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Interview of Reimar Lüst by Hans von Storch and Klaus Hasselmann on 2000 December 2, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/33761
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In this interview Reimar Lust discusses topics such as: Ludwig Prandtl; University of Gottingen; his time during World War II; Erwin Madelung; Max Planck Institute; Werner Heisenberg; Carl von Weizsacker; movement of the sun; Martin Schwarzschild; Argonne National Laboratory; Courant Institute; astrophysics; James Van Allen; Adolf Butenandt; Ludwig Biermann; Max Planck Society; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); plasma physics; European Space Research Organization (ESRO); Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics; Ralf Dahrendorf; Helmut Schmidt.
Mr. Lust, we are here on board Ludwig Prandtl today, and if we are correctly informed, you knew Ludwig Prandtl. Shall we start with that story?
I met him when I started my doctoral studies in Göttingen. For my theme I had to apply the hydrodynamical equations in order to examine a rotating gas mass. For this, turbulence theory with its so-called mixing path-length of the turbulence elements was very important. It had been introduced by Prandtl. Therefore, I was advised to talk with Prandtl, whose office was in the adjacent building. The Max Planck Institute for physics was in Böttinger Str. 16, and next to it was the Max Planck Institute for Fluid Dynamics with Tolmien as director. Prandtl still visited the institute regularly. I still see him entering the building in his stooped manner; I also think he showed me some experiment at that time. At least that is how I remember him with his short beard. I do not know how old he was in 1950, but he was surely far over 70. I do not know whether you remember him, Mr. Hasselmann.
I never got to know him, but I wrote my diploma thesis wish a student of his, Karl Wieghardt, in Hamburg, and later I graduated with Tolmien.
Tolmien, an aerodynamicist and fluid researcher, was co-advisor to my doctoral thesis, and he had to evaluate it later. I also chose fluid research as subsidiary subject for my doctoral examination. This was, because with Tolmien it was always clear what he would ask. He used to write the main key statements on the black-board during his lectures. Those who remembered these key statements were sure to pass the examination with Tolmien with ‘magna cum laude’. Choosing fluid research as subsidiary subject was a sure method if a student was able to learn something by heart. I studied in Frankfurt and as a postgraduate I worked at the University of Göttingen. In Göttingen one was required to attend lectures before graduating. However, I did not have much money at that time, and so I chose two lectures which were free of charge but accepted. One lecture was called ‘Introduction to Göttingen's library’. It was given by the director of the library. The second one, ‘Everyday psychology’ was given by the psychologist Alex. My book of studies was thus adorned with these two attestations. I attended the other lectures illegally, including those of Tolmien.
We discussed in advance that your biographical data contain a great deal of material. Would you like to narrate something without us asking concrete questions?
This vessel's captain declaring himself a coastal skipper reminded me of my grandfather who was a coastal skipper, too. He was from Esens, and my father was born there in Eastern Frisia. Although I never met my grandfather — he had died before I was born — he must have been the reason for my absolutely wanting to join the navy. Therefore, I enjoy our today's cruise with this coaster. My original plan for the future was to study naval architecture, and that was why I volunteered for the navy in 1940. At that time it was common practice to be released from school with only a maturity notation in one’s school report which means I never actually took a final school leaving examination, because in January 1941 1 was drafted into the navy. The detachment of recruits was billeted in Brake/Unterweser. After leaving the recruits, I completed a repair course in Kiel, because I had chosen an engineer's career. Then I started to go to sea on an outpost vessel, a rebuilt trawler, constructed in 1914. It was a hard time.
It appears that, among other things, you learnt how to stoke a ship’s engine.
Yes, in those days fuel was in a solid state, that is to say, coal. I had to stand below deck in the boiler room and trim coal, and I also had to fetch coal from the bunker. Another of my duties was to crack coal. Lots of really large blocks had to be crushed. The most exhausting job was to clean the flue boiler. When the sea was rough. I was often seasick. It was perhaps the physically hardest time I ever endured.
But shortly afterwards you said goodbye to coastal shipping and ventured out on the ocean.
