For one week every summer, an island in southern Germany can lay claim to the title of the brainiest spot on Earth — thanks to an annual gathering of Nobel laureates. Convene was there for this year’s meeting.
From the World Economic Forum, held each year in Davos, Switzerland, to the annual TED conference in Vancouver, there’s no shortage of international meetings where elite presenters speak to audiences whose own credentials have been thoroughly vetted before they are allowed admittance. Read More: Munich’s Historic, High-Tech Hospitality
It’s doubtful, however, that in terms of exclusivity — not to mention sheer brainpower — any other event equals the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, which annually bring the world’s most eminent scientists together with the most promising young researchers to meet in Lindau, a town and small Bavarian island in southern Germany’s Lake Constance. The 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, held this year from June 29 to July 4, featured 37 Nobel laureates in the fields of medicine and physiology and 600 scientists under the age of 35, who came from more than 80 countries and were selected from among thousands of young scientists nominated to attend.
Unlike medical congresses where attendees are laser-focused on the latest publications and clinical trial results, the primary purpose of the Lindau meeting is the open exchange of ideas between generations and cultures. The laureates don’t just pop in to deliver talks, according to Klas Karre, a Swedish immunologist who served as the meeting’s scientific chairman, but rather help make the meeting a place where young scientists “can meet their role models on a personal level.” Added Countess Bettina Bernadotte of Wisborg, president of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, which along with the Foundation Lindau Nobelprizewinners Meetings at Lake Con-stance, organizes the conferences: “To inspire, motivate, and connect promising young scientists is the core concern” of the meetings.
HISTORY IN THE MEETING
That goal — connecting scientists across borders — was the original aim of the meeting when it was conceived in 1950 by two German physicians from Lindau with the support of the late Count Lennart Bernadotte, Countess Bettina’s father. The doctors, Franz Karl Hein and Gustav Parade, proposed that a medical conference to which they would invite international specialists be held in Lindau as a way to end the isolation that German scientists found themselves facing at the end of World War II. The count’s family connections — he was the grandson of Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf, who first awarded the Nobel Prizes in 1901 — might help convince Nobel laureates to attend, Hein and Parade reasoned. Their strategy worked: Seven laureates — from Denmark, Sweden, the United States, Switzerland, and Germany — and 400 physicians attended the first meeting. Within two years, students began to attend.
Since then, the meetings have continued despite wars, international crises, and shifting political alliances among the nations that the laureates and scientists call home. In the early, immediate post–World War II history of the program, some laureates, or combinations of laureates, were considered too politically sensitive to be invited, according to Wolfgang Huang, director of the executive secretariat of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings — such as certain Jewish and German laureates, or those involved in atomic-bomb research.
“Those times are actually over, fortunately,” said Huang, speaking with Convene over coffee during this year’s meeting at Inselhalle, the conference center on the north end of the island that hosts the program. Conflicts, of course, still exist — between Israel and Palestine, China and Taiwan, India and Kashmir. “Yes, we do see that,” Huang said. “We invite all of them.”
Meanwhile, the importance of international collaboration to advance scientific knowledge has grown sharply in recent decades. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, based in Canada, has reported that the number of scientific articles published by a single author decreased by 45 percent between 1995 and 2007. During that time, the number of scientific articles published with international co-authorship increased by 409 percent.
Today, the challenge at Lindau is not in attracting participants but in accommodating all of its superstar presenters. “It goes up, actually, from year to year,” Huang said. The increase sometimes has been dramatic — the 37 laureates at this summer’s meeting represented a 60-percent increase from 2011, when 23 laureates attended.
In addition to the original Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting focusing on medicine and physiology, dating back to 1951, organizers have added another gathering, the Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences, which was held in Lindau last month for the fifth time. The program also reflects a growing trend toward interdisciplinary collaboration: Once every five years, Nobel laureates and young scientists from all disciplines are invited to meet in Lindau. In 2010, the last year the interdisciplinary meeting was held, 59 laureates attended. When it’s held next year, Huang expects to host 80 laureates. For the annual meeting, “the main constraint is, how do you fit all of them into a week’s program?” Huang said cheerfully. “It’s close to impossible now, and if there were 10 more, I don’t know what we’d do.”
Considering that Lindau — situated in a scenic little pocket between Germany, Austria, and Switzerland — is popular with tourists, booking hotels in the summer has often been a challenge. But since Huang can’t imagine a scenario that would include turning down a Nobel laureate who wanted to attend, he said, “We would come up with something.”
FREEDOM OF SPEECH
One of the defining characteristics of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings is that the laureates deliver 30-minute lectures, during which they’re free to talk about whatever they like. “Exactly what instructions would you give to a Nobel laureate?” was a rhetorical question asked during this year’s opening ceremony.
In fact, Huang and his colleagues had considered giving the laureates a list of guidelines similar to one that TED speakers receive. (“Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out Thy Usual Shtick,” reads the first “TED Commandment.”) “Some of the presentations, and the way they are presented, are very traditional,” Huang said. “There is not a lot of interaction going on. We asked ourselves, ‘Should we try to influence that? Should we look at what the TED conference is doing and do something similar?’ And we decided not to do it. We wanted to be authentic. I have attended TED conferences myself, and I love them. It is a great concept — but it is not what we are doing here.”
Although many of the laureates use their time onstage to talk about their current research, or about the work that led to their Nobel Prizes, others don’t. For example, German laureate Peter Grünberg, who won a Nobel Prize in physics for his work in the field of magnetoresistance, likes to talk about the physical fundamentals of harmony in music, “which is quite fun,” Huang said. “It is about inspiration, about finding new ways of thinking.”
The meeting’s plenary sessions and large social functions, including the welcoming ceremony and dinners, are held in Inselhalle, whose main hall can accommodate a thousand people. Three smaller rooms accommodate fewer than 100 people each, a combination “that does not make sense for modern conferences,” Huang