Graduate student meets Nobel laureates in LindauBy Steve Koppes
Each summer a small group of Nobel laureates gathers for a few days on the picturesque island city of Lindau, which sits on Lake Constance just north of the Swiss Alps, to talk science with a group of more than 500 graduate students from around the world.
In recent years the University has counted one of its own students among that select group. Last summer it was Klara Elteto, a graduate student in Physics, who was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
Elteto is the fourth University graduate student to participate in the annual Lindau Meeting of Nobel laureates since 2000. University students who attended the meeting previously were Maria Krisch, Chemistry, in 2002; Troy Andre, Physics, in 2001; and Craig Tyler, Astronomy & Astrophysics, in 2000.
Most graduate students know the laureates only from textbooks and newspaper headlines when the Nobel Foundation names its latest honorees each October. But students at the Lindau meeting got to know more than a dozen Nobel laureates in physics over lunch, dinner, and during formal presentations and panel discussions that covered a wide range of technical topics and policy issues.
Nobel laureate (1999) Martinus Veltman outlined the history of particle physics. Laureate (1996) Robert Richardson described how charlatans use pseudoscience to sell gadgets to a gullible public. And laureate (1973) Ivar Giaever provided advice on how to start a high-tech business.
The laureates were at times provocative. Giaever delivered a particularly unwelcome message to the students regarding the esoteric nature of theoretical physics. He argued that there is no fundamental theory left in physics that could possibly have any application. He advised students to forget theory and become inventors. “That was not a very popular view,” Elteto said.
Another 1973 laureate, Brian Josephson, bemoaned the taboo that has tarnished certain topics in scientific circles. “He wants to find a quantum mechanical reason for telepathy,” Elteto said. “As you can imagine, the scientific establishment does not look kindly upon such endeavors.”
Josephson specifically discussed the reputation of cold fusion—power generation through a nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature and pressure. Cold fusion gained notoriety in 1989, following a widely publicized tabletop experiment in Utah that purportedly produced more energy than it consumed. But scientists soon became wary of the experiment when they were unable to replicate the spectacular Utah results.
Elteto found Josephson’s talk to be especially interesting—and distressing. “You cannot publish a paper having the words ‘cold fusion’ in it, which in some ways is disturbing in that you should judge the paper based on the merit of the research,” she said.
Working in the laboratory of Heinrich Jaeger, Professor in Physics and the College, Elteto conducts research on how closely packed electrons affect current flows. She has contributed to one paper that appeared earlier this year in Physical Review Letters. She and her associates have submitted another one to Physical Review B. Their data are relevant to the electronics industry as it develops ever smaller and faster components.
“Industry is working to make everything smaller and smaller, and with small comes very different science. Nanotechnology cannot be developed without first understanding nanoscience,” she said.
Elteto was able to pose several technical questions to 1985 laureate Klaus von Klitzing, who does research related to her own. But she met only one student, from Germany, whose research closely paralleled hers.
Nevertheless, she welcomed the opportunity to share cultural observations with students from Pakistan, the Czech Republic and many other countries. Of the 560 students representing 20 countries who attended the meeting this year, only 58 came from the United States.
“I found that talking to students was really the most valuable part of this whole thing, just learning about their experiences. Educational systems are very different in different countries,” she said.