Nobel Conference 50: Where does science go from here? (Tuesday)

A couple weeks ago, I went down to my alma mater for an event they have annually: Nobel Conference. They get Nobel laureates and other cool scientists to come and give lectures around a particular theme for two days in early October. I used to love Nobel Conferences when I was a student, and they’re not just for students, not in the least. This year was the 50th anniversary conference, and as such they decided on a broader theme, the future of science. They brought back several favorite speakers from past Nobel Conferences, including inviting Freeman Dyson to be the banquet keynote speaker to finish the conference on Wednesday. Well. Freeman Dyson was my professor for a semester when I was at Gustavus, and he was a really lovely person. I was halfway talked into going when I was reading through the rest of the presenters, but when I got to him on the list, that was it: I had to go see him again.

Unfortunately, he was ill and couldn’t make it. But by then I’d already committed to doing it, and I’m so glad I did. Not only did I get to have lunch with my former advisor and see a couple of my other professors, I got to hear some really exciting lectures on a wide variety of topics. I also sat the first day with an earnest and wide-eyed high school student and the second day with some eager and fascinated old people, so that was fun too, the different people I ran into who were interested in coming together for this sort of thing. If you’re in the greater Minnesota-Wisconsin area–even northern Iowa, really–you should think about Nobel Conference. There’s nothing quite like it.

Steven Chu showed some very interesting graphs about costs, regulation, and energy, which did not do what economists predict or can explain at all. One of his interesting quotes was from Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, who said, “The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end but not for a lack of oil.” He talked about room-temperature storage and long-distance transmission of energy from renewables (e.g. wind and solar) as major technical goals for the next chunk of time. He felt that his biggest successes were invisible to the public: recruitment and retention of scientists and engineers, especially those in their 40s, to this line of work, and to the National Academy of Science in particular. I didn’t mind not hearing about his original work in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light, because the stuff he’s done since has been interesting, too. I was definitely a Steven Chu fan by the end of his talk.

I wish I could say the same of Sir Harold Kroto. His original work on fullerenes was so impressive, I’d have loved to hear about that, but if not that, something else that was…not a rehash of every flat Atlantic or New Yorker article ever written on the subject of creativity, with a heaping helping of Kids These Days mixed in. Things are not as they were when Sir Harold was a youth, and Sir Harold does not approve! He’s not about to spend any time trying to understand, adjust, or God help us improve anything. He just does not approve! Some helpful person tried to steer him towards something, anything like a positive path in the Q&A session, and he was having none! Sadly I did not bring my cane, so I could not lend it to him to shake at some clouds. Seriously, what a disappointment. Fullerenes are so cool that even if you do nothing else interesting, you can always return to that–and should, if you have nothing else to other than harumphing.

With Sean B. Carroll, though, we were entirely back on track, and I am definitely looking for his book. He talked about the icefish, a creature that evolved to have plasma full of antifreeze that came from digestive enzymes. It’s one of less than a dozen vertebrates to lack red blood cells and absorb oxygen passively. This is the kind of random nerdy crap I really enjoy, and he went on to talk about more evolutionary examples in animal development, about European kestrels mutating to see in the UV instead of blue/violet and getting to see trails of vole urine as a result, because apparently vole urine is quite visible in the UV. Who knew! What lovely stuff. He also talked about the astonishing progress in restoring large species diversity at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Exciting, inspiring stuff.

Svante Pääbo talked about early humans and the hominids lines who contributed to homo sapiens, and then the hominid lines who contributed to them. I think the best part of his talk was that when he was first at Nobel conference in 2008, he gave a firm date beyond which we probably wouldn’t know anything about hominid line contributions, and now, six years later, he was thoroughly willing to rescind that, talking about an older hominid line that we can see contributing to the Denisovans the way the Denisovans contributed to us, and he’s no longer willing to say, “Here is the date before which we won’t be able to say anything.” I just loved that. I loved watching knowledge extend just that fast that he stopped trying to say what we can’t know. And I loved that he could put up a list of all human-specific amino acids on one slide.

I left early from Gary Ernst’s talk; he was disorganized and breathless and kept circling back around points that were either staggeringly obvious or really alarming. (“Drilling for oil has been contaminating the groundwater for 150 years and nobody cared before,” is as direct a quote as I could write it down. I don’t even. Just–no.) He was the last talk of the day, and I was tired, so maybe his talk got better, but I did not stick around to find out. In a slate of ten panelists, having only two of them give bad talks and the other eight somewhere between good and transcendently great is an amazing ratio.

I have more to say here, and the two best talks, the ones where the science moved me to tears, are yet to come. But this is already getting long, so I should break it into two posts, so I will come back to Wednesday’s talks in my next Nobel Conference post.

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