Yes, it was like that in the navy. You went to sea and were then again ordered to the marine school in Kiel. During the next period I went to sea again on the outpost boat. One couldn’t volunteer, you just suddenly received a command. My next assignment was on board a submarine. The submarine was located in Memel with a flotilla for training commanders. There I had to learn how to live on board a submarine.
You were then sent to war quite soon, and it did not go well.
No. The training on board the submarine took about half a year, first in Memel, later in Pillau. Then I was assigned to a new submarine which had just passed its commissioning tests. I entered the boat as engineer-officer in Szczecin. We went from Szczecin to Kiel where we picked up torpedoes and all the other equipment needed for an encounter with the enemy. In April 1943, we were seen off with the usual fanfares and a band in Kiel, although the navy's leadership must have known that we hardly had a chance to survive. We reached the Atlantic via Norway, between the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Our first action was to intercept and attack a large convoy. In this operation we were bombed by an airplane which damaged us to such an extent that we were no longer fully submersible. After another convoy battle we had to retreat. Two days before reaching our home port Lorient another plane got us. This was the time when the British were making full use of radar for the first time. We had a device with which we were supposed to be able to detect radar rays. We called it the German Cross in Wood. It was placed on the conning tower when moving above water. However, we were always worried that something might not be quite correct. Later, in captivity, I learnt that it was quite good for detecting radar rays, but it radiated at least as strongly itself, which meant that the planes no longer needed to emit radar rays to find us, but could already track us directly this way. That plane called up two destroyers that chased us for twenty hours, after which we finally sank to about 320 m. Looking at my commander’s face, I knew this was the end. There was hardly a chance to survive.
Did the submarine deliberately descend? Or was it damaged?
We were damaged, slowly filling up with water which we could barely control. The commander then decided to try to resurface, which meant blowing compressed air into the diving cells. It was not clear whether there was still enough compressed air available, but suddenly the air parcel must have expanded. We shot upwards and then saw the destroyers at the horizon. The commander tried to send radio messages, but the destroyers began firing at us with artillery. The commander then ordered the boat to be scuttled. Two hours later one of the destroyers had finally fished up most of the crew. Thank God, I was among them! Long after the war, an American colleague, the head of the American space administration (NASA), sent me the report of the British commander who sank us. With pictures! Along with excerpts from the war log of the German submarine force including our last radio messages.
Did this bring about any new insights into the operation?
No. But it was quite interesting to learn about these details. In those days one was still trying to capture a submarine, but in our case without success.
But you once mentioned that they succeeded in capturing a submarine which you ran into again later in your career. And the story is that you contributed to displaying it more realistically for the public.
During the war, the Americans deployed a special aircraft carrier unit to capture a submarine. They succeeded in 1944. This submarine was taken to Chicago after the war. After I had just arrived in Chicago, I saw a large sign next to the motorway, which runs parallel to the lake: ‘Attention. Drive carefully. Submarine crossing.’ Because they were lifting it out of the water there. The Museum for Science and Industry is very near to the University of Chicago. Occasionally, repairs for the museum were carried out at the Physics Institute. One day the submarine’s manometers arrived. An employee in the workshop knew that I was working at the institute as a Fulbright fellow and informed the director of the museum. So, they asked me to help prepare the submarine for the museum. Finally a long article was published in the Chicago Sunday Times with a picture of myself sitting in the submarine. When you go there now, you may perhaps still hear my voice on tape calling out commands in German.
A happy ending of this nonetheless terrible chapter.
Basically, however, being captured in May 1943 was the best that could happen to me. I was finally taken to America via Gibraltar and England and landed in Texas in a large German prisoner of war camp, consisting of 1000 officers from the Africa corps, captured in Africa, and 3000 soldiers of lower rank. The camp had its own university, consisting of, among others, a physicist, two mathematicians, who were assistants at a German university, and quite a number of other scientists. They gave lectures, properly organized into semesters. At the end of a semester you had to pass exams in all the courses you had attended. I never solved as many exercise problems as during that time in captivity. I started with engineering, because I wanted to study naval architecture, but after two semesters discovered that mathematics and physics came more naturally to me than machine designs and technical drawing. So, I switched to mathematics and physics already during captivity.
It is difficult to imagine what captivity was like I hear you were paid 20 dollars. What did you do with that money? Was there a shop?
There was a canteen selling toothpaste and other goods.
