Category Archives: Lindau09

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 scilogs.de (which recently spawned the English-language sister site scilogs.eu). 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:
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but by him:
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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.

Linnaeus’ floral clock on the island of Mainau

As you may have noticed, I am quite fascinated with the earliest beginnings of my scientific discipline, which was almost entirely involving research on plants. The most famous story from that early period is the construction of a Flower Clock by Karl Linne, the father of taxonomy.
So, of course I got really exited when I saw, on the Mainau island last Friday, a reconstructed Linnaeus’ floral clock.

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Then I looked carefully – and noticed it was not telling the correct time. This was taken at 3pm.

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So I thought about it for a second….and, well, this is what I think is going on here.

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First, Linnaeus’ clock is a 12-hour clock, not a 24-hour one. It does not include plants that flower at night. The division of the daytime into 12 hours makes sense only during the equinox. As daylength changes during the year, each hour will become gradually longer than 60 minutes for six months, then shorter then 60 minutes for six months. Thus, such a clock will not be precise on any day except the (spring) equinox.

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Second, the latitude of Mainau in Germany is different from that in Upsalla in Sweden. And yet, the same species of flowers were used in both places. Thus, the photoperiod will be different and plants will flower at different times of day at these two places (again, except on the day of spring equinox).

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Very pretty – but not a precise time-piece….

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The Curious Case of Balloon Animals!

On the way back from the Mainau island to Lindau island, we were entertained on the ship by a balloon magician. He started out with balloon molecules. Kind of a nifty way to demonstrate why you can write with graphite and not with a diamond.
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I am not sure the magician was aware that Dr.Kroto was sitting in the front row when he produced the bucky-ball (for which Kroto got his Nobel) but it worked out great in the end.
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But it got suspicious when the guy switched to making balloon plants and animals. Could it be? Is that a balloon magician or Stuart Pivar disguised as a balloon magician?
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And then he blew his cover – he made a tentacled balloon animal and placed it on PZ’s head. Yup, that must have been him!
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The panel on Climate Change at Lindau Nobel conference

Ashutosh Jogalekar wrote the best summary of the panel on Climate Change held on the island of Mainau on the last day of the Lindau Nobel Meeting:
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The Butterfly House on the island of Mainau

A couple of German bloggers and I went to see the Butterfly House on the Island of Mainau. They had good cameras with lenses that allowed them to take extreme close-ups. I had to do with a little pocket camera, but a few pictures turned out decent enough to show:

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Animals on the island of Mainau are so tame, part 2

Here are some more pictures from the domestic and wild animal life on the island:

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Lindau Nobel interview – Jennifer Murphy

A brief interview with one of the young researchers attending the Lindau Nobel conference – Jennifer Murphy from the University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Lindau Nobel – interview with Ghada Al-Kadamany

A brief interview with one of the young researchers attending the Lindau Nobel conference – Ghada Al-Kadamany from Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany

Lindau Nobel interview – Jan Wedekind

A brief interview with one of the young researchers attending the Lindau Nobel conference – Jan Wedekind, formerly of University of Barcelona, Spain, and now with IRIS:

Animals on the island of Mainau are so tame

The island of Mainau has been designed, decades ago, as a gigantic garden, natural preserve, and a model of sustainability. Thus, animals roaming the island are exceptionally fearless of humans. For this picture, taken during lunch on the island, all I needed to do was extend my camera-hand, while sitting, until it was about two feet away from the bird:
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All sorts of birds, from crows to peacocks roam freely among the throngs of tourists there.

Lindau Nobel interview: Fenja Schoepke

A brief interview with one of the young researchers attending the Lindau Nobel conference – Fenja Schoepke of RWTH Aachen, Germany.

