by Giovanni Banelli

I’m on the plane for Boston, where on Monday I will start my MathWorks internship, i.e. the secondment planned within my AMVA4NewPhysics position. It’s 10PM in the Central European Time, but outside it’s still very bright. Tiredness cannot be hidden. Just this morning I left my hotel in Lindau, where I attended the 2019 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting on Physics (Sunday June 30th – Friday July 5th).

It was one of the most intense weeks I had in my life. It was intense not just because of the tight schedule, stretching every day from 7AM until late evening, but especially because of the overwhelming flow of information and emotions I had to ford. Being a very reflective person, who loves to tackle very different enterprises but also needs to dive into them one at a time in order to appreciate and enjoy every single moment and understand its meaningful connections, I could not avoid an astonishing, and at the same time pleasant burnout at the end of this week.

Sitting for the first time in an intercontinental plane, with a small tablet screen reflecting a confused but joyful smile below the ever cheeky moustache, I had to turn on a movie to kill some of the upcoming eight hours of flight and distract a little the mind. Scrolling the list of available shows, I was pleased to confirm that my traditional neglect of the wide screen was not making me miss much. However, I ran into the second issue of Fantastical Beasts, and since when I was young I had watched all Harry Potter movies I decided it was the right one this time. The tremendously convulsed plot, that in certain glimpses was making me feel embarrassed to be a theoretical physicist, was perfect for the purpose, and allowed me to enjoyably switch my mind between the scenes of the film and the nice memories of the just ended week.

So yeah, these 39 Nobel Prizes were not such fantastical beasts as one might think! They were excellent, special, but at the same time common humans. By the way, this is what we were suggested even before the beginning of the week through some information material about the Meeting. Despite that, on Monday, when waiting on the stairs of Inselhalle suddenly David Gross appeared to take a small group of us for a walk in the countryside, it was impossible not to turn my sight away for a moment, hiding the incredulous smile, and answering his embarrassed smile with his large and cute teeth in turn. Not because of his attire of a relaxed grandpa going to spend some fun time with his provocative nephews, but simply due to a “celebrity effect” that is able to affect even the most indifferent of the humans (and the celebrity itself).

David Gross and Young Scientists
After a walk in Lindau mainland with David Gross and other Young Scientists.

Before the Meeting, probably due to excitement, I still had the illusion that I would have a chance to discuss some physical topics of my interest with the greatest scientists on the globe, thus gaining new important insights, and that’s why on Sunday, right after the conclusion of the overture evening, once back in my hotel room, I went through some old notes on string theory and dualities until 2AM, so that I would be ready to counter-attack to Gross’s replies on some simple quantum gravity issues that none yet could convince me of. In practice, even if he was more interested in my questions than in those of people outside High Energy Physics  theory who anyway subscribed for the walk with him, so that he spent a greater percentage of the available time debating my topics, it was (obviously) difficult to make some steps forward through my doubts.

This was noticed also by another very enthusiastic girl who was part of the group and being a postdoc and a full time quantum gravity researcher was able to talk to him like if she was writing equations on a blackboard; so at the end it was easier to accept this reality. Anyway, it was a great experience to speak with him, because he was able to prove to be a renowned professor just from his clear way of exposing his points by means of a mind-teasing originality, which strongly contrasted with the one of average professors who often have troubles in communicating quickly and efficiently the deep concepts behind a theory to their students.

It is important to point out that most of the Nobel Laureates, at least in the High Energy Physics domain, but I believe also in the other physics areas, are experimental physicists, who are then quite far from my research experience and methods. But the few fundamental theorists like Gross were particularly appreciated and very attractive to the whole, very diverse audience, and he seemed to live a new youth in answering with enjoyed charm to the general questions about force unification and the origin of the universe which were posed by Young Scientists outside the field in open Q&A sessions and panel discussions.

