The tradition of apprenticeship has long and august roots. Through the millennia, young men and women wanting to acquire knowledge have traveled far and wide to learn at the feet of the masters of the trade. In China, India and Europe for instance, it was customary for students to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to take up residence in a city or university where the best practitioner in their field was to be found. The students hungrily lapped up the knowledge that the master had to offer. In return their existence was intimately intertwined with that of their teacher, with many of them living in the homes of their teachers and helping out in daily chores.

The apprenticeship tradition was a necessary one in ages where electronic communication was non-existent, relatively few books and papers were published, and actual physical contact was the only way for someone to learn. The tradition guaranteed the existence of “schools” of thought, perpetuated from one generation to another. We see this tradition blazing across the history of civilization, from the famous Aristotelian school to the more recent twentieth century school of Arnold Sommerfeld in Munich.

Indeed, apprenticeship was a visible part of the development of science in the twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous example that comes to mind concerns the development of physics and especially nuclear and quantum physics in Europe in the first half of the century. This development was epitomized by three outstanding schools and their leaders; Ernest Rutherford and his group at the Cavendish laboratories in England, Max Born and his group of young wunderkinder at Göttingen and Niels Bohr and his band of acolytes in Copenhagen. An equally important school from the point of view of teaching was Arnold Sommerfeld’s school in Munich. Many of the best physicists of the century including Heisenberg, Pauli, Bethe, Oppenheimer, Rabi, Teller, Chadwick, and Gamow were products of these schools.

One distinctive and key feature of these schools was that its students carried the knowledge they had gained to different parts of the world and in turn educated their own students. Thus the tradition of apprenticeship was passed on not only through time but through space. For instance, Hans Bethe established an outstanding school of physics at Cornell University, partially based on Sommerfeld’s teachings. Robert Oppenheimer founded modern theoretical physics in the United States at the University of California, Berkeley, again using the knowledge he had inherited in Europe. Today the collective that has been spawned by the original efforts of these stalwarts numbers in the thousands.

In other fields too you find similar patterns. For instance, Julius Axelrod who won a Nobel for his work on adrenaline and related substances inherited the mantle from Steve Brodie at the NIH. He in turn passed on the torch to Solomon Snyder at Johns Hopkins who in turn educated Candace Pert. Together, the Brodie school has given rise to many pioneers in the field of psychopharmacology.

Thus it’s clear that apprenticeship has been one of the most valuable modes of learning through the millennia. However apprenticeship extends not only to a single individual or school but to an entire generation. It is the task of a particular generation to pass on its collective knowledge to the next, to point out the limitations and strengths in its own work. In today’s age the internet has accelerated the dissemination of knowledge by leaps and bounds. And yet there is a certain visceral satisfaction, and perhaps also a sense of nostalgia, in learning from actual physical contact. There is no better instance of how this can be done than the Lindau meetings which have been organized for more than fifty years.

Every year since 1951, dozens of Nobel Prize winners meet at Lindau along with more than 500 students chosen from universities and colleges throughout the world. The explicit goal is the “transfer of knowledge between generations” and this goal can only be seen as upholding the highest promise of apprenticeship.

The meetings exemplify many of the defining features of scientific inquiry; that science is essentially a global enterprise and that open inquiry between the most esteemed scientists and youngest of students is not only possible but essential and valued. Most importantly the meetings tell us that science is an infinitely interesting and open-ended search, with the younger generation pushing the boundaries of the necessarily incomplete knowledge acquired from the earlier generation. In incompleteness lies opportunity. And the Lindau meetings should provide a unique opportunity for the transfer of knowledge. We should all look forward to them.

In the next few posts we will take a look at some of the highlights of the meeting and their history.

 » Ashutosh Jogalekar studied chemistry and is currently a postdoctoral fellow. i-c0e68e378b7f2835c50e2ebef6c3288f-Ashutosh_45.jpg