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"Hey, you are good why are you not a physicist?"

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Nobel Laureate Steven Chu with young researcher Bettina Keller. Photo by Kathleen Raven

Nobel Laureate Steven Chu with young researcher Bettina Keller. Photo by Kathleen Raven

On the last day of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, the prize winners, young researchers and journalists mingled together on a boat ride to Mainau Island. During this two-hour ride, I witnessed a conversation take place between young researcher Bettina Keller and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1997). The brief conversation covered everything from a mini-history of the famous E=mc2 equation to quantum physics. After the Lindau meeting ended on July 5, I emailed Dr. Keller to ask her about the experience.

On Friday’s boat trip to Mainau Island, you approached Nobel Laureate Steven Chu to talk with him. Why?

I had no particular question in mind. During the meeting, Prof. Chu struck me as a person who argues in a very clear fashion without ever losing a sense of irony and humor. Also he has a very fascinating career. He developed laser-cooling of atoms which — although based on a easy-to-understand principle — still seems like a magic trick to me. Later he turned to biophysics which is close to my field of research. And, of course, he was the U.S. Secretary of Energy. There is hardly a way that a conversation with him could turn out to be boring.

What main idea / feeling / inspiration did you take away from your talk with Chu?

I really liked what he explained to me about the electron radius (or rather its absence) and how theoreticians deal with this. This showed to me how incomplete and to some extent contradictory the physical understanding of our world still is. I think these puzzles might very well be gateways to a new and different conception of the world.

At one point, Chu turned to you and said something along the lines of: “Hey, you are good — why are you not a physicist?” And what is your answer?

I replied that I am currently a postdoc in the mathematics department. You see, there is this not entirely serious notion that there is a hierarchy among the sciences. For a cartoon illustration see http://xkcd.com/435/.

What was the highlight of your trip to the Lindau meeting?

The highlights definitely were the personal interactions and discussions with the Nobel Laureates. To see their enthusiasm for science, their fascination with their field of research, and (sometimes) their surprise that the discoveries they made were actually useful was very inspiring. During the talks and during the discussion, the history of natural sciences from about shortly after the second world war until today unfolded. I only realized during the Lindau meeting how much the Nobel prizes are based on each other and refer to each other.

How did this trip change your research path or did it change anything?

The trip is only a week ago — it’s hard to tell what influence it will have in the long run. It definitely motivated me (and also many other participants) to go on with science.

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And see our In-Depth Report and the 30 Under 30 series on the main site.

This blog post originates from the Lindau Nobel Online Community, the interactive forum of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. The 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, dedicated to chemistry, is held in Lindau, Germany, from 30 June to 5 July 2013. 35 Nobel Laureates will congregate to meet more than 600 young researchers from approximately 80 countries.

Kathleen Raven is part of the official blog team. Please find all of her postings on the Community blog.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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