Full Professor for Physics at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Give me a Break: a Vision for Research
The fall of 1989 was a defining time in my life.
I was very curious about which quote you will pick for me. I’ll back to differ about November 9th 20 years ago. In the next sentence I wrote that the most defining month for me was October 1989 and not November 1989. October was the time when the revolution in East Germany started. It took me, in fact, two more years for really understanding the impact of the fall of the wall on my life and the life of my fellow countrymen.
When Sebastian Turner asked me to speak today, he explained that he was looking for a statement on the ideal place for research and at the same time a more specific vision for Berlin. How would you foster break-throughs? Before dreaming too much, remember you will talk about this city, about Berlin. At that was when we came up with the title of my talk- Give me a break.
To explain my vision of the ideal research environment, let me use the example of the scientists after whom the Einstein Foundation is named. During his professional life, Albert Einstein held three main positions. He was a patent officer in Bern, the Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin, and a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton.
In all three places, Einstein made seminal contribution to modern physics and engineering. Nevertheless, Einstein’s fame does not date from his time in Berlin or in Princeton- two well-known and very well funded research institutes. He is most famous for the work he has done in Bern, the equation on the equality of math and energy E = m c2 - the famous formula that I think most of you know- and the postulate of light as a particle- that was a postulate that earned him the Nobel Prize. Both papers – and a bunch of other publications - were researched, written, and published while Einstein worked in Bern. This story of the young man at the patent office in Bern, is well known and a story most of us remember about Albert Einstein.I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Einstein was at the peak of his creativity in Bern. He found three main ingredients for break-throughs: His big question, the resources, and people to bounce his ideas on. Let me talk about the three ingredients in more detail.
Let me start with the last ingredient, the people. Bright researchers working jointly and side-by-side are a key for scientific break-throughs. All you have to do for a great place for research is to attract talent. This is essentially a hen and an egg problem, because famous people have a tendency to go to famous places. It is hard to found a new place, or to improve on a place, using this concept. Einstein’s story, however, shows the easy solution to the problem. It also bears a moral to every university that wants to be associated with a great discovery. When trying to hire a world famous person, get them before they are famous. I know this is easier said than done. We all believe that we can tell talent once we see it. We should ask ourselves how to see talent from farther away, how to discover, to identify it. We should learn how to identify the brightest students, the brightest post-docs in our field. Then, we will ask them what they need and provide exactly this. It might be the opportunity to lead their first independent research group, it might be two-years to build a new experiment, a great mentor, access to a particular archive, the opportunity to switch fields, whatever it takes. Career opportunities for young academics (I remember that very well!) are shaped by the sites giving the funding: be it a research foundation, a university, or a research institute. Why not turn this around and listen to the need of the young instead?
One thing I miss since coming back from the United States two years ago is diversity. I left a department with an ethically and culturally very diverse faculty and student body; many of my colleagues were women. I went into an environment that is predominantly white, German, and male. We will overlook talent, we will miss wall- breaking questions, while we rely on such a limited pool of talent to draw from.
Why not start with the talent we have in Germany? Let Berlin become the place for women and second or third generation immigrants to go to. Let us provide research and networking opportunity for these people as well as prestigious awards and fellowships. The discussion about attracting foreign talent to German universities,
currently concentrates on bringing Germans back from North America, mainly the United States, and getting graduate students from East and South Asia, particularly China and India. I think Berlin should aim for its own niche instead of following these very well-travelled routes.
Right now Berlin feels a bit like the eastern border of Western Europe. This is the city of the Wall; this was the city where East and West met. Let us bring Berlin back to where it belongs- into the middle of Europe. We will invite students from Eastern Europe, young researchers from South Eastern Europe, collaborate with groups and countries of the former Soviet Union. For highly educated Ukrainian scientists, for example, Germany is much more attractive than for a recent graduate of a prestigious Chinese university. I believe there are more geographical areas that are currently overlooked by American admission officers, and we should search for them. The quality of a place for research depends largely on your colleagues and your students. We will aim for the very best.
The resources and infrastructure: In Einstein’s case this was a particularly easy. All he needed was time for thinking. Einstein later complained bitterly about his additional duties and fame that made it difficult for him to work. I do not want to discuss the question of resources and infrastructure in great detail. The necessary resources differ too much from field to field. Today you have heard examples of break-throughs requiring huge efforts in terms of resources and infrastructure. You heard about fusion, about CERN- big infrastructural projects. You also heard about break-throughs - for example our sole mathematician - that hardly require any resources. I believe that the question of resources is heavily debated in our daily scientific life, and sometimes it is over valued. Therefore, I will close the topic, and turn to the last point, the big questions.
Our conference revolved around finding the big questions, the walls to tear down. We heard inspiring ideas of which challenges to tackle. For some of us, there will be one big question, like for Einstein, who spent his life thinking about space, time, and matter. For others the defining question will be smaller and will change during the career. Nevertheless, we should establish and nurture a culture of looking for big questions, instead of moving incrementally from one project to the next. A “break-
through culture” needs to be introduced as early as possible. Why do we teach our students so much about problems that were solved? Why not tell them at least as much about open questions and how to find challenges? Such an attempt requires quite a change to our current curricula, but it’s a change that is worthwhile trying.
When looking for our own personal big challenge, we typically derive them from an inspiring discussion, a talk we listen to, and – as we heard today – also from childhood memories. I would like to add a local component to the mix. Let us work on finding wall-breaking questions that we want to answer here in this city. The Einstein Foundation could provide a platform to shape the defining questions by bringing together Berlin’s scientists from different cultures: science, humanities, and social sciences.
It is almost 7 o’clock. Twenty years ago, at this time of the day, the famous press conference by Schabowski was finished. The wall, however, remained standing. It was not Schabowski who brought down the Wall. Neither was it Kohl or any other politician- although they would love if you believed that. It was the East German people who brought down the wall. They stood in front of the Iron Curtain, demanding the wall to fall. Thanks to their peaceful persistence, the gates finally opened, shortly before midnight.
As you heard today, Angela Merkel was among the masses in the Bornholmer Strasse, the first place where the wall opened. The story, of the fall down of the wall is a great metaphor for scientific break-throughs. I think there are some lessons to be learned. First, walls are not necessarily broken down by famous people. Second, it takes persistent and joint effort to break down a wall. And finally, some people will have a great career and get famous after a break through. These are not always the ones who opened the gates, but the ones who best understood the implications.
Thank you very much.