third talk entitled “Mapping the Universe in Space and Time.”  Dr. Smoot was the other winner of the 2006 prize for also working on the telescope that measured the cosmic microwave background.  His talk was interesting and not too technical.  He even showed a clip from the movie “Contact” where she is traveling through space.  Apparently all the images for the space travel part came from the Hubble telescope.

During the coffee break I got to talk to Dr. Mather briefly, and he also agreed to take photo with me and another American Student, Vicky.  My first conversation and first picture with a Laureate!

At the coffee break I also met with the Nature film team to discuss the details of the film project about energy.  The three students selected were me, Vicky, and Neils, a German student.  We were scheduled to do the filming Wednesday morning with Dr. Molina and Dr. Rubia.  Dr. Molina’s talk was in the section after the coffee break, so the film team wanted to get some video shots of Vicky and me during his talk, reacting to what he was presenting.  Neils unfortunately missed a lot of the meeting due to some personal issues, so he wasn’t there and wasn’t able to be a part of this.

They found seats for Vicky and me in the front row next to Dr. Molina.  This was great, but the angle for taking pictures of the speakers was not so good.

Dr. Paul Crutzen started the second part of the morning session.  His talk had a lot of really good information about climate change and the environment, but his slides were basically just pages of text.

Next was Dr. Mario Molina with the talk “The Science and Policy of Climate Change.”  He won a 1995 prize in chemistry for showing that CFCs destroy the ozone.  This is a talk I would really recommend listening to.  Dr. Molina is a good speaker and his talk presents a lot of good information about climate change and a bit about the action that needs to be taken to avoid climate disaster.  At the end of his talk he put in a few digs at fellow Nobel Laureate Dr. Giaever.  He made the comment that you wouldn’t consult your dentist about your heart condition, so perhaps Dr. Giaever, whose area of expertise is not climate science, should not be considered a reliable source of climate change information.

This seemed a bit out of place until I realized that Dr. Ivar Giaever was going to give the next presentation “The Strange Case of “Global Warming”” in which he presents his viewpoint that people are not causing global warming and in fact global warming is not a real thing.

I certainly support the idea of critically reviewing all scientific data, including that related to global warming.  As scientists we try to be impartial, but there are always choices that need to be made about interpreting data and presenting it.  A fresh set of eyes, even from a different scientific background, can be helpful.  Dr. Giaever’s presentation did have some good ideas in it and points that are worth looking into more.  However, it was not a well though-out counter argument; he picked and chose certain tidbits of information and presented it in a way that seemed designed to rile people up and make them angry.

I was sitting just one person away from Dr. Molina in the front row during Dr. Giaever’s presentation.  Dr. Molina was visibly agitated.  He was making hand motions (strangling motions, perhaps? no, no, I kid) and vocalizing his disagreement.  At a couple points I almost thought he was going to jump out of his seat and challenge Dr. Giaever with counter-information.  At the end of Dr. Giaever’s presentation, Dr. Molina did not clap.  I can’t say I fault him for it.  I can only imagine how I would feel if someone gave a presentation that basically claimed my life’s work was fake and fraudulent.

After that verbal science slugfest, poor Dr. Hartmut Michel had the job of giving the last talk of the session.  He presented “Photosynthesis, Biomass, Biofuels:  Conversion Efficiencies and Consequences.”  His talk was much less explosive that then last two, but was a good analysis of some of the biofuel options.  Unfortunately one of his conclusions was that biofuels are currently an inefficient use of land and take too many fossil fuels to produce.

Each student attending the meetings was invited to one of the Science Breakfasts during the week. Mine was the first one on Monday morning. Lindau is a small island and not really set up for large conferences. The Inselhalle is the one building that can fit everyone that attends the conference, but it’s not a conference center, really more like one large room with a stage. So for some of the events, the planners get creative. This is why the science breakfasts are held on a large boat ancored in the Lindau harbor–it’s one of the few places aside from the Inselhalle that can hold 100-200 people.

The breakfast part of the Science Breakfast was somewhat lacking. Maybe it was only because I was near the end of the line, but all I got was a tiny finger sandwich and a few slices of cucumbers and tomatos. The science part, however, was quite interesting. The topic of the panel was “On the Brink of an Era of Quantum Technologies.” The panelists were Artur Ekert, Director Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore; William D. Phillips, Fellow with the United States’ National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Joint Quantum Institute, also Nobel Prizewinner in 1997 for trapping cold atoms; and Colin Teo, PhD Student Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore; with moderator Jenny Hogan, Outreach and Media Relations Manager, Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore.

I’ve had some basic quantum mechanics (kind of an oxymoron), but it’s not an area that I know much about, so the pannel discussion was quite interesting to me. Colin is working on an experiment to test Bell’s Theorem for his PhD. It deals with entangled quantum states and whether or not information travels at a finite speed. Some of it sounds philosophical, like “Is nature real?” but proving or disprovingBell’s Theorem has consequences for things like quantum cryptography.

Dr. Ekert is the inventor of quantum cryptography and is still activly researching it. The beauty of quantum cryptography is that it could be a code no one could possibly break (this is true if certain things work out withBell’s Theorem). Because certain (all?) quantum properties, take for example polarization, do not exist until they are measured, there is no way for someone to eavesdrop on the info–the info does not exist. It’s really difficult for me to wrap my brain around quantum concepts like this, so I hope I’ve gotten the gist of what Dr. Ekert was describing.

Dr. Phillips talked about the implementation of quantum information. A qubit (said like Q-bit) is the information of a quantum system. A qubit must be something that has two distinct states, but that can also be in a superposition of the two states. For example the spin of an electron could be a qubit because it can be “up”, “down”, or in a superposition. Atoms or photons or even combined systems like atoms embeded in a special material could also be used as qubits. It sounds like quantum computing is still many years in the future. In order to use it we need a qubit that maintains coherence long enough to send it or process it. But then we need to be able to interact with the qubit to read the information. Different qubits that are being studied currently have varying amounts of coherence and interaction. For example, photons keep coherence, but don’t interact well while quantum dots interact but don’t keep coherence.

Overall this was a good start to the conference–an engaging discussion on a topic I wasn’t already familiar with. I learned some things and it made me think.

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