An En-Nobeling Experience

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Bumping into Nobel laureates at CLEO

Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO)

May 10, 2015 to May 15, 2015

San Jose, CA

Meeting host:

The Optical Society


Everest Law

Everest Law (right) and plenary speaker Steven Chu.

What should one do when one is sitting next to a Nobel laureate? First, look up his picture on Google to ascertain his identity. Then, build up some courage and talk to him.

That's what I did when I realized that Hiroshi Amano, coinventor of the blue LED and a 2014 Nobel laureate in physics, was reading a novel on my left. We were both on the same flight from Los Angeles to San Jose, heading to The Optical Society’s Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO).

Despite his achievements, Amano turned out to be an amiable and humble person. The “only change” in his life brought by the Nobel Prize, he said, is that he can now fly first class. The reason why he chose a career in science, he said, was that he wanted to “serve humanity.” I believe those were honest words. What really surprised me was that he didn't have specific expectations for the CLEO conference. Conferences are sometimes just a way to catch up on new developments and research techniques.

That conversation set the overall tone of my trip. It was the first time I had attended a scientific conference, and the experience was certainly eye-opening! On the day I arrived, there were plenaries by Amano and Steven Chu, a professor at Stanford University in California and former secretary of energy.

Chu also won a Nobel Prize in Physics, for developing optical atom traps. Now he is transitioning to biophysics. Drawing on his own research, Chu discussed techniques for obtaining optical images of single biomolecules. Laughter resounded in the lecture hall when he rhetorically asked whether it is possible to get resolutions below 10 nm. He replied, “Yes, we can!”—echoing the famous statement from his “former boss” during the 2008 presidential campaign. All in all, Chu's presentation was simultaneously informative and entertaining. He is a master of scientific communication.

After the plenary, I wandered around and entered the student lounge on a whim. Surprise, surprise—both Amano and Chu were there, talking to young people from across the world. A multiethnic group of British students enthusiastically introduced themselves to Chu, while others could be heard speaking Russian and Mandarin Chinese. At that moment I felt rather happy: What better place is there to be for a physics student than a gathering of like-minded people freely exchanging ideas and building friendships?

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