But not the Courant and Hilbert?
It was possible to order books. During the war, the Americans photocopied and reprinted a large number of German textbooks, especially the yellow Springer series, including ‘The mathematical methods of physics’ by Courant/Hilbert. Later ‘The mathematical tools of the physicist’ by Madelung and several other books were of particular importance to me. I finally had a considerable library, all of which I took home. Of course, I bought American textbooks, too.
What was the price for a Courant Hubert then?
I think two or three dollars. It cannot have been much more.
Those must have been really open minded Americans who provided such possibilities in the prisoner of war camps during the war, don’t you think?
Of course, the Americans were interested in keeping us busy. As officers we did not have to work according to the Geneva Convention. During the day, I was fully occupied by attending lectures. However, I also did a lot of sports. In the evenings, we played skat or bridge.
Did your period of captivity end after 1946?
A year after the war had ended, we were finally taken back, to France first. We feared we might be handed over to the French, as was often done. Had this been the case, I surely would have had to spend another two years working in a French mine. Fortunately, I was set free exactly on my birthday, the 25th of March, 1946.
You then noticed that the matriculation deadline in Göttingen had already been passed a week ago, and nobody had pity with you, at least not in Göttingen.
Two days after my release I took a train, which was not easy back then, because between Kassel and Göttingen there was the borderline between the American and the British zones. In Eichenberg everyone had to step off the train and undergo a check. When I arrived in Göttingen, I went to the dean's office, and there they told me they were very sorry, but the matriculation deadline was over. I even consulted the dean, Arnold Eugen, a famous, but quite choleric physico-chemist who told me that too many people came, and they could not consider everyone. Even my argument that I had been a prisoner of war for three years and had only returned the day before did not interest him.
Was he the same person you mentioned in one of your seminars?
Yes, the person who attacked me later. I drove on to Marburg the next day where I had a similar experience. I had a nice conversation with the physicist there, privy councillor Grüneisen, but I did not melt his heart, either. So, I came to Frankfurt. Before, I had not even known that Frankfurt had a university. I talked with the dean there, Erwin Madelung. When I recounted my experience, especially when I extracted from my bag the book I brought with me from captivity, namely his book, he was so pleased that he immediately organized everything. I could begin to study. He asked me whether I would present the book to him. He would hand me a new copy. I still have it at home with an inscription inside. I was lucky to begin my studies in Frankfurt, because technically I would have had to go to school for I did not have an ‘Abitur’ certificate, However, there was a regulation saying that three semesters of successful studies would he validated as ‘Abitur’. Madelung recommended that I should study for one semester, and if I then passed an examination, two semesters of my captivity would be validated as well, which would provide me with my ‘Abitur’ certificate. And that is what happened. After five semesters I obtained my diploma.
We could perhaps say that your whole life career is characterized by this account. First your persistency, that you did not let yourself be discouraged in Göttingen, but found another way, and that you then hit the right note with the person in charge. I think this is a very nice story which really summarizes much of your success in life.
Retrospectively I have to say that it was a stroke of luck that I did not start my studies in Göttingen, because already in those days Göttingen was relatively full. In Frankfurt I could start with theoretical physics immediately which, most probably. I would not have been allowed to in Göttingen. We only were four or six students in Madelung's lectures on theoretical physics, which ensured that for every exercise every student was asked to come to the blackboard. This small circle around Madelung was a stroke of luck for my studies. I later went to Göttingen after my diploma. Madelung was quite understanding. He realized that I would not want to write also my doctoral thesis with him.
Those days must have been quite different from the present if you simply went to see people and knocked on their doors. They were there, and you said, Tell me, may I…? That way you also came to your doctoral thesis with von Weizsäcker.