Lindau Nobel conference – the boat trip to the island of Mainau

Friday was a special day at the Lindau Nobel conference. The official program was over but, instead of letting us all go home, the organizers did something better – a day trip on a boat to the island of Mainau where, while still under the influence of the proceedings, the participants had a chance to relax and walk and chat and enjoy the nature. What a great way to finish the event!
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As the underlying theme of the meeting was the worry about Climate Change and sustainable development, it is quite fitting that the trip was on board of MS Sonnenkönigin, a solar-powered ship.
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This was also an opportunity for some friendly rivalry between the province of Bavaria, where Lindau is, and Baden-Württemburg where the island of Mainau is located (the griffin and the elk are the provincial symbols).
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The boat trip was the opportunity for the province of Baden-Württemburg to showcase their own investments into science and technology, as well as their efforts towards a more sustainable and ecologically friendly economy. The second deck of the ship had a number of computer stations, each highlighting one of their universities, institutes or companies.
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The province’s minister for science and arts gave a brief note to the passengers, explaining the geological history of the Lake Constance, a little bit of history of the province and the highlights of their investment into science and technology.
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Although we boarded the ship at 8am, the champagne and beer were served immediately. I stuck to coffee on the morning ride. And sausages, of course. The trip is about an hour and half long, so there was plenty of time for me to go to all three decks and the roof, to catch a few more “victims” for my minute-long video interviews, to catch and have a few minutes of relaxed conversations with a couple of Nobel laureates, and to enjoy the music program.
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More pictures on Flickr.

Lindau Nobel interview – Anna-Maria Huber

A brief interview with one of the young people attending the Lindau Nobel conference – Anna-Maria Huber from the Lindau high school:

Lindau Nobel conference – Thursday

Thursday morning was the Biofluorescence morning, with lectures by the three most recent Nobelists who received their prize for the discovery and first uses of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) and its derivatives that glow in other colors. It’s hard to think of an animal that is as non-model in the lab as jellyfish and a discovery as important and useful for modern biological research.
Unlike PZ who was a diligent liveblogger in the conference hall, I watched all three lectures from the press room, livestreamed on my laptop, while multitasking and generally enjoying the perks of being “Press” (continuous supplies of coffee, juices and fresh fruit, in addition to multitudes of power cords and good wifi). I am happy to report that all three talks were very good, exciting and thought-provoking. Ashutosh covered all three talks in great detail in his post.
Firts to go was Prof. Dr. Osamu Shimomurawatch the video. Then came Prof. Dr. Martin Chalfiewatch the video and read PZ’s post. Finally, it was the turn for Prof. Dr. Roger Y. Tsienwatch the video and see PZ’s post
These were the most biological talks, thus I could understand them in full. On the other hand, the next talk by Richard Schrock was so technical that I did not understand a word (and gave up listening after a couple of minutes). As someone noted on Twitter: “Schrock gives the same talk to the broad audience in Lindau that he also presented at the EuCOMC to organometallic specialists”. I bet even some of the chemistry students in the audience had trouble understanding the talk, let alone the non-chemists there, e.g., the press, bloggers, dignitaries, guests, politicos, local aristocracy, etc. I could see that he is a really nice guy, and that he is a super-star of chemistry, and that his discoveries are really, truly innovative and useful, but I was hoping he would adopt his talk to his audience a little bit.
The last talk of the meeting was the only real disappointment for me. It was a talk with a provocative title (and Abstract) of Molecular Darwinism by Prof. Dr. Werner Arber. This time I think PZ was too nice to the guy (beer, sausages and strudel will do that you, soften you, here in Bavaria).
So, what was the talk about? It was an undergraduate-level introduction to evolution. And that would be fine if it was a good undergraduate-level introduction to evolution. But…
Simplifying things is a good thing. Oversimplifying makes it wrong.
What Arber was doing was “inventing” terms. Or, to be precise, he was reinventing and mixing up terms. He was using existing terminology in biological science and applying it to wrong concepts. Confusion ensues. For example:
“Acquired” has a meaning in biology – but not the one he is using. The word “acquired” is used when discussing acquired characteristics, in Lamarckian sense. But he was using it to describe a process that has a perfectly good name already: “horizontal transfer”.
“Molecular evolution” is also a term that has a specific meaning – use of the molecular clock to measure philogenetic relationships and distances between species. Not all evolution is molecular evolution. Phenotypes evolve, too.
Second, evolution does not equal natural selection. Natural selection is one of the important processes of evolution, but not the only one (random drift, neutral evolution, sexual selection…are all very important and wide-spread). If Larry was there, his head would explode in the face of such raw display of selectionism and adaptationism.
Third, “evolution genes” have nothing to do with “genes for evolution”. There is a large and vibrant literature on Evolution of Evolvability, but it does not appear Arber is familiar with it.
And no, your work that you got your Nobel for is NOT the central piece in the evolutionary theory no matter how hard you are trying to make the case for it, sorry. Restriction enzymes are the awesomest and even I used them as much as I never really did any molecular biology. They are an indispensable tool for the entire discipline. But they are not an important factor in evolution itself – just the part of the machinery.
And finally, please do not ever use the word “Darwinism”. It is only used by Creationists (and journalists who don’t know any better) to imply that we are all some kind of idol-worshippers, memorizing the Origin as if it was a bible. What I am trying to say is that a careful use of words is essential for communicating science. Careless use of one term to denote something else that already has a different name is confusing, misleading and irresponsible.
That one poor lecture, of course, did not put a blemish on the rest of the meeting, all the amazing talks, panels and social events.I just re-read a very interesting post of mine about the whole “Nobel conundrum” – the pros and cons and effects of Nobel Prizes, and I muse on various aspects of it. This meeting made me rethink some of those same questions again.
At many meetings, scientific superstars of that stature fly in, give a talk, have the dinner with the organizers, and fly out. This meeting is different – it is specifically designed to get superstars to mix and mingle with young researchers. While the talks are uber-traditional lectures in format – not even followed by Q & A sessions! – there were plenty of organized sessions for young people to spend time talking to the laureates, ask questions, discuss things (those meetings were closed to the press, to give them complete feeling of freedom). While the youngsters may have come in wide-eyed and idol-worshipping, they must have left with a different feeling: that Nobelists are humans, too.
Another take-home lesson from every laureate was that one needs to be a complete human. Not just a scientist. Not just a self-slave-driver in the lab. But also to have other interests and hobbies, and perhaps be involved in some kind of activism.
Finally, it was noted many times this week that these people made their discoveries while in very small labs, struggling with funding, working on highly unusual things. They did not come out of large expensive research labs (though many of them run such places now) doing regular science. Perhaps there is something structurally different about a small lab that gives a young student freedom to follow one’s hunches that is made difficult by the complexity and hierarchy in a large, well-funded place.
Nobel prizes did not get awarded for science that had to be done incrementaly over many years. Most discoveries were made during brief bursts of activity – 2-3 years perhaps. A young researcher had to be at a right place, at a right time, to see what everyone’s seen before but, for a change, actually notice it, and to come to it with a prepared mind. Luck and creativity and thinking outside the box produce the prizes, not many years of slogging in the lab. But most of the science that has to be done includes slogging in the lab. It’s just there should be joy in doing it without an expectation that a Prize may come your way one day.
The events done, we went out to relax, have some famous Bavarian beer (again) – a couple of pictures under the fold:

