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Don’t listen to advice, and other advice from Nobel laureates

Top scientists share stories with finalists at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

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4:44pm, May 16, 2012
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PITTSBURGH — Chemist Dudley Herschbach got the rock-star treatment Tuesday when he arrived at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. A bright-eyed teen competing in the fair stopped him in the hall to ask for an autograph. A group of giggling Canadians posed to have their picture taken with him. One fan gave him what appeared to be a Barbie doll.

When Herschbach and seven other Nobel laureates took the stage later in the day to talk to this year’s finalists, the cameras and iPhones came out. So did the questions from young science rookies looking to chart their own futures by poking into the pasts of the all-star veterans.

“How close is your Nobel Prize subject to what you were pursuing in high school?” asked Walter Czerwinski Burkard from Dewitt, N.Y. He learned that some of the grand scientists hadn’t started off as science fair champions.

“I played football and studied collisions directly,” said Herschbach, who earned his prize for his studies of how molecules collide.

Curiosity did feature heavily in several panelists’ childhoods. Before discovering that normal genes can give rise to cancer when they go awry, J. Michael Bishop tried to create nitroglycerin as a child. Thankfully, the stuff he made didn't explode. Douglas Osheroff, a physicist who showed that cooled helium can superconduct, grew up in a logging town, messing around with gunpowder and high-voltage electricity. 

“I managed to collect all sorts of interesting things that people had discarded or given me, and usually I would make these things nearly lethal,” he said.

Huge achievements in science come from lots of small steps and missteps, the scientists said. Each emphasized the importance of learning to fail along the way.

“I work on doing very hard experiments, and so they almost always fail,” said Carl Wieman, a physicist who won his Nobel for creating the quantum substance known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. “People sort of describe me as having a very high tolerance for frustration.”

For his graduate school thesis project, astrophysicist John Mather tried to find evidence of heat left over from the Big Bang. He failed, but then went on to precisely measure this glow, called the cosmic microwave background, for which he won the Nobel Prize in physics. Martin Chalfie, a cell biologist who turned a fluorescent protein from jellyfish into a standard laboratory tool, became so discouraged by one experiment he repeated over and over in college that he took a few years off from science.

“We get to become the first person in the world to do something,” said Chalfie. “So we’re sort of stumbling around, but we’re also discovering things.”

The discussion touched on current issues in science — from whether researchers who made a mutated version of bird flu that can spread through the air should publish their findings (they should) to whether smartphones pose a danger to science by discouraging creative thought (they don’t). 

Ada Yonath, who figured out the structure of molecules that stitch together proteins from amino acids, summarized a message repeated in many forms by the panel: “Curiosity should be the driving force for everyone.”

Then Robert Horvitz, a biologist who worked out the molecular details of how cells kill themselves, offered his own advice. “Don’t listen to advice,” he said. “Do what you feel you want to being doing and how you want to be doing it.”

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