Yes, without prior appointment by phone. This was not common practice then. What I might have done was write a letter, but that would have taken much too long. So, in March 1949. I went from Kassel to Göttingen. I rang the bell at the Max Planck Institute in Böttinger Str. and asked the doorman if I might speak with Mr. von Weizsäcker. He explained he had to call first. He called, and I was immediately allowed to see Weizsäcker. Weizsäcker listened to my story. He said he was in a hurry because the institute's colloquium was to begin in a moment, but I could accompany him to the small room at the other side of the corridor where perhaps twenty persons could be seated. There I was in the last row, the door opened, someone entered and asked what was on the agenda. That was Heisenherg. That was how I got to know Heisenberg. The lecturer was Arnulf Schlüter, presenting his first work on plasma physics which later became important for my whole scientific work, Von Weizsäcker accepted me as a doctoral student. At first he wanted to give me a theme regarding the general theory of relativity, but the experts said this was too difficult. I was therefore provided with another problem which I found more interesting, namely the question “What had slowed down the sun's rotation? How had the angular momentum been transported?” For the sun rotates relatively slowly in our planetary system, while most of the total angular momentum of the solar system resides in Jupiter. So my task was to calculate, using hydrodynamical equations, whether such an angular momentum transfer was actually feasible in a gas disk.
In those days Weizsäcker had just completed his theory with Heisenberg on turbulence. Were you, applying this turbulence theory?
Heisenberg's doctoral thesis was already on turbulence theory, a work that gets cited again only now. In detention after the war Weizsäcker and Heisenberg wrote a paper on turbulence theory and the Kolmogorov spectrum, as it is now called. Already during the war, Weizsäcker had dealt with the origin of the planetary system and in 1948 had published a manuscript in which he first formulated the hydrodynamical equations to be used, without yet calculating anything himself. I was the first to make practical use of these hydrodynamical equations. Perhaps one more word concerning the doctoral thesis. In those days it had been common practise to publish a doctoral thesis in German in the German ‘Zeitschrift für Naturforschung’. It was thereby effectively buried. Twenty years later two Englishmen dealt with the issue of accretion disks that play a role in connection with neutron stars, and they practically solved the same equations and drew quite similar conclusions. Biermann thought that something would need to be done. He then made sure that in the seventies my doctoral thesis was translated into English by the Bavarian Academy, and since then it has been cited. Now, it is customary that anyone writing on accretion disks cites my work, too. It had been practically for twenty years.
When did you finish you doctoral thesis?
In 1951. I finished it after two years, in May 1951.
As is right and proper. Under 30.
Yes, that is true. I was 28 years old, indeed I had started relatively late.
No one wants to imply that you were a perpetual student. How did it go on after your doctoral thesis?
First, when Weizsäcker had noticed that I had relatively little money — my father had died towards the end of the war — I was awarded a scholarship from his own funds. Weizsäcker gave many talks at that time, and the fees went into a fund from which I received a grant. I was allowed to take, I think, 50 Deutschmarks every month. When Weizsäcker spent half a year in America, his brother was responsible for his family affairs. I was thus entitled to pick up my scholarship money from our former Federal President for half a year. That is how I got to know him in Bunsenstraße 16, where the families of Laue, Biermann, and von Weizsäcker all lived together. After my graduation I stayed with the institute and received a scholarship. The salary of about 150 Deutschmarks was princely for those times. In 1955, the physicist John Simpson from Chicago asked me whether I would like to spend a year at the Enrico Fermi Institute. He had little money himself; but I could apply for a scholarship. It worked. In autumn 1955 I went to Chicago as a Fulbright fellow.
May we broach the subject again: what did you live on during the time of your studies and post-graduation?
During my studies in Frankfurt until the currency reform I got along along. The service pay had been continuously disbursed during my captivity, so I had a Reichsmark account to live on. In Frankfurt, and partly also in Göttingen, I gave private lessons. Once I even was on the dole as an unemployed person. This is not quite legal for a student, but the employment agency paid me unemployment benefits for about half a year, until I was awarded the scholarship by Weizsäcker.
But in principle your postgraduate time was unsalaried?
It would never have occurred to anybody to pay a postgraduate student. I got my first real position as an assistant when I returned from America. After half a year in Chicago I went to Princeton, because I also wanted to learn from Martin Schwarzschild. I then returned to Chicago, where I was already paid with a grant. At the end of 1956 I went back to Göttingen.
The art of programming differed slightly from today's procedure, if I understood it correctly. There was a different way of creating the loops.