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Lindau Nobel – interview with Matthew Siebert

A brief interview with one of the young researchers attending the Lindau Nobel conference – Matthew Siebert of the University of California, Davis, USA:

Lindau Nobel conference – the Lindau island

It’s a beautiful place:

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Lindau blogger meetup

There are a bunch of bloggers here at Lindau, wearing Press badges, going to Press meetings and generally behaving like Press. Apart from PZ and myself, most of them are German sciencebloggers who are posting their interviews and dispatches on the Lindaunobel blog on Scienceblogs.de (you can filter only English-language posts here) as well as on Page 3.14. Last night we went out for dinner together and had great fun. Most of my pictures turned out, well, pretty bad, except perhaps this one:
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Lindau Nobel conference – Wednesday morning

PZ was sleepy this morning, but he was a diligent blogger – he sat through each and every talk this morning and wrote about them all in two posts. Knowing myself (and my ADHD) I did some cherry-picking. I skipped the heavy-duty chemistry lectures that I was bound not to understand, and went to only two talks I really wanted to see.
The first one was by my yesterday’s co-panelist Prof. Sir Harold Walter Kroto (homepage, Wikipedia, Lindau biography). Just this moment, I am sitting in the press room discussing with other bloggers who are at this very moment writing blog-posts about Kroto’s talk, how impossible it is to describe it. He touched on many topics – numbers, chemistry, science, environment, education, Web (or as he puts it: GYWW – Google/YouTube/Wikipedia World), religion, scientific method and much more. But it is impossible to describe it, really. What was it about? It is one of those talks where you need to be there, sit back, and let the speaker grab you. Laugh. Enjoy. So, you should just watch it yourself. See what strings it pulls for you. How it makes you think. What moral you get out of the story.
The second talk was by Prof. Dr. Peter Agre (Wikipedia, Lindau biography). This was definitely something different (watch his talk here). After all these talks about chemistry, and several on the science of climate change, Agre decided to do something different – remind us what this is all about. His talk was essentially a vacation slide-show of his four camping/canoeing trips in the Arctic areas of Canada and Alaska. But every shot was breathtakingly beautiful. And every now and then, a picture would remind us how fragile those seemingly harsh environments are and how strongly susceptible they are to climate change. Others used numbers and graphs to issue warnings about the necessity for quick response to the climate issue. Agre used powerful imagery to appeal to our emotions instead – not just how it all works, but what is it that we are trying to preserve and protect.

