Shaking hands with Nobel Prize winners

Two young TU/e physicists will be able to shake hands with forty Nobel Prize winners, not metaphorically, but literally during the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting two months from now. PhD student Ivana Abramovic and master’s student Vincent Debets were selected from 580 scientific talents (seven of whom are Dutch) from 88 countries to participate in the 69th edition of this meeting.

photo Julia Nimke / Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

“How can you accomplish anything new when you never doubt what you read in books?”

Ivana Abramovic hopes to defend her dissertation in June, six months before the deadline. This exceptional feat says a lot about the passionate drive of the 29-year-old Serbian researcher in the Science and Technology of Nuclear Fusion group. She is one of two TU/e students who will participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting at the end of June.

No, Ivana confesses, she hadn’t heard of the Lindau Nobel Meetings until her supervisor, TU/e full professor Niek Lopes Cardozo, approached her with the idea to nominate her through the KNAW. She doesn’t really know why he chose her, except that “he thought it would be right up my alley,” Ivana says. Next step: a selection procedure and a heap of online forms, “which took quite some time to complete,” she says. But she knew it had been worth the effort when the invitation to come to Lindau arrived in the mail six months later.

And even though she hadn’t heard of the Lindau meetings until recently, she looks forward to it now that she has a ticket. “It’s a unique opportunity to meet the best and brightest in the field. To see what they are like, how they think and what motivates them.” Ivana is especially fascinated by the human side of these outstanding scientists. “There’s more than enough information about their research, but who are the people behind it?”

Ivana is particularly interested in the American physicist Steven Chu. He won the Nobel Prize - along with two colleagues - in 1997 for discovering a technique that allows atoms to be cooled to extremely low temperatures and captured in a trap. From 2009 to 2013, Chu served as Secretary of Energy under president Barack Obama. “He is one of the few people who went on to do something which was also very important, outside the field of physics. Someone who excels in science, but whose social skills are highly developed as well.”

She hopes to get the opportunity to meet him personally. Ivana knows that the packed program of the Lindau Meeting offers participants the freedom to meet people and to network. “You’re not just listening to someone on a podium all day.”

Mysteries

Ivana is excited about the key topics for this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting: gravitational waves and dark matter. “I’m particularly interested in the role of time in physics. There is so much we don’t know, there are still so many mysteries, and there is still so much to describe.” She only reached these insights after a long time, she says with a big smile After she fell under the spell of physics as a twelve-year-old, she naively believed that she found a way to explain the universe. “I was one of those children who kept asking questions and wanted to get to the bottom of things, which would sometimes drive my family crazy. I wanted to see and understand things.”

Physics would supply her with all the answers, young Ivana believed. “Now I understand that there are limits, and that physics can’t explain everything either. At the same time, there is rapid progress in physics.” In no small part thanks to future Nobel Prize winners. “The people who are willing to step outside conventional wisdom and to call things into question,” says Ivana. These are the people she hopes to meet in the German town of Lindau this spring. “Open minded people who go beyond the status quo. How can you accomplish anything new when you never doubt what you read in books?”

Ivana, who came to the Netherlands in 2013 and took her master’s degree at TU/e as well, hopes to defend her dissertation at the end of June. She conducts research in the field of high temperature plasma diagnostics, for the use of plasma as fuel in devices for nuclear fusion.


“I love to explain things starting from the basic principles”

No, you will not see Vincent Debets, who recently obtained his Master of Applied Physics, hunting for autographs any time soon. To him, Nobel Prize winners aren’t demigods to be worshipped, but leading scientists he would love to meet. And he will have that opportunity in Lindau two months from now.

Vincent is 25 years old and recently finished his master’s with honors. He was awarded the same distinction when he completed his bachelor’s at TU/e. Do some people think he is a high achiever? “I’m sure they do,” he responds laughingly. He has a slightly different view though: “I really don’t need to be successful in everything I do. But when I do something, I want to do it right.” In two weeks, he will start with his doctoral period in the same group in which he graduated: TPS, short for Theory of Polymers and Soft Matter.

Vincent immediately admits that, like Ivana, he had not heard of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings before. Until his thesis supervisor Liesbeth Janssen told him about it in the fall of 2018. “She herself attended the meeting back when she was a PhD student in Nijmegen and really enjoyed it. She said: your chances are slim, but shall we try?” His other supervisor, full professor Kees Storm, sent a letter of recommendation, an extensive CV and some words of motivation to the KNAW. “I figured it would be a unique glimpse into the world of academia and that I would hopefully learn something from forty-two Nobel Prize winners. But mostly: I hope to chat about science with others.”

He doesn’t spend hours on end reading physics publications, nor does he devour every available shred of information on Nobel Prize winners. “I heard that some people even collect autographs of Nobel Prize winners. I’m not interested in that, but it is special to meet the world’s greatest experts in real life of course.”

Vincent says he hasn’t thought about which of these experts in particular he hopes to meet and maybe even talk to. His personal interests lie mostly in soft matter and active matter. He graduated in biophysics last month and will immerse himself in so-called glass physics starting May the first. “I’m going to do research on how glass hardens, with a special focus on the influence of active particles. This also involves possible implications in biology for instance, because cells basically undergo a kind of glass transition as well.”

Impatient

Vincent stresses that his heart truly lies with fundamental physics and theory. Therefore, the TPS group, “the only completely theoretical group,” is the perfect place for him. “I’m not an experimental physicist. I’m not terribly deft anyway, I usually get impatient during experiments. I feel that theory gives me more control of my own work; I don’t have to deal with interference caused by all kinds of circumstances. And I enjoy programming.”

Theorist or not, Vincent hopes to make a ‘useful contribution to society’ as a physicist eventually. “The field of soft mater is changing rapidly and it won’t be long before it will lead to applications for people and industry. Of course, it would be great to develop something as a physicist that will eventually be applied to something as complex as the human body.”

It would be a mistake to think that such grandiose ideas were on Vincent’s mind when he first became interested in physics during high school. “I was good at physics and math, and I was told that a diploma from a technical university would be a guarantee for a job. But I’m not a die-hard engineer; I don’t have the drive to develop hands-on technology. What really fascinates me lies before that. I love to explain things starting from the basic principles.”

Apart from attending “high-quality presentations” in Lindau, Vincent more than anything hopes to meet fellow students from different cultures. Whether a theorist with an interest in soft matter like himself will be able to fully understand astrophysics, cosmology and gravitational waves (key topics during this year’s Lindau Meeting but of little importance at TU/e, according to Vincent) “remains to be seen,” he says with a smile.

But then again, his supervisor’s previous experience at Lindau taught Vincent that being able to comprehend a lecture doesn’t completely depend on your (prior) knowledge. Laughingly: “Being brilliant at research doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good at giving presentations.”

> Read more about the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings below.

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

The exchange of knowledge among scientists of different generations and mutual inspiration – these are some of the goals of the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, held since 1951. The meetings focus on a different scientific field each year, alternated with an interdisciplinary meeting every five years. This year is dedicated to physics. The program will feature lectures by Nobel Prize winners, workshops and several social events.

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has been involved in the nominations of the Dutch participants since 2008. A spokesperson says that five TU/e scientists were selected to participate in the meeting during the last ten years: two chemists in 2009 (Maartje Bastings and Evgeny Pidko), one chemical engineer in 2013 (Ivo Filot), and two physicists for this year’s edition. Like Eindhoven, Delft can also be congratulated with two participants this year.

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting will be held in the town of Lindau in the south of Germany from June 30 to July 5.

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