In Chicago I could use the reconstruction of Neumann's electronic calculators. The machine was situated in the National Laboratory in Argonne. It was the first large electronic calculator, and for memory it had a cathode ray tube with a memory of 1,000. In those days you still had to program every single step, add number ‘a’ to number ‘b’, save number ‘c’. Fetch the number from memory. Programming ‘extract a root’ already required a small loop, and you had to take care that it did not become too narrow, so that the memory point in the middle was not burnt. This really was programming step by step. After having written the program down, you had to go to the punched card machine in order to save everything on punched tape or punched cards, with which you then fed the machine. This meant you also had to deal with all the algorithms, how to solve differential equtions. In Göttingen, Schlüter and I had already started to calculate the path of charged particles in the Earths magnetic field. This had already been done in the thirties by the Norwegian mathematician Stormer who took an interest in aurora borealis and used a hand calculator. With the electronic machines it went much faster. I could use the original machine of von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Studies where I dealt with problems of solar physics, with flairs, that is, I tried to calculate how waves propagate in a magnetic field. However, as the memory was very small, I always had to fight against boundary effects, which entered from the sides, and from disturbances, and I continually had to dampen them. Mr. Hasselmann probably knows much better how to solve numerical systems. The Courant-Friedrichs instability had to be considered, so that the time steps did not become too large. I already had to grapple with that back in Princeton.
Did this bring you to the Courant Institute as a mathematics professor in 1959?
Courant and Friedrich had written a book on shock waves. I did not realize until later why Courant and Friedrich dealt with shockwaves. It was connected with the development of the atomic bomb during the war. In 1953, I had written a paper on hydromagnetic shock waves which was published in ‘Zeitschrift für Naturforschung’. It was the first paper ever on this problem. Courant and Friedrich had seen it and therefore invited me and asked whether I would like to work at the Courant Institute for a year. First I lived in New York without my family, later they followed me. I could live in an apartment of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, and I thus spent one day a week in Princeton. The other days I went from Princeton to New York early in the mornings. That was during a phase when I changed from astrophysics to nuclear fusion. In 1956, the institute in Göttingen decided to also engage in nuclear fusion, both theoretically and experimentally. I spent three years working with them.
In Göttingen, but also at the Courant Institute. There, I worked on stability problems. When I returned from New York, I decided that I would prefer to return to astrophysics. I then started again in astrophysics, while Schlüter concentrated completely on fusion.
You talk about your teachers Heisenberg, Weizsäcker and Biermann. Were there similar persons in America who impressed and influenced you as much? Did you get to know Courant back then?
I got to know Courant when he visited Göttingen. He was a regular visitor. Indeed, he was one of the first emigrants who was open minded and returned to Germany. Courant had a daughter who was married to a mathematician, Moser, in America. In this way I was also in contact with his family in New York. But if I have to say who influenced me in America, it was John Simpson, an experimental physicist into whose group I had been admitted. And also, particularly, Martin Schwarzschild, the son of the famous Karl Schwarzschild who had died of gas poisoning quite young during the war, I think in 1916. Martin Schwarzschild had emigrated to America in 1934. He was a great astrophysicist. I spent half a year working with him. He was an especially open, forthcoming person. The most remarkable aspect was that Schwarzschild as well as his co-director Spitzer, who played a major role in fusion, were Jews. Nevertheless, the accepted me, a German. Those were the two persons I learnt a lot of new things from, who influenced me in their way of doing physics. In Chicago, I had adopted the habit there of always leaving the door to my office open, and I introduced that in Garching later: to always keep the doors open.
Your time in Garching was soon to come. You habilitated in theoretical physics in Munich How did it then go on with the MPI for Physics and Astrophysics?