So it is clear that the most relevant aspect of the interaction with the Laureates was more about knowing their personality, ideas and maybe their career challenges and how they overcame them, rather than gaining new practical physics knowledge (except in the rare case when you are a very advanced researcher and the Nobel Prize is an expert in the same area). This was the inspirational education that the Meeting wanted (from its motto, and managed!) to infuse to us, to tell to new generations: do your best, try, because you can succeed.

“The place where the only living constants meet”, a moment from Klaus von Klitzing’s lecture.

Apart from a few side events, the Meeting was held in just one modern venue, the Inselhalle. The atmosphere inside was sparkling, in constant turmoil. During breaks between organised sessions, with the Laureates walking freely around, Young Scientists were continuously moving from one to the other crowd of people that was always surrounding a Laureate. Many scientists were eager to get as much information as possible from each of them, knowing about the once in a life opportunity. Personally, I never believed in osmotic random learning (which on the other hand seems to be very efficient with our “stupid” computers!), so I decided to pick just a few of them, starting from those already closer to my field, read about their work and try to discover something new, leaving some free time to elaborate on what experienced.

With this mood, the other Laureate that I wanted absolutely to meet was my co-national Carlo Rubbia, former CERN director general and Italy’s senator for life. And I managed to get the amazing opportunity to sit with him and his wife for a whole dinner. With his 85 years he is still a lion, a strong personality. He showed to be a bit nostalgic of his epoch, and quite critic of current developments at CERN and the new environment there, citing various situations that I would not report publicly. Of him, apart from his support for a muon collider, I will remember also the strong stance in favour of the experimental approach to physics (about which we had an interesting and pretty much philosophic debate since I’m a theorist), from which I understood that from a practical point of view in his opinion in this age I should have studied energy physics instead! (which partially makes sense and I agree. Partially though.)

At the dinner with Carlo Rubbia.

I talked also to Martinus Veltman, the other High Energy theoretical physicist present, even older than him, who as a final message to future generations wanted to underline the importance of solitude for research, even if today the general tendency, because of market reasons, is driving us away from that ideal.

Among Laureates in other fields I was very pleased to listen to Claude Tannoudji’s thoughts. His experience is really meaningful not just because of his family story, but especially due to the fact of being one of the fewer Nobel Laureates who are not of English/German/American origin (he is an Algerian French). His French education, similar to an Italian one, was clearly apparent, notably because of the importance he gave to a general culture of a scientist rather than focusing too much on their own research field; and this made him really a well-rounded and distinguished personality among the Nobels.

Finally, I wanted to hear something from Brian Josephson, who after winning the Prize at a very young age devoted himself to thinking about things that many would regard as pseudo-scientific. Honestly, despite being a person very open to non-mainstream ideas, at some points I got the suspect he’s become a little “crazy”, but still I don’t feel to regard his very “futuristic” ideas as bullshit and I thank him because his Nobel craziness is a stronghold in defence of freedom of thought in an age where new kinds of totalitarian ideologies seem to emerge.

In fact another important focus of the Meeting was the relationship and the role science has in society. It is clear that the Nobel Prize is the link between the world of  science and those who are outside it, remarking the discoveries that mostly benefited humanity and remembering to the wide public the importance of research. It is therefore understandable that the views of a Nobel Prize are regarded with distinction, and on the other hand, accepting this Prize is endowing you with a big amount of responsibility.

To this point was devoted the opening of the Meeting and also its closing panel. In both of these circumstances a prominent speaker was Brian Schmidt, who in this way gave me enough information to get an idea of his personality and general education, without the need for closer exchanges. As is well known, climate change is regarded today as a major global issue, and this didn’t fail to clearly come up at the Meeting; however, I think that Schmidt’s views in this regard, that scientists can also solve problems which are in great part sociological, defects quite some scientism and positivism. Personally, I think that exactly these ways of thinking are responsible for the deep moat of mistrust that has recently arisen towards scientific claims by a greater part of Western world population, but unfortunately there was not an opportunity to discuss this self-criticism, and my impression is that there isn’t yet awareness of this fact in the scientific community (even Tannoudji replied to my question mainly blaming the ignorance of politicians).

