German island city retreat nurtures Nobel ambitions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am

When Berkeley Professor David Gross took centre stage last week in the romantic German island city of Lindau to talk about the future of physics, he had the undivided attention of 700 of the most talented students from 56 countries.

One out of seven came from Asia, up from almost zero two years ago. The rise in their numbers confirms that Asia is rapidly becoming a region full of diverse sources of knowledge and innovation.

The setting in Lindau was the 55th meeting of Nobel laureates with tomorrow's academic elite, a meeting where outstanding young graduate and doctoral researchers rub shoulders with the international titans in their respective fields.

For four days the academic circus with 47 laureates transformed the little city on an island in Lake Constance into an improvised campus, with students crowding the tiny cafes in the medieval area around the old city hall, discussing everything from atmospheric chemistry to the future of physics and the molecular dynamics of yeast. In the formal part of the gathering the laureates lectured about the latest findings in the top echelons of science. Japanese Professor Masatoshi Koshiba, the Nobel laureate of physics in 2002, discussed what neutrinos - highly energetic particles that are catapulted by the sun with high speed into the universe - 'might tell us in the future'.

Professor Dr Aaron Ciechanover from Haifa in Israel elaborated on 'Why Proteins Have to Die so we Shall Live'.

For the second time in its 55-year history the meeting was an interdisciplinary event with laureates from chemistry, medicine and physics.

What Professor Gross, the Nobel laureate of 2004 and a theoretical physicist, revealed to the students was nothing less than a description of the academic road to fame for some of tomorrow's Nobel laureates. 'It's amazing how much we do not know yet,' he said. 'The most important product in our science is ignorance.'

Chen Jin, one of the 33 students in this year's Chinese delegation, said: 'Lindau was an excellent experience.' The doctoral student from Nanjing University studied chemistry with a people's scholarship, being among the top 10 per cent of his class. 'I got a lot of useful advice,' he said in fluent English.

During the first day's reception party he grabbed the German chemistry laureate of 1988, Professor Robert Huber, a native of Munich, and quizzed him on his current work about immunsensors.

For Mr Chen it was important that the communication in Lindau went beyond academic exchange. Personal discussions extended well beyond the 'Island Hall' where the lectures took place and into the surrounding cafes and restaurants.

Zhang Qi, a postdoctoral scientist in physiology from Xian, was pleased that the laureates in Lindau were 'just like normal people' who were willing to talk to her about the latest findings on neural stem-cell-like lines and astrocytes. 'Things have changed,' she said of the Chinese students' active participation in Lindau. 'It's not like in old days when we were a little bit shy.'

Zhao Miaogen, vice-director at the Sino German Science Centre in Beijing, who headed the Chinese delegation, said: 'Many of the students in this delegation would have liked to stay in this beautiful town.' Dr Zhao lived in Germany for 20 years and studied in Heidelberg. He observed 'a rapid internationalisation' in China's sciences with the rising number of Chinese academics returning home.

The annual meeting of Nobel laureates past and possibly future was becoming Europe's most important international forum for tomorrow's elite scientists, said Thomas Ellerbeck, the spokesman of the Lindau Foundation for Nobel Prize Winners Meetings.

'We are in the midst of a great leap into Asia,' said Wolfgang Schuerer, chairman of the Lindau Foundation. Professor Schuerer, backed by the state government of Bavaria, the federal government in Berlin, and the European Commission, as well as an increasing pool of international sponsors, has invested much time and energy in the last couple of months to get Asian science connected with the event.

Last week, during the meeting, he signed a memorandum of understanding with Malaysia, whose best and brightest students participated in Lindau for the first time this year. So did delegations from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea. China joined last year. 'After the Chinese started to come to Lindau, there has been a big rush from many other Asian countries,' Professor Schuerer said.

With local partners in Asian countries he negotiated to set up review commissions to find the best students in rigorous selections. Many top scientists in Asia have studied in Germany. Among them is the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lu Yongxiang, who earned a doctorate in Engineering Sciences from the RWTH University in Aachen. 'We want to welcome them back in Lindau,' said Mr Schuerer. 'The Asians have come to realise that we are serious about integrating them.'

The rapid rise in the number of Asian students and Nobel laureates at the Lindau meeting is proof that Asia is on the radar of global science. Researchers in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea now account for more than a quarter of all US industrial patents awarded each year, according to a recent study by CHI Research, a consulting firm in Haddon Heights, New Jersey.

China represents the next big wave. The re-emergence of China's science, which led the world centuries ago, was credited to generous state programmes, an entrepreneurial explosion and returning students. By the mid-1990s an increasing number of degrees at Berkeley, where Professor Gross comes from, were granted to students from the mainland. Many have now returned home.

Asia, blessed with a massive supply of scientists and engineers, was also high up on the radar screen of European and US laureates in Lindau. 'I've been to China a few times recently,' said Professor Gross. 'Every time I go, I am amazed at the changes that are taking place.

'They are determined to become a producer as well as a user of basic knowledge, asking for advice from us and taking it, exploring models of how scientific research is carried out and trying to choose the best in a very open minded way.'