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Nobel Prize winners’ ‘fascinating personalities’ depicted in portrait exhibit

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A series of black-and-white portraits line the windows of the Li Ka Shing Center — each face is slightly covered by an outward-facing palm decorated with black ink.

In an exhibition organized in honor of the work done by German photo artist Herlinde Koelbl, Nobel Prize winners and renowned scientists depict a variety of messages on their hands.

The exhibition opened Sept. 15 and will remained open and free to the public until Oct. 16.

“They were really playing like children and therefore you will get very lively portraits of the scientists,” Koelbl said. “Scientists have the reputation (that) they are nerds or they are shy and I saw that they have really fascinating personalities.”

Koelbl said she wanted to showcase each scientist’s face, work and profession together in one photo. She asked each of the scientists to write a message on their hand, giving examples such as a formula for which they won the Nobel prize or a philosophy based on their field of work.

She received no hesitation from the scientists, who appeared to like the idea. She then asked them to hold their hand close to their head and snapped their photo.

The result was a collection of “stunning” black-and-white images of renowned scientists holding their palms at various angles around their heads, Koelbl said.

Koelbl said she got the idea because she wanted to “make science more visible to society.”

The displayed photos come from her book “Fascination of Science,” where she published interviews with the Nobel Prize winners and other famous scientists featured in the photos. Multiple of these scientists have connections to UC Berkeley.

“Very often, science is presented in a way that many people think ‘I don’t understand,’ and so because, ‘I don’t understand it, it’s too complicated,’ ” Koelbl said.

Through her book, she hoped to show science in an easily understandable way. When interviewing the scientists, Koelbl asked them to talk about their research in simple terms so that everyday people could understand it.

“Science is the engine for our future,” Koelbl said. “I wanted to inspire young people to follow the science world.”

Then, through her photos, she hoped to show the personalities behind the research in “a wonderful mixture” of both “the professional and the private person.”

Koelbl believes this side of scientists typically goes unseen — the portraits allow people to see their “many layers.” She added that the curiosity about what is written on these scientists’ hands is what draws audiences to these pieces.

She said Nobel Prize winners and other world-class scientists are often seen simply as “science nerds” or only “old white men,” and she hopes to depict a different, more diverse side to scientists.

“You’ll only see when they are on the top, but you don’t know anything about the way up to the top, how it was and who was inspiring them as a child or as a teenager,” Koelbl said.

Executive Director for the Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases Julia Schaletzky explained a team involving a committee from the Li Ka Shing Center worked closely with the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany to set up the exhibition.

Schaletzky described the high ceilings and lighting of the Li Ka Shing Center to be “architecturally beautiful,” making it “ideal for an art gallery space.”

She said some photos were positioned facing outside so that people walking past the building could engage with the exhibition as well.

“The whole idea was to engage people with science,” Schaletzky said. “It turned out really beautifully.”

Contact Sania Choudhary at