Nobel Laureates dispense science wisdom

Intel ISEF students get to pick the brains of science greats

At the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, Calif., this week, a panel of four Nobel laureates got grilled by students posing questions on major science and technology issues of the day.

Some of the questions were softballs, though. A student from Vermont unearthed an interesting tidbit from Sir Richard Roberts (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993) with her “What do you do for fun” question. It turns out that Roberts used his prize money to install a professional-grade croquet lawn in front of his house.

Other questions raised more substantive issues, such as the safety of genetically modified crops, whether the United States is losing its research edge, and what to do about global warming — or global melting, as Kurt Wüthrich (Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002) put it.

Students also had a lot of questions about the day-to-day practicalities of doing science. Te-Wei Hsu from Kaohsiung City in Taiwan wanted to know where the laureates’ fresh science ideas came from. Dudley Herschbach (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1986) gave an answer recommended by his scientific grandfather Linus Pauling. “You just stretch on a couch and put your feet up higher than your head and the ideas come,” Herschbach said.

Some questions touched on science education. Roberts lamented the fact that many fireworks have been outlawed. In his informal poll of other Nobel laureates, for over half of them, “it seems one of the things that turned them on was making fireworks.”

Jacob Hurwitz, a student from Rockville, Md., asked the panel, “If you could insert one sentence at the front of every high school science textbook in the world, what would it be?” Douglas Osheroff (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1996) said, “Pursue your passion — whatever it is.” Wüthrich followed that up with his own take: “Don’t let this book prevent you from having fun.”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.