When Brian Schmidt got his PhD in astrophysics in 1993, he was one of less than a handful of people that year that graduated with a thesis on supernovae. Five years later, still working on exploding stars, he would be part of one of two teams that independently discovered that the universe was not only expanding, but that its expansion was accelerating.
That the expansion of the universe is accelerating means it is being pushed apart by some kind of energy embedded in the fabric of space itself. This energy makes up over 70% of the universe. We call it dark energy, mainly because we are in the dark about what it actually is.
The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Brian Schmidt, along with Adam Reiss, who worked with Schmidt as part of the High-z Supernova Search Team, and Saul Perlmutter, who headed the rival Supernova Cosmology Project, for their discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe. The announcement of the prize called dark energy “perhaps the greatest enigma in physics today”.
When Schmidt attended the 62nd Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting in Germany earlier this month, I met him and found out more about the discovery.
“I liked the fact that supernovae changed,” Schmidt says of his PhD topic. “That appealed to me.”
For his PhD, Schmidt developed a way to measure the distances to type II supernovae, explosions of massive stars that have come to the end of the main part of their life. Type II supernovae differ from other types in that they have hydrogen in the spectrum of light we detect coming from them. He used these distance measurements to calculate a number called the Hubble constant that you can use to work out the age of the universe. The idea was that you can use this to look back and work out how fast the expansion of the universe is slowing down – because, at the time, that’s what people thought was happening. “It tells you the ultimate fate of the universe. Gosh, that was a big question,” says Schmidt. “I loved it.”
Chloé-Agathe Azencott, Participant 2012 – I was last week one of the lucky ("has
qualified in a global competition among young scientists worldwide to
participate", my certificate of attendance says emphatically and
somewhat repetitively) six hundred or so young researchers participating
in the Nobel laureates meeting in Lindau.
Twenty-seven laureates were attending this sixty-second edition focused
on physics. Physics, as you may know, is something I've stopped
studying as soon as I was allowed to, and quite frankly I was a bit
afraid that I wouldn't understand anything. Thankfully, most of the
conversations remained pretty high-level and I was able to follow quite
more than I was expecting.
What a week! It was an exciting place to be, especially the week when
the CERN (the idea of which apparently arose at a similar meeting in
Lindau) announced having found a (possibly Higgs) boson (you can watch
the reactions of a few of the laureates here).
It was an inspiring meeting, what with the great conversation with a
bunch of damn smart people (and I don't only mean the laureates),
memorable talks, and an impressive amount of social occasions... I've
never been (and will probably never again be) so well treated at a
They all came to Lindau with their personal mission. Six young researchers were given a camera to produce video diaries from scientific life at home and their stay in Lindau. Casey Schwartz (USA) wanted to learn about the responsibilities of scientists in society. Heather Gray (South Africa) tried to figure out what physicists specifically fascinates at their research. And how they would explain that to someone who knows nothing about science. Albert Juma (Kenya) was interested in the differences between doing science and research in a developing, and in a developed country. Now their diaries are online. They all give a personal glimpse of the 62nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and also the Higgs story is part of it.
Young researchers and Nobel Laureates are trained to deal in complexity inside the world of science. But what responsibility do scientists and researchers have to explain what they are working on, and what they believe in to people outside science? Do scientists, as members of the society, have an obligation to communicate what they do more effectively to the non-scientific world? Video Diarist Casey Schwartz of the USA wanted to find out at Lindau. (More)
Amanda Peters Randles, Participant 2012 – It was amazing to listen to the lectures from all different areas of physics and be reminded of why I was so excited about the field in the first place. You sometimes forget how much the different areas intersect. Listening to Brian Schmidt’s discussion, I found myself frantically taking notes about methods he’s using to study the acceleration of the universe that are relevant to my fluid simulations. At night, I was asking fellow students for advice on my research.
In my research, we focus on the study of cardiovascular disease and
leverage large-scale simulations in order to assess quantities that
would otherwise not be measurable. For the last few months, I have been
focused on writing a code to allow for the simulation of blood flow in
patient specific geometries. My advisor and I have been discussing
advancements the models themselves that I am only now, as the basic
application is in place, really able to start diving into.
Dan Shechtman is a fisher of scientists. He exudes this certain spirit which certainly will be absorbed by his audience. He speeks of self-conficence, perseverance and the necessity to become an expert, an expert who can trust his own results. Dan Shechtman knows what he is talking about. The material scientist discovered quasi-periodic materials at a time, when scientists believed these could never exist. In our conversation we talked about Shechtman’s commitment to promote science education at different levels.