The Max Planck Institute for Physics had been moved en bloc from Göttingen to Munich in 1958. Heisenherg wanted to return to Munich. The Free State of Bavaria had placed a new building at the disposal of the Max Planck Society, free of charge. So, I also moved from Göttingen to Munich. The new name after the move was Institute for Physics and Astrophysics. When I returned from New York in 1959, I had fully reverted to astrophysics. In 1958, the first Sputnik had been started. The work on the paths of charged particles in the Earth's magnetic field which I had written with Schlüter, became relevant for the first satellite observations. Von Allen had been the first to measure that there were particles caught in the Earth's magnetic field, the famous radiation belts. I asked my first diploma student to do detailed calculations on the radiation belts. In this way I became more and more engaged into problems arising from satellite measurements. In 1961, the question suddenly arose whether Germany should participate in space research. There was a meeting with Siegfried Balke, who at that time was the responsible minister, with Heisenberg, Butenandt, the President of the Max Planck Society, and also Biermann. They decided that the Max Planck Society should participate. Biermann had the idea, which he discussed in detail with me, whether it would be possible to produce an artificial comet’s tail. In 1951, he had developed the theory that cometary tails, if they are electrically charged, that is, as. Plasma plumes, cannot not be blown outwards, as observed, by the radiation pressure of the sun. He postulated that the sun must be emit a corpuscular radiation. Corpuscular radiation was already known in connection with magnetic storms. I discussed with Biermann whether this could be the basis for the institute’s first experiment. We wrote a paper, together with my first wife Rhea Kulka and Hans-Ulrich Schmidt. Carbon monoxide, CO, as seen in the comet tails, was discarded because the required quantity would have been much too large. So we decided upon barium. I started to form a new group in a prefab hut in Garching. We wanted to use a research rocket to transport barium up into space, where it would be evaporated. That way, I was transformed from a theoretician into an experimental physicist.
That was in 1961?
It started in1961.
In 1961 you were also a guest professor at MIT?
Yes, before we started all this, I had already given a positive answer to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT). I had an offer for a full professorship, interestingly enough for mathematics. And I had told them I first wanted to spend half a year there in order to see whether working at MIT would suit me. That was why I came as a guest professor. I gave lectures on plasma physics there.
You were there as a guest professor for mathematics and gave lectures on plasma physics?
Yes, plasma physics. Hans Wolfgang Liepmann, the aerodynamist whom I befriended more and more, — he also had had to emigrate — then called me and said that MIT was boring and much too large. If I was to go anywhere, it could only be Caltech. During the next half year I should give lectures at Caltech. Then he would take care that I become a full professor at Caltech. During the entire project build-up phase in Garching I returned to Germany many times to keep the project going. But I came very close to staying at Caltech in Pasadena at the end of that half year for ever, because it was the best thing I could ever imagine.
In Munich, you were the director of the new institute at the same time?
Not at that time. Then negotiations were only just beginning. Biermann and Heisenberg said I could not possibly desert them. My place was in Munich. They considered the possibility of establishing a so-called Lex Lust of the Max Planck Society which would allow me to spend half a year at Caltec and half a year at the Max Planck Institute. However, I found that too difficult. Also because of my family, I decided in the end in favor of the Max Planck Society. I had seen that the children of many colleagues who had emigrated to America wanted to be Americans when they grew up. Their parents, however, still spoke English with an accent, which meant that already at an early stage an alienation occurred between parents and children, and we did not want to risk that. That was a consideration that was not unimportant. But Caltec has always remained my ideal of how a university should be. The offer ‘full professorship’ required no more than three hours of lecturing a week. I was also offered a position as further co-director at the Mount Palomar Observatory. The position was to be a double-appointment between astrophysics and aeronautics. Another development also intervened, the establishment of the European Space Research Organization ESRO. Coincidence again played a role. When the Max Planck Society decided to become involved in space there were efforts to establish a European organization for space research, similar to CERN. The Royal Society had issued invitations for a meeting in London, to which every European country should send a representative. I was sent there with Mr. Kerscher of the German Research Foundation (DFG) in October 1961. A few months later, the governments made an agreement on the preparation of the foundation of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO). Following the suggestion of the Dutch astronomer Henk van de Hulst I was commissioned to plan and coordinate a scientific program as a Coordinating Secretary. Later I was elected as the first scientific director of ESRO. At the meeting in London in 1961 I met, Jacques Blamont, a French physicist who experimented with research rockets by evaporating sodium in the atmosphere in order to measure atmospheric winds. When he heard that I was planning barium cloud experiments, he said I should bring my experiment along for one of his rockets, he would manage to include it somehow. This led to my first experiments in high altitude research rockets.
These were your last years as a free scientist, if we may say so. Then you got more and more involved in management.
Yes, but nevertheless these were really still the free years. From 1962/1963 onwards, we normally carried out two or three launch campaigns a year with high altitude rockets. We went to the Sahