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“Encountering some of the most brilliant minds on the planet”: Interview with Hannah Rana



For each Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, the FNR runs a Call for promising young researchers with a connection to Luxembourg to attend. For the 2019 Lindau Meeting, dedicated to physics, Hannah Rana, PhD candidate in Space Cryogenics at Oxford University had this rare opportunity. Hannah shares her highlights – from speaking to all 39 Nobel Laureates in attendance, including Donna Strickland; realising the importance of science communication; feeling inspired, and much more.

Can you give us an overview of the Meeting, what did the programme entail?

“Around 39 Nobel Laureates attended, most of whom were Physics prize-winners, with a handful of Chemists, Biologists and one Peace prize winner. We were further joined by mathematicians and computer scientists who had won the highly prestigious Fields medal or Turing prize.

“As selected Young Scientists, we listened to the prize-winners each delivers their Nobel lectures, we engaged them in 3 thematic panel discussions – ‘The Dark Side of the Universe’, ‘How Can Science Change the World for the Better?’, and ‘Student, Postdoc, and Then? – Aiming for a Career in Science’ – we enjoyed intimate lunch and dinner discussions, and we even had the opportunity to have candid and closed room personal discussions with each of them to delve further into their lives and pathways to success (Chatham house rules!).”

” ‘The Dark Side of the Universe’ panel discussion with (left to right) Prof. Brian Schmidt (Nobel 2011; evidence for acceleration of expanding universe), Prof. George Smoot (Nobel 2006; discovery of characteristics of cosmic microwave background radiation), Prof. Adam Riess (Nobel 2011; evidence for acceleration of expanding universe), Prof. David Gross (Nobel 2004; asymptotic freedom in particle physics). It was interesting to see subtle disagreement communicated respectfully – excitingly, there is much debate yet to be had in the international physics community about the cosmological nature of the universe!”

What were your impressions of the Nobel Prize winners?

“They were, not surprisingly, just people!

“Many of them were very humble and unconcerned with asserting any level of prestige they had undoubtedly earned by winning a Nobel Prize. All were concerned primarily concerned with communicating their research and were incredibly eager to hear our thoughts and ideas.

“I was also impressed to see how well they presented their ideas and utilised slides and visual effects to communicate complex information. This made me realise the importance of science communication.

“There seemed to also be a positive correlation between possessing a Nobel prize and having a sharp sense of humour! Lots of jokes were made at the meetings!”

“Prof. David Gross, Nobel 2004 winner, delivering a repeat of his Nobel lecture to us on his work on asymptotic freedom. In this picture, David provides us with a quick reminder of standard theory on a T shirt. This is a subtle inside joke in the world of particle physics – anyone who has ever visited the CERN gift shop will be familiar with this T shirt!”

Did you get the opportunity to network with any of the 39 Nobel Prize winners attending?

“Eager to make the most of this incredible opportunity, I managed to converse with all of the Nobel Laureates attending, and in particular was lucky to have lengthy discussions over dinner with several Laureates in fields relevant to my research.

“Being able to have once in a lifetime one-on-one conversations with so many Nobel prize-winning physicists in a such a candid and relatable manner was priceless. I engaged in great conversations on a number of occasions with Professor Donna Strickland, the only female physics prize-winner attending, who won in 2018 for her work in laser physics.”

“Prof. Donna Strickland captivates us with a journey through her fascinating career in laser physics, all communicated through her wonderful Canadian humour!”

Speaking to a female Nobel Prize winner in physics is a particularly rare opportunity! What did you and Donna Strickland talk about?

“Amongst other professional and personal things, we talked about how interesting it was that she was only made a professor after she’d won the Nobel Prize, and she shared some very balanced and inspiring words with me that I reckon I’ll hold onto for a lifetime as I continue to research in a male-dominated field.”

Were there any current topics that came up from several Laureates?

“There was overwhelming mention about the need to urgently address climate change from many of the Laureates, and as physicists, we all need to be using our knowledge, skills, and voices to push this to the forefront of our collective scientific efforts.”

Lindau meetings must be a pristine opportunity for networking – did you make any connections you would like to share?

Hannah with Dr Martin Hellman, winner of the Turing Award in 2015, during a lunchtime discussion: “Martin is most famous for his work in pioneering the field of cryptography, but he delivered a fascinating lecture on his interdisciplinary mathematical model predicting the end of the world due to nuclear warfare!”

I managed to make a lot of useful connections!

“I ran into Dr Martin Hellman (Turing Award 2005) on the trip to Mainau island. After about 10 minutes of talking, he introduced me to Dr Vinton Cerf (“father of the internet”, Turing Award 2004) and next thing I know I find myself giving them a 20 minute research/business pitch!

I was lucky enough for them to share their details with me to assist me in further developing my ideas. Lots of plans for collaboration occurred! I’m also grateful to now be a part of the international Lindau Alumni community, and hope to keep in touch with many young researchers that I met.”

In terms of key inspiration from the meeting – a laureate’s words about seeking truth resonated with you – can you elaborate?

“Prof. Brian Schmidt’s opening keynote lecture expressed the intrinsic link between a researcher searching for truth and the betterment of society as a result of such truth-searching and problem solving.

“He explained how developing the ethics that a scientist takes on as an honest researcher are relevant skills that as a society we must employ in all realms of life – politics, economics, healthcare, and business to name a few. I found this resonated profoundly with me.

“I’ve always been attracted to the world of research due to the (almost sacred) love for truth that professionals in this field have, and believe societies can benefit greatly from applying such ethics to how we problem solve and address pressing issues that affect our international communities today.”

“Prof. Brian Schmidt, Nobel prize-winner in 2011, for his work on providing evidence for the accelerating expansion of the universe.”

Being surrounded by so many people who have made such an impact on their field must have been quite an experience – what were your highlights?

“The level and amount of technical idea exchange occurring at these meetings was mentally energising beyond anything I have ever experienced before, and this certainly was one of the key highlights for me.

“Tawakkol Karman [pictured, right], Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2011, gave a wonderfully inspiring speech on her work in Yemen as an activist. It was so incredibly fascinating to hear from people who have managed to have the courage to think critically and independently in order to challenge existing narratives and political regimes – especially when it hasn’t been necessarily safe to do so.”
“A further highlight was certainly the wonderful boat trip we took to the Island of Mainau on Lake Constance on the last day. Countess Bernadotte, who hosts the Lindau meetings every year, welcomed us to her island home.”

What did you take away from the meeting?

“Interacting with so many Laureates certainly evoked a great sense of passion and purpose in me for my own personal research. It was infectious to receive so much mental energy and motivation from the Laureates, and the highly successful fellow participants who had been selected to attend along with me.”

The Lindau motto is ‘Educate. Inspire. Connect’ – it certainly sounds as though all three boxes were ticked for you!

“Usually we feel inspired for a short amount of time interacting with a given inspirational person before resuming with our day-to-day routine tasks. Slowly that inspiration starts to fade away and we revert to familiar and ‘safer’ thinking patterns about what is possible and what we can achieve.

“At the Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings, I felt inspired for the longest sustained period I’ve ever experienced in my life. For one week straight, I encountered some of the most brilliant minds on the planet – in physics, but also in mathematics, computing, chemistry, biology, politics/activism – and I left the meetings reflecting deeply on what exactly it means to be ‘inspirational’.”

You mention leaving the meeting reflecting on what it means to be ‘inspirational’ – can you elaborate?

“What was the difference between these highly successful people and I (other than age!)? The difference, I feel, is that they possess a profound belief that their hard work, passion, and dedication, can make a difference in the search for knowledge and change. They believe in the fruit of their efforts – that it will make an impact.

“The Meetings served as an opportunity not for me to remotely appreciate for a short amount of time that some person on a pedestal can be inspirational – but that I too can engage with these very inspirational people as an equal, and access this level of belief to apply to my own work and what I aim to do in my research. The reward/prize at the end is essentially irrelevant, it is the belief and genuine striving for achieving one’s goals that matters, whatever one’s field may be. With this psychological barrier acknowledged and understood, I now feel ready to take on my research with a fresh, enlightened – and ultimately – ‘inspired’ perspective!

“I’d sincerely like to thank the FNR for their support and brilliant organisation in allowing me to benefit from this phenomenal experience!”

Would you recommend this opportunity to other early-career researchers?

“Anybody with the opportunity to attend one of these absolutely must apply! This was an incredibly life-changing experience for me as a researcher, and I’ve been recommending it to anyone I come across ever since.”

Your mentioned earlier you work in a male-dominated field. Can you tell us a bit about your PhD research in Space Cryogenics, at Oxford University?

“I’m researching cryogenic cooling technology for detectors on spacecraft. Along the entire electromagnetic spectrum, varying kinds of astrophysics detectors and imaging instruments require a range of cryogenic temperatures for operation. I’m investigating a type of cryocooler that employs a thermodynamic Stirling cycle to achieve this in a hybrid fashion – a Stirling pulse tube cryocooler. The overall aims in this research are to theorise and experimentally test a system that improves cooling and efficiency for long lifetime astrophysics missions in space.”

(Left) Hannah with Dr John Mather, astrophysicist at NASA. John (also top right) won the Nobel in 2006 along with Prof. George Smoot (bottom right) for their work on the discovery of black body form and anisotropy of cosmic microwave background radiation through NASA’s COBE mission, which they can be seen to be explaining in this pictured joint lecture. George is also 1 of only 2 people to have ever won the US TV show ‘Are you smarter than a 5th grader?’!

If you could nominate someone in your overall scientific field / physics for a Nobel Prize, who would it be and why?

“Looking specifically within my field of space cryogenics, aside from the brilliant minds in my current lab at Oxford, I would probably say Dr Ray Radebaugh, a retired physicist at NIST. He’s been a pioneer in the field for decades and has completed key innovative work on pulse tube cryocoolers amongst many other developments in the field. I was fortunate enough to attend a course delivered by him at the CEC/ICMC in the US this year, and I was blown away by the wealth of research he has led over the years, and the passion and knowledge with which he communicated it.

2020 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

2020 will see two Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings:

  • 2020 Interdisciplinary meeting revolving around all three natural sciences (dedicated to Chemistry, Physics and Physiology/ Medicine). FNR Call deadline: 7 October 2019.
  • 2020 Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences (held every three years). The FNR will launch a Call for participation on in November 2019.

Find out more about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

More Lindau interviews