How does it feel to be a Nobel Laureate?
Dan Shechtman - For me, and I assume it is the same for everybody who’s got a Nobel Prize, this is a phase transformation. An instant change. There is the announcement and from there on you are in a different story. Immediately after the announcement I started to receive many reactions and many invitations.
And I like it. Because I have a mission. The mission is, to encourage young people to go to science, to excel in whatever they do and to be serious about their work. I especially encourage them to choose something they like and then become an expert in it. (More)
David Gross is one of the great theoretical physicists alive. Not only has he worked in the construction of the theoretical edifice we call the standard model of particle physics - specifically in the quantum properties of the strong interaction -, but has also explored and developed an even more ambitious construction, string theory, supposedly a theory of everything, although according to Gross has turned out not be as revolutionary as it was first thought.
In this interview we will explore many issues, both in physics and in science in general, which will be answered with humor and wisdom by one of the most interesting of the Nobel laureates present at the meeting in Lindau.
Sometimes I forget to explain the strong cultural element that is present in Lindau because I am so interested in the science. Here is a selection of some of my favorite pictures that I took this while at the conference. I hope they may convey some amount of the people's enthusiasm and the entire spirit of Lindau.
An intense lion I found on the facade of a building on a side street.
Kurt Wüthrich explains the linear structure proteins using his belt.
Yenny Hernandez, Participant 2012 – After the controversial campaign from the European Commission Science is a girl thing there was uproar in the media about stereotyping and how NOT to attract women into science. Some could argue that we cannot complain as Physics has seen a 10% rise in the number of people wanting to study it at the University. One of the reasons attributed to this, is the popular program “The big bang theory”. Young students see it as being “cool” and that is not a bad thing. However, we don’t know the gender distribution from this extra 10% of takers. I would not be surprised if it was composed entirely by men as there are no strong physicist female characters on the program.
I had the opportunity to discuss with Prof. John Hall about this issue. He and his wife are a team that go into primary schools to show kids that physics is fun. I was stroke by that statement. He said: “we have to fuel kids’ interest in science by showing them that physics is fun!!”. Fun is different from cool. We should do physics because we enjoy it and because it’s fun. Cool things follow trends that we know disappear as soon as the next trend appears.
Heather Gray, a researcher working on the ATLAS experiment at CERN, was at this year's Lindau meeting. I spoke to her over email before it started to find out about her expectations, and afterwards she told me about her impressions of the meeting and what it was like to watch the announcement from CERN with other young researchers. She also made a video diary of the Higgs exciement at Lindau that you can watch below.
What were your first impressions of the meeting when you arrived?
My arrival at the meeting was somewhat chaotic as my bag had been sent on the wrong flight by the airline and then when dashing out for some new clothes I dropped my wallet! However the staff at the Lindau meeting where wonderful so they quickly helped me to sort things out. This did mean that I was a little distracted during the initial stages and the opening ceremony. I enjoyed the formality and tradition clearly inherent in the opening ceremony and obtained a better understanding of the history of the Nobel meeting. Of course, it was exciting to see so many Nobel Laureates in one place at the same time, although this was something I got more accustomed to over the week. Finally, I found the number of young researchers quite surprising - there really were many, many young people all doing fascinating research in many different corners of the globe.
Yenny Hernandez, Participant 2012 – At the Lindau meeting, all the Nobel laureates were given the chance to speak about a topic of their choice. Some spoke about their past and current research, others talked about matters that interest them such as energy and climate change and others talked about science and society.
I was impacted by many talks including the one by Dan Shechtman in which he told us about the importance of perseverance and hard work. Science is not written on a stone and we should let nature talk for itself and be prepared to change our preconceptions. We don’t know it all and, as he said, a humble scientist is a good scientist.
Walter Kohn, gave us a progress report on his work on macular degeneration (MD) decease. Prof. Kohn is a physicist that received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1998 for the development of the density functional theory. He is 89 years of age and his mind remains as sharp as ever. He is interested in studying MD because his wife suffers from the condition. For the past 8 years he has been studying the diagnosis and correction of MD on elderly patients. He has teamed up with James Klingshirn with whom, he developed customized diagnosis and correcting tools that will allow patients to have ophthalmic devices and visual aid tools that will improve their independence and quality of life.
