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Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m not a chemist. I always enjoyed chemistry at school – I’d even go as far as to say I was good at it – but in the end the lure of the living was just too strong and I opted to do a biology degree.
It turns out that not being a chemist is something I have in common with several of the Nobel Laureates here in Lindau. Some were awarded the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine, or in physics. Others’ pioneering chemistry work was an offshoot from a career in another scientific field. 2012 chemistry Nobel Brian Kobilka, who opened the first day of scientific lectures with a summary of his work on G-protein coupled receptors, explained he was a ‘new kid on the chemistry block’.
‘I’m a physicist, but hey no one’s perfect!’ quipped David Wineland at the beginning of his talk on quantum theory (to a murmur of agreement from the crowd). The next day Erwin Neher told us he ‘trained as a physicist, won a Nobel in physiology & medicine and I’m now speaking at a chemistry meeting.’
Three days in, I’ve heard from more than 20 Nobel laureates from across the whole spectrum of science, and there are many more still to come. (I won’t go into much detail here – keep an eye on the website for videos). I’m beginning to realise the extent to which the sciences are intermingled. As Jean-Marie Lehn neatly summed up in his talk: ‘Physics concerns the laws of the universe, and biology the rules of life. Chemistry builds a bridge between the two.’
I suppose it’s obvious that the boundaries between sciences are blurred – quantum theory relates to atoms, photons and particles – the very building blocks of chemistry. And often, the problems biologists and physiologists face must be tackled with chemistry. Kobilka used x-ray crystallography to visualise the molecular structures of GPCRs, cell membrane receptors that control the body’s responses to hormones and neurotransmitters.
But despite all this common ground, there’s still a fair amount of inter-subject tension in the world at large. When Kobilka (and colleague Robert Lefkowitz) were awarded the chemistry Nobel last year, some seemed genuinely annoyed it had been netted by molecular physiologists rather than ‘real’ chemists. Inter-science mudslinging is typical within universities – and starts at undergrad level.
The whole thing strikes me as baffling – surely scientists all want the same things, and should pool their expertise to fight the big battles (pathogen vs. drug, or man vs. the energy crisis) rather than bickering over chemistry vs. biology! This is one of the aims of the Lindau meeting, and the Nobel laureates themselves are a shining example of how cross-discipline collaborations can achieve great things. With any luck this will encourage participants to rise above the politics and point-scoring.
For some at least the message seems to be sinking in. Over the past few days I’ve met so many researchers here who are keen to learn from one another. When I asked one if he was here to see any of the Nobellists in particular, he said: ‘not really – I’m mostly here to meet new people, from different fields. In my area of work you don’t meet many people from other areas of science at conferences. I’m hoping to learn from this.’