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See Inside September 2011

Noble Nobel Faces

A week in Lindau, where scientists are celebrities



Matt Collins

As the ship pulled out of port, a young man near me started humming the theme from Gilligan’s Island. I mentioned to him that the show would have been very different had the SS Minnow been carrying not a lone professor but—as our vessel was—a contingent of Nobel laureates. “Yeah,” he replied, “with everybody who’s here, we’d probably get off the island pretty quick.”

This boat ride on Lake Constance, or the Bodensee as it is locally known, was part of the last day’s activities of the 61st annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany. It was tough to swing Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger’s possibly dead cat in the tiny seaside resort town all week and not hit one of the 23 Nobelists who had come to deliver lectures and advice to some 600 young researchers from all over the world.

A collection of biographies of the science greats in attendance is awe-inspiring (and available online at www.lindau-nobel.org). But what I’ll remember is their faces. For one thing, a traffic circle near the Inselhalle conference center featured a display of 10-foot-high head shots of all the visiting academic dignitaries. But face-to-face, their animated faces made a deeper impression.

Take Oliver Smithies, who shared the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the development of gene targeting in mice, which allows researchers to study the function of virtually any mammalian gene by taking it out of the equation. In his spare time, he invented gel electrophoresis, one of the workhorse analytical tools of molecular biology. Smithies could be called a wizard—and he looks like the kindly Harry Potter version: twinkling eyes on the top floor, a perpetual whimsical smile downstairs. He showed the audience a photograph of his jerry-built PCR machine, cobbled together years before such devices could be bought online from Amazon.com. (I checked: a new one is available for $7,250.) Smithies’s creation looked like it followed a strict Rube Goldberg design and bore the label “NBGBOKFO,” which, he explained, stood for “no bloody good but OK for Oliver.”

Thomas Steitz looks like he should be piloting a whaling ship, by virtue of his old-timey New England seafarer’s beard-with-no-mustache. Make it a whale-watching ship, seeing as how the Yale University researcher’s 21st-century New Haven face lacks the grimness of those 19th-century New Bedforders’. Steitz shared the 2009 chemistry Nobel for his elegant elucidation of the three-dimensional structure and detailed function of the ribosome, the cellular organelle charged with the actual production of proteins as per the instructions of the genetic code. So, naturally, we talked baseball.

Steitz and his wife, Joan, a renowned molecular biologist herself, are the parents of Jon Steitz, who was a good enough pitcher at Yale to be a 2001 third-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers. The senior Steitz disclosed a little gem of baseball trivia: “Jon’s signing bonus with the Brewers was bigger than my share of the Nobel Prize.”

The conference’s senior face belonged to 93-year-old Christian de Duve, who now bears a strong resemblance to one of those wise and benevolent tortoises found in various feature-length cartoons. With the gross architecture of the cell now well known, most living laureates who have studied biological systems, such as Steitz, worked at the molecular level. But de Duve’s 1974 Nobel was for his six-decade-old discoveries of theretofore entirely unknown cell organelles, the lysosome and the peroxisome. If he’s a tortoise, he’s one of those Galápagos versions that both greeted Darwin and thrived into the 21st century. When the slide projector failed during his talk, he calmly told the AV tech frantically trying to fix the problem, “Don’t worry, I know what’s on them.” Genius. 

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