If you don’t know English, you can still understand Shakespeare’s stories, Sir Harold Kroto told me after his lecture at Lindau on Thursday. But, crucially, “you cannot understand his use of language, because language is a cultural thing – and the culture is lost in translation.”
‘Lost in translation’ was the title of Kroto’s lecture that morning, the final plenary session of the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting. But English wasn’t the language under the microscope – it was mathematics, the language of science.
“To understand the culture of science, you really need to learn the language,” said Kroto. He thinks some people are not prepared to. And he can understand why: “It takes a lot of effort to learn a language at a later age if you haven’t learnt it when you were young.”
Kroto won his Nobel prize in 1996 for the discovery of Buckminsterfullerene, aka C60 – sixty carbon atoms arranged in a closed shell. At school he did well in physics and chemistry but liked drawing and tennis just as much. It might have been his father’s balloon making business, where he used to help out during school holidays, that got him interested in chemistry. Or perhaps it was his hobby doing photography, which required him to carefully make solutions.
The last day of the Lindau Meeting we had to wake up early in order to take the boat to the island of Mainau, a beautiful spot in the middle of Lake Constance, where Countess Bettina Bernadotte -President of the Council and member of the Board of the Foundation "Lindau Nobel Meetings" - has a palace, in a forest of redwoods, with a wild flower garden and tropical butterflies. We followed there a great four-way discussion about the energy problem worldwide, with Bob Laughlin, Carlo Rubbia, Martin Keilhacker and Georg Schütte as guests of honor. It was an interesting debate that tried to find solutions to the energy problem for the future, and which closed with a very successful series of questions by young researchers attending the Meeting. Then we went out to eat "frugally". (More)
The Nature Video team were present at Lindau again this year to create a series of short films capturing debates between the laureates and young researchers (more on these to come later this year). They also took the opportunity on Wednesday to capture the responses of some of the Nobel laureates to the news of the discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson. This short clip features Nature Outlook editor, Michelle Grayson, in conversations with David Gross, Martinus Veltman, Carlo Rubbia and Brian Schmidt about the implications of the discovery and what they hope to see happen next.
It's cool enough to experience the Lindau meeting as one of the young researchers (or as one of the bloggers, as it happens). But there's nothing that broadens your mind like a change of perspective. At my last Lindau meeting, I was fortunate enough to see Lindau through the eyes of a Nobel laureate. This time, I've interveiwed one of the organizers: Burkhard Fricke, a professor of physics at the University of Kassel, Vice President of the Council that organizes the Lindau meetings, and one of the two Scientific Chairmen of this year's physics meeting.
MP: Which was your first Lindau meeting?
Fricke: My first Lindau meeting was 1965 - I was a student back then. It was very exciting to share a table with Werner Heisenberg - and be able to ask him questions! -, to see the likes of Otto Hahn, Hideki Yukawa, or Max Born, or Paul Dirac. Lindau showed you the human side of these great physicists. I remember Paul Dirac's lecture, after which the audience was encouraged to put some questions to the speaker. The first participant to do so didn't have a question - it was more of a statement. Dirac just stood there, not doing anything, for half a minute, for a minute, until the chairman asked him "Don't you want to answer this question?" Dirac just answered, "No. It wasn't a question. It was a statement." That doesn't teach you anything about science, but it tells you a lot about Dirac as a human being. And that human side is very important, in Lindau. (More)
Friday was the last day of the 62nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting - traditionally ending with a boat trip to the Island of Mainau. There a lifely panel discussion about 'The Future of Energy Supply & Storage' with Laureates Carlo Rubbia and Robert Laughlin together with Georg Schuütte (State Secretary
German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and Martin Keilhacker (German Physical Society) took place.
The Storify below captures this panel discussion, impressions during the boat trip with dancing Nobel laureates and postings from our bloggers covering topics of the week (also some in German). You can read similar ones for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday too.
...dedicated to Physics is over. Our team from the Lindau office, Nature and Spektrum together with bloggers, the film crew and not at least attendees reported from this extraordinary science meeting. 27 Nobel Laureates and 592 young researchers from 69 countries discussed and exchanged ideas for one week. On this platform you find background informations and special stories. Here you find impressions of the Lindau spirit: Educate. Inspire. Connect. The 63rd Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates in 2013 will be dedicated to Chemistry.