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On the Scene

Nobelists advise budding scientists

Laureates share unconventional wisdom with young investigators at Intel ISEF 2011

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LOS ANGELES — At the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair on May 10, a panel of Nobel prize-winning scientists answered questions posed by high school students. It was clear from the hard-earned wisdom that the laureates shared that along the way, these superlative scientists had earned other superlatives, too. Without further ado:

Most disgusting smell: When H. Robert Horvitz (Chemistry, 2002) was a senior in high school, he and two friends sneaked into the chemistry lab to see how bad of a smell they could make. “We succeeded quite markedly,” he said. The smell was revolting enough to trigger the evacuation of the entire floor of the school.

Narrowest escape: Tired of turning red to blue and back again with his chemistry set, J. Michael Bishop (Physiology or Medicine, 1989) tried his hand at making the unstable explosive chemical nitroglycerin. Of course, the seventh-grader Bishop knew that such a substance would need rigorous testing, so he took his vial into the backyard and hurled it at a barbecue his father built out of fieldstone. The vial, thankfully, did not explode.

Most unexpected alternate career: When he was 17, Richard Roberts (Physiology or Medicine, 1993) grew bored with school and took an unsanctioned “break,” during which time he got very good at billiards. The school’s administration decided to let him return, and he went, but always had nagging doubts that he missed out on an opportunity as a professional pool shark.

Most penetrating: When he was in high school, Douglas Osheroff (Physics, 1996) built himself an X-ray machine. The contraption didn’t do any lasting damage, and probably had something to do with why he got accepted to Stanford and Caltech, he said.

Most athletic: High school and college swimmer Martin Chalfie (Chemistry, 2008) said that like sports, science is a collaborative process. In sports, inspiration and encouragement comes from your teammates. In science, the same is true of lab mates, he said.

And the grand finale was prompted by a question asked by a student from Minnesota.

The single most important scientific contribution, ever: The question stumped the panel and prompted some nervous twitters from the crowd, until Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry, 1986) took the floor. The most important event in science, ever, he said, was “the births of a lot of curious babies, who remain curious all their lives.”

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