Careers advice from Nobel prizewinners

It must be the class reunion with the highest collective IQ. For one week a year the small, picturesque town of Lindau, Germany, is overtaken by Nobel laureates and about 600 young hangers-on, eager to bask in the Nobellists' glow.

The subject of the meeting alternates between the four different prize fields. This year it was the turn of the physicists. Unsurprisingly, the Higgs announcement dominated conversation, but the real purpose of these meetings is to give the next generation of promising researchers - mostly master's and PhD students - a chance to mingle with their field's most eminent alumni.

I took this opportunity to ask a few laureates what advice they had for young people planning on pursuing a research career.

You need a passion for how things work

"I knew that my passion lay in experimental science way way back," says Douglas Osheroff, who shared the 1996 Nobel prize for his research on superfluidity in a isotope of helium.

"When I was in high school as soon as my mother would trust me with her car I drove up to Seattle, the nearest big city, to visit the medical supply houses there. I told them I wanted to build an X-ray machine for a science project. I came home with a carload of stuff - it was very easy for me to put this thing together - and soon I was X-raying everything."

A mentor matters

"People can always benefit from a mentor," says John Mather, who shared the 2006 Nobel for his measurements of the radiation signature of the Big Bang. "But a mentor doesn't have to say 'Do it like this,' they can just be there to say 'You can do it; try it.' Because if you're doing something really new a mentor can't possibly know how to do it yet."

You have to go out on a limb

John Mather was still a young scientist when he took up leadership of the COBE mission at NASA, the first dedicated mission to study the origin of the universe.

"I was 28 when we had this idea [to build a detector to measure the cosmic microwave background radiation]. Nobody tells you how to lead or organise such a project. Suddenly you go from 'Let's go to work today' to 'Let's propose the most ambitious cosmology project to date.' But all you can do is start."

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