3 Lessons Learned From Nobel Laureates

A meeting of Nobel laureates offered up some non-academic insights about how we learn.

Talk about a Dream Team. Nearly all of the plenary speakers at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Metings, held annually in Lindau, Germany, are Nobel laureates, who have been gathering on an island in Lake Constance since 1951. I attended the 64th meeting, held early this summer, where 37 Nobel Laureates from medicine and physiology took the stage for 30-minute lectures and met with young scientists from around the world.

Not everything the laureates said went over my non-scientist head, but there also was much to be gleaned about how we learn. I wrote about the meeting’s history and organization in the September issue of Convene; here are three non-science takeaways:

1. Storytelling really does help us learn. None of the topics that the Nobel laureates addressed could be described as lightweight, but I noticed that I had a far greater chance of understanding and retaining knowledge when presenters included stories about their work, not just equations and hypotheses.

For example, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and 2009 Laureate, titled her talk about the role that telomeres play in disease, “Adventures at the Ends of Chromosomes,” began by telling the audience that her research literally began with the study of pond scum, illustrated with a picture of a scummy pond. I was hooked.

2. Rituals are a glue that hold groups together. Many of social events scheduled during the meeting were traditions that went back decades and were a little corny, such as a Bavarian evening, complete with Lederhosen and folk music, a “Grill and Chill” barbecue — see photo above —  and a dance where attendees were randomly matched together. The dance is “an awkward situation for everyone,” says Wolfgang Huang, who, meeting organizer and director of the executive secretariat of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.“That is part of the fun. And that brings people together.”

3. We need each other to do our best thinking. Nobel laureates are rightly honored and elevated for their intellectual discoveries and their own personal abilities to make brilliant leaps of thought and knit knowledge together in new ways. But it was striking to hear how many of the speakers began their talks by praising their colleagues and students for the contributions they had made and were making to their work. Not one laureate indicated that they had gotten to where they were standing without the help of others.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.