On the other hand I have to praise his open criticism of capitalism (used literally as a word by an American), as a social system which is a common source of many social and environmental issues. It is only having in mind the mentioned ideologic position that we can understand the call he made for sharing as the main feature of the scientific research of the future. In a world where people are growing up with an individualistic setup, the idea of organising science in a collaborative way unfortunately sounds really like a nice utopia which cannot exist until a new sustainable system of values will replace the current one. If everyone dreams to win a Nobel Prize, as we were supposed to do, how can we share our ideas with other people? It is clear that in order to develop our scientific ideas it is often unavoidable to share them with other people, but how can we do this systematically if we bear the fear that our work will not be rewarded, if only a few will get such a great consecration?

The cutest sentence pronounced during the Meeting was at its farewell: “Dear Young Scientists, as you know the only way for you to come back to Lindau is to win a Nobel Prize”. So how to win a Nobel Prize? It was nice, but not so much of a surprise, to notice that the most common answer the Lauerates gave to this question is the simplest one: luck. Many Laureates explicitly said that looking back to their career, a huge proportion (specified by someone to be more than 90%) of the merits that led to the Prize was luck. Luck for being in the right place at the right time, luck for having survived difficult situations like problems in finding academic jobs or need to change field during postdoc time, etc.

“If you like physics and you are lucky, nature may kindly tell you its secrets. So let’s enjoy physics!” is the sentence full of Japanese wisdom pronounced by Takaaki Kajita at the closure of his lecture. If we take a moment to think about it, this is really a huge statement; it’s interesting to see that people really don’t take it too seriously. I would guess because of its enormous metaphysical consequences: how would we shape our life (and growth as young people) if we had kept in mind this fact? How would such a world be different from the current one? How would our society need to be organised? In fact, probably most of these Laureates never dreamed of a Nobel Prize in their youth, as we were implicitly driven to do. They are sons of a previous generation that didn’t have such an obsession with success as we (are forced to) have, and probably that’s the only way to reach such achievements…

These are just a few of the many inputs and thoughts I got attending the Meeting. Only a couple of days later, and even following the guideline of focusing on a handful of them, I cannot remember anymore every single message from the lectures and other short interaction with the Laureates. What remains is the feeling, and the awareness, of continuing in building up myself according to the famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein that “Education is what is left once you forget everything”.

At the end, given that we are all people with immense and complex stories behind, there was just a small time to get to know a Nobel Prize, and in fact as said the purpose of the Meeting was mainly a motivational one. It was a celebration of science, the highest expression of a need for visibility of what is today really a definite social class, the class of researchers, which are often people with different attitudes and sensitivity than usual, not to speak about ways of living, but whose work is so relevant for everyone’s life. Of course the other less apparent side of the Meeting was exactly this unique opportunity to meet with other great Young Scientists from all over the globe, sharing ideas and experiences, hopes and fears. To build the consciousness of not being alone in the difficult effort of expanding the knowledge of the natural world. And I really had this luck to find in the same place so many good and committed friends that I wish I’ll see again in the future, which is a rare event in an adult’s life.

Just stepped into the boat from Lindau to Mainau.

The top of this self-praising and science grandeur was on the last day, when on an amazing, futuristic and huge “marriage boat” they took us to the Mainau island on the Bodensee. At this point really the Meeting went beyond what I could conceive as an elite event, with a perfect organisation like for state officials meetings, and made me feel a little embarrassed. During the two hour and more long way back on the large stage inside the boat there was even a musical band playing a mix of Bavarian and international Pop culture tunes, just for us. I’ve always been more of a tango guy, but when I saw the half-Slovenian Duncan Haldane and his belly jumping on the floor I threw myself into the excited crowd like I haven’t been doing for many years. And with this renovated joy of being where I’ve arrived, and after a night full of dreams and nostalgia, I headed towards the airport and the next challenges.