Nobel laureates on being young and the future of science – guest post by Lars Fischer

Lars Fischer studied chemistry and now works as a science journalist, blogger at Fischblog and coordinator at the German-language science blogging site (which recently spawned the English-language sister site Lars and I spent a lot of time together at the Lindau Nobel meeting where Lars interviewed me and I asked Lars to provide a guest-post for my blog about the main ‘take-home’ message he got from the conference:
Richard Feynman was 29 when he finally published his works on quantum electrodynamics. At the age of 22, Charles Darwin first set foot on the Beagle, and Gerhard Ertl started his groundbreaking works on surface catalysis when he was a PhD student. The Nobel laureates I met in Lindau may have been somewhat elderly, but they never hesitated to make clear that age and experience are no prerequisites to great discoveries.
Quite the contrary. One of the main messages that nearly all laureates emphasized in their lectures and discussions was that the real source of innovation in science are young academics. Martin Chalfie, for example, talked at length about the role his PhD students and postdocs played in alerting him to the possibilities of Green Fluorescent Proteins, which eventually earned him a Nobel prize. It was, however, Sir Harold Kroto who said it best:
The Theory of Relativity wasn’t invented by him:
Einstein old.jpg
but by him:
Einstein young.jpg
Nobel prizes are rarely ever the result of meticulous planning, but usually result from spontaneous ideas, new perspectives and novel approaches. Most came out of left field. That’s why Richard Ernst recommended that researchers should develop an interest outside of science – to develop new perspectives.
Young academics should have the right to fail now and then and develop the courage to risk failure in their research. Trail-blazing research doesn’t happen by playing it safe. Research, says Aaron Ciechanover, is full of risk, as is life. A message that especially funding agencies should take to heart. Also, authority isn’t always right. Sometimes his/her own curiosity leads a researcher to places where established scientists don’t see anything worthwhile. Following such unlikely leads may pay off, according to Gerhard Ertl. It’s well worth remembering that young Max Planck was – in what turned out to be the biggest misjudgment in the history of science – once told that there was nothing left to discover in physics.
“In practice, science is only limited by the imaginary power of mankind”, says Ryoji Noyori. “I am really losing the power of imagination, because of my age. However, our young successors are full of curiosity, passion and persistence.” The most interesting people in Lindau really weren’t the Nobel laureates, but the young academics that listened intently to their lectures. They will cause scientific revolutions undreamed of, and their achievements will determine how – and if – we all will live in the future.

2 responses to “Nobel laureates on being young and the future of science – guest post by Lars Fischer

  1. The game theorist and mathematician John F. Nash got his 1994 Nobel prize (I know it’s not the “real” one) in economics for the ideas worked out in his 26-pages PhD thesis. He developed these ideas at the age of 21. That’s really cool.

  2. What is the average age for a first RO1 grant?
    I know, a rhetorical question.