Being a Nobel Laureate doesn’t mean you can give a lecture

I'm at the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics Congress in Brisbane this week. Besides being a nice escape from the winter, I'm learning a lot – mostly molecular biology. The 'physics' content in some of the talks and posters is rather hard to spot – the 'bio' is rather more evident. I wonder, though, if a biologist would complain that it's the 'bio' bit that is missing and the physics dominates. It's easy to take what we know forgranted and forget how tricky it can be for someone not in that field.

An example came in the first talk, on Sunday, by Nobel Laureate Brian Kobilka. His title was 'Structural insights into G protein coupled receptor signalling' though that was pretty irrelevant, since I failed to gain any insight into anything. He started by putting up a rather complicated diagram and saying "I don't need to show this to such an audience as you'll already be familiar with this…" and then went on from there. Well, I was not familiar with it, and was completely lost right from the start. That's not how to do a plenary talk at a conference (or in any other forum). My thought is "how often do I do this with my students?"

Then, in one of the parallel sessions on Monday, a speaker started: "I don't need to cover this introductory material since you had such an excellent introduction by Brian Kobilka on Sunday…" That was like rubbing salt into the wound. Yes, I do need an introduction. What are GPCRs and why is their signalling so important?" As much as I hate to say it – hooray for Wikipedia – it gives me more learning than the word's expert in the field does. (Is this why students turn to Wikipedia so often?)

Contrast this with Carl Wieman, who I heard talk at the New Zealand Institute of Physics conference several years ago. Carl is a Nobel Laureate who can give a lecture.


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