Heads up! Nobel Laureates leave a trail of science in a small town called Lindau | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.06.2017
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Heads up! Nobel Laureates leave a trail of science in a small town called Lindau

There's a simple art to learning from pylons rather than walking into them: look up! Nobel Laureates gravitate towards Lindau every summer. The town's newly erected Science Trail is a tour of their minds.

It's usually a good idea when walking around town to look up and ahead. Occasionally you might also like to look left and right - for instance, while crossing a road. So put those phones away and soak up your environment. In Lindau, look up and you might even learn something.

This small town on Lake Constance in southern Germany has a new "Science Trail," which aims to explain the science behind the discoveries that have won Nobel Prizes. There's even an app to go with it. So, okay, you can get those phones out again.

There are two bits to Lindau - a mainland and a small island that takes all of 15 minutes to walk from one side to the other. The island has hosted an annual meeting of Nobel Laureates since 1951.

Young scientists have joined the Nobel laureates for years now. They talk future discoveries and, heck, there's an element of hero worship too. Some of the science luminaries come every year - it's a chance to stay in touch, but it's also like Lindau is a commune-come-holiday home for them. And the laureates have left their mark.

As every year passes the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting seeps deeper into the foundations of this old cobbled town. And with the unveiling of the new science trail, the meetings are doing that in a very real sense.

The science trail consists of 18 "knowledge pylons," sunk deep into the ground. They are dotted around the town - 15 on the island, three on the mainland, and three to come later in the year on nearby Mainau Island, apparently. So that's 21 in total. 

Part of the science trail is strewn with rubble - the iconic "Inselhalle," where the meetings are normally held, is under re-construction. The work has been progressing slowly for 12-18 months. But the meetings' organizers say the trail is pretty much set.

Talking to two maintenance men on Wednesday (28.6.2017), I was told not all the pylons were ready. They were giving the ones that are ready a last minute polish before Thursday's opening.

They showed me a map of the pylons on their maintenance route - but I only managed to find seven. Perhaps that's my poor eyesight. But it did feel like finding the pylons was like going on a hunt - you go searching for clues down the town's narrow alleyways and if you're lucky you'll walk into one of these pylons and find a few answers to life.

In the Stadtgarten, for example, you can learn about cancer medicine, dangerous mutations in the body, or photosynthesis.

Elsewhere, you can read about the Nobel Laureates themselves. And at each of the stations you can plug into the matrix on your phone via a science trail app.

The app will guide you from pylon to pylon (I preferred to test my sense of orientation), or you can test your knowledge and win a prize of your own. But it's unlikely to come with the financial rewards of a Nobel Prize! In 2016 each "full Nobel Prize" was allocated 8 million SEK (Swedish Kronor), which is just shy of one million euros. 

Money is worth mentioning here, because while the Nobel Laureate meetings may not bring much cash to Lindau, they do bring a sense of self-importance and respectability to a small town that may otherwise have fallen off the map.

The meetings draw in a vast number of sponsors and partners from across industry - the most visible of which provide a fleet of sleek cars made by Porsche or Audi. But when the meetings are over, I imagine the cars go too. The pylons, on the other hand, are here to stay, for an initial 10 years. They anchor the meetings to this town.

But officially the science trail is all about "outreach" - the science community "reaching out" to the general public.

Outreach is an odd term, but its intentions are sane. The science community has been waking up to the fact that it is the community's own responsibility to help non-scientists understand what scientists do.

It has become especially pertinent now, say the scientists. They see themselves as being under increasing attack from politicians, climate deniers, or whoever else has an interest in discrediting scientific findings.

Scientists really need to come out of hiding - and fight their corner. As, indeed, we all do. 

They need to fight their corner in languages that let us normal folk understand. The young scientists at Lindau know it's a tough call. Some admit they struggle to explain their work in ways that non-scientists can grasp. But it's vital that they try.

The more people who understand science, and the more people who aren't scared by the complexities of science, the better the chances of science getting funded and delivering potential solutions to life's many questions. 

We also need to learn to appreciate the history of science to understand how it has evolved, the context in which it operates. Each pylon features a "Did you know?" element. So you might, for instance, read how chemist George de Hevesy used science to hide two golden Nobel Prize medals from the Nazis. 

And that right next to a few easily digested facts about the chemical element carbon - the one thing we are all made of, regardless of race, faith, profession, political persuasion, or physical form. See? It might not always be right. But science is life. 

 

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