I have heard quite a few keynote lectures from Nobel Prize winners in Physics or Chemistry. At least ten that I can remember, possibly more.
I am being flippant on purpose. Nobel laureate lectures aren’t all that. When I went to my first such lecture, I was all agog. I expected to hear a profound speech that would inspire generations of scientists to a lofty ideal. After all, aren’t the great Nobel lectures of the past the motivational quotes of today?
But my excitement faded pretty soon. Every Nobel laureate lecture was just a professor droning about his research, the science and the results, the theory and the experiment.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
Don’t get me wrong, every one of them was a brilliant scientist, who had built their research painstakingly and made a landmark contribution to science. I do not mean to undermine their scientific contribution at all. But I do not agree with their choice of keynote lecture topic.
A lecture at a conference is usually an opportunity for a scientist to showcase her research and publicize her results. This is the mechanism by which a scientist gathers traction, attracts collaborators and funding, and achieves visibility and credibility.
What does a Nobel laureate achieve?
Nobel laureates do not need visibility for their research. By virtue of the Prize, their research has gotten more exposure than anyone else’s. By virtue of the Prize, hundreds and thousands of introductory and advanced level articles have written, many man hours of airtime has been dedicated to publicize and explain their research.
By virtue of the Prize, Nobel laureates have been given a platform. They have been elevated and given an opportunity to be heard by an audience their peers will never be afforded. Instead of using this power, and responsibility, judiciously, most laureates squander it just explaining their research. That is not even selfish, its just utterly useless.
I heard Eric Betzig at CLEO15 at San Jose last month. He won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for super-resolution microscopy. His lecture was the first, and only, one I have heard that was worth its Nobel salt.
Eric spent more time on mentioning the advantages and drawbacks of other contemporary work than on his own. He promoted research that currently going on, compared it with his work and pointed out why they might be more or less useful.
Even the time he spent on his own research, he used to tell his journey, his story. Every scientist can understand the equations, but starry eyed grad students and young professors alike go to a Nobel lecture to hear how… how were the discoveries made, what was the process, what was the struggle, how can they do it? His story of life in the last days of Bell labs, his frustrations with academia and failure as a businessman, painted a fascinating picture of a life of learning and hinted at the qualities required to be successful in research.
He also expressed his opinions of how research can or should be done and some of the pitfalls that befall academics and businessmen. None of that felt like a sermon, it was just part of story of Eric Betzig’s journey and lessons that he learnt.
Here is ‘a’ lecture by Eric Betzig., the best Nobel laureate lecture I have ever heard. Its not the CLEO one, but the material is almost the same.
Although he did say ‘Fuck you’ at CLEO, but this talk only has him say ‘goddamn, bitch’. How much do you have to achieve to be able to swear nonchalantly at ever formal conference? Thank you Eric for putting it to the test and re-establishing the worth of the Nobel Prize.