Lindau Nobel conference – Tuesday afternoon and dinner

Today was a busy day. I was somewhat surprised at how shy people are of the little Flip camera – so much worry about the future career prospects if one does something seemingly ‘unprofessional’ like say a couple of words about one’s research for the Lindau YouTube channel and my blog. But see the two interviews below, and I got a few more promise to do it tomorrow. I bet Nobel Laureates will be easier to persuade than the young researchers!
In the afternoon, although it was very hot, I put on my shirt and tie (instead of my ‘Ida’ t-shirt) for the Open Access panel which I shared with Sir Harald Kroto and Dr. Jason Wild. Moderator Beatrice Lugger made an excellent introduction which made it easy for us to get started right off the bat.
Dr.Kroto talked about his efforts (and those are huge!) in providing educational materials for science teachers, as well in using modern technology, especially video, by the students. This includes a mandatory video they have to make about their research which goes into their CVs and is evaluated when they apply for the next level of education, e.g., grad school.
Dr.Wild, who is published of physical journals at Nature and I used the perceived “competition” between Nature and PLoS as a starting point to introducing the two publishers, the two publishing systemes and two business models. This was then a good basis for further discussion of various Science 2.0 applications, the commenting/notes/ratings functionalities on PLoS papers, and the importance of Open Access for research, for medical practitioners (particularly in the developing world) and teachers.
In the last segment, to some extent prodded by the excellent questions by the journalists in the room (this was a Press event), we went into speculation about the future of science publishing and communication, for which I borrowed heavily not just from my own posts, but also from the brand new, thought-provoking and generally excellent post (a Must Read!) by Michael Nielsen which I just managed to read a few hours before the session.
Someone filmed the session, but I understand that the video will not be posted online (or allowed to be posted by me, if I get my hands on it in a shape of a CD). You will have to trust my word that the panel went very, very well.
In the evening, we were split into groups for dinners. Each group had a Nobel laureate or two, a couple of people from the Press (which includes bloggers, as this is a forward-thinking conference) and a lot of young scientists. I went to the elegant and excellent Restaurant Wissinger to the dinner hosted by Henkel. Nobel laureates Shimomura and Wütrhrich were in our group, but I (as Press, remember) did not want to bother them – there were many young folks there eager to talk to them and that is much more important to them than me – if I want an interview, I can probably get it tomorrow. Instead, I spent a wonderful evening talking to the neighbors at my table, all bright, young, highly motivated scientists. And the food was delicious, including great local wines (Hagnauer Burgstall, a dry pinot gris, and Meersburger Benge, a dry pinot noir). Pictures under the fold:

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Lindau Nobel interview – Corinna Reisinger

A brief interview with one of the young researchers attending the Lindau Nobel conference – Corinna Reisinger from Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung

LindauNobel interview – Wojciech Supronowicz

Wojciech Supronowicz
A brief interview with one of the young researchers attending the Lindau Nobel conference – Wojciech Supronowicz from Poland:

Mario J. Molina: talk about Climate Change

Mario J. Molina:
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Lindau – I have arrived

I have arrived. The trip was OK. Terminal 2 at RDU rocks – I was there far too early (due to trip-excites) and spent 3 hours online on my iPhone. At Heathrow, wifi is pay-only, and I could not detect any at the Zurich airport. There is no AT&T signal to be picked up at Heathrow, Zurich or Lindau, so I am not using the iPhone at all. The wifi at the hotel is decent (a little slower than at home) and they say that it is much better at the conference center.
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For some reason, AA switched airplane types. I was looking forward to sleeping 7 hours on the B777 (it is never completely full so I can usually find a line of 3, 4 or even 6 seats to spread my length and sleep. But this time they used a B767-300 so I sat cramped and got only a few quick bursts of sleep that was not very restfull. A big group of exchange student from Meredith college on their way to a summer in London, as sweet as they were, did not help my sleeping by chatting all night.
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The rest of the trip was uneventful – as Heathrow is so large, by the time we landed, docked at the gate, walked miles of corridors, passed passport check and security, I only had about 10 minutes waiting at the gate for the Zurich flight (which was more comfortable). I then quickly got on a train to Lindau and a bus driver, not speaking English but understanding I am “with the Nobelists” and “did not get yet to get any Euros” took me to the hotel for free.
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So, I should not complain, especially comparing to PZ’s trip which lasted twice as long and did not go as smoothly.
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PZ and I arrived at around the same time and made plans to meet via Twitter. We were accompanied by Ashutosh Jogalekar for a nice hour-long walk around Lindau – both the old part on the island on Lake Constance and the newer, bigger town on the coast. Got some cash, bought some essentials, and went to the Social event at the Inselhalle on the island, where I met the rest of the blogging/press team and saw some 600 people including 20+ Nobelists. It was the Indian night, with their food, dances, music and customs, which all together got everyone off their seats and socializing.
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Now, exhausted and jet-lagged, I need to go to try to sleep as tomorrow is the work-day for me here: liveblogging, interviewing participants, and myself being on an Open Access session in the afternoon.
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You can follow other bloggers on Lindaunobel blog and Page 3.14 as well as on Twitter and FriendFeed.

Programing note: next two weeks will be exciting!

As you may already be aware I am about to embark on a trip to Europe again. I will be traveling on Sunday and arriving at Lindau, Germany on Monday for the 59th Meeting of Nobel Laureates. The list of Nobel Laureates (23 of them) and the list of about 600 young researchers from 66 countries are very impressive. Of course, not being a chemist, I’ll have to do some homework before I go (I printed out the complete list of descriptions of all of them to read on the airplane), learning what these people did to get their prizes and what the younger ones are doing hoping to get a Nobel in the future.
My SciBling PZ Myers will also be there, so we will both blog about the sessions and panels and people and, well, beer. Of course, beer, it is Bavaria! Apart from the two of us, there will be a lot of blogging about the meeting on the Scienceblogs Germany site, as well as some on Page 3.14.
But I will also do some work – I will be on an Open Access panel on Tuesday.
What I hope to do is conduct brief (1-2 minutes) interviews with people using a Flash camera, and later upload the files on YouTube and embed them here on the blog. Then I would follow up with a little longer (5-10 minutes) interviews with the same people using a digital audio recorder, upload the files somewhere (probably Odeo.com but I’ll test a few sites to see which one works the best) and embed the podcasts here on the blog. I will also be taking pictures and posting some on Flickr and Facebook and others via Twittpic to Twitter (which then goes to FriendFeed and Facebook as well). So you will be able to see them wherever you follow me online. Note the FriendFeed widget on the bottom of the left side-bar on this blog.
The Lindau meeting is from June 28th to July 3rd, after which I’ll fly to Belgrade for a few days, to visit my Mom and meet some friends (especially those I missed last year). Ana, Vedran and some others are already trying to organize the bust program for me.
I will give a talk at the University Library on Tuesday, July 7th at noon, and then at the Oncology Center at the Medical School at the University of Belgrade at noon on Wednesday, July 8th. I’ll be meeting my high-school friends on the 5th, and two different sets of elementary/middle school friends on the 9th and 11th of July (a bunch of expats are coming from abroad to the July 11th reunion as well). The horse-y friends will be at the Mediterranean games, so I will miss them this time around.
I am in contact with some people there who may be able to tell me more about the newly discovered mammoth fossil (I am not sure I will be able to actually go and see it, but I’ll try) as well as the people who put together the new exhibit of Argentinian dinosaurs (a traveling exhibit that just moved from Germany to Belgrade last week). I am also hoping to give some interviews at local radio and/or TV. More information about the Belgrade leg of the trip will be available on Facebook.
I am likely to be online a lot nonetheless. Apart from blogging the trip and uploading interviews, I will probably also schedule (for automatic posting) ClockQuotes and some reposts of old stuff from the Archives. And I will be in touch with the PLoS HQ and will convey all the exciting news coming from there. And on the 1st of July I will announce the Blog Pick of the Month.