Nobel inspiration for young scientists

ISEF participants take part in Q and A with panel of distinguished scientists

ATLANTA — Tomorrow’s science stars got to pick the brains of today’s science giants during a question and answer session May 13 in Atlanta at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. A panel of six Nobel laureates and one scientist whose work helped win the Nobel for her adviser took questions from the young audience on a range of topics from eureka moments to hospitable planets.

ISEF PANEL Leon Lederman and six other esteemed scientists answered questions posed by high school students, who were among the some 1,500 students attending the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta. Tom Siegfried

Much of the discussion emphasized science as process. Robert Curl, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of fullerene molecules, responded to a question about his journey to winning a Nobel by saying, “Like everything in life, the real meaning comes from doing it, not the reward.” He noted that his discovery was a “lucky accident.”

“Fullerenes insisted on intruding on our … well-planned experiment.… Fullerenes said, ‘Something interesting is going on here — look at me!'” Curl concluded, “The only moral lesson I can draw from this is if something seems interesting — look at it!”

Another student asked the scientists on the panel how it made them feel to know that students read about their work in textbooks. Curl noted that, of course, it doesn’t feel bad. But he pointed out that the rewards of science aren’t defined by outside acknowledgment, nor is that acknowledgment a motivator.

“As a scientist, you find out something, you write it up — but it is kind of like having a child — you can’t play favorites. Some of my “children” never get written up, but I think about them with great pleasure.…There is a warm feeling about the work you’ve done, but it doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the world appreciating it,” Curl said.

The panel also spoke about balancing work and family. Richard J. Roberts, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine 1993 for the discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing, urged the high school students to find tools that would help them balance work with the rest of life.

“From time to time you have to be obsessed. I suspect most of you in this room have really obsessive personalities. It’s OK — it’s not a bad thing. But you need to learn the techniques and tools that work for you so you can see this obsessiveness and turn it off.”

On a more somber note, Jocelyn Bell Burnell whose work led to the discovery of pulsars and won her thesis adviser Antony Hewish a Nobel in physics in 1974, commented that for women in science, the road was easier without the commitments of family.

“I spent half my working life as a married woman and mother, trying to reconcile working life and these commitments. My second half has been as a divorcee,” Bell Burnell said. “In terms of my career, [the second half] has been a lot more straightforward, and a lot lonelier. Being female, [in this career] I have to say it is a lot easier being single. I’m very sorry that I have to say that.”

The students also expressed concern that everything worth discovering in science had already been discovered. Panelists responded with laughter. Dudley Herschbach, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1986 and chairs the board of trustees for Science News’ parent organization, the Society for Science & the Public, commented that he has heard this refrain before.

“I can understand [this idea] that the older generation walked through picking all the low hanging fruit from the trees, the fruit rained down on them and now, what is left for your generation? But you’ve been left new tools that allow you to entertain a much wider range of ideas than your predecessors.”

Leon Lederman, who won the Nobel Prize in physics 1988 for his work with neutrinos, pointed out that there is much more work to be done in his field. “We’ve been very happy with quantum theory … and we have relativity and cosmology … but they are not compatible. They get together and spit and claw. They don’t work well together. Then there’s new data that’s baffling to us. The collaborative effort to build this machine in Europe [the Large Hadron Collider] — with that, there are unknown possibilities and lots of expectations.”

Finally, panelists were asked what their most rewarding accomplishment was, other than their Nobel. H. Robert Horvitz, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine said being a father. To which Herschbach replied, “The only one matching that is being a grandfather!”

The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition and is run by the Society for Science & the Public. More than 1,500 high school students from over 40 countries showcase their independent research at the fair and compete for roughly $4 million in prizes and scholarships. Since 1997 Intel Corp. has partnered with Society for Science & the Public in sponsoring the fair. Agilent Technologies is the presenting sponsor this year.

Read more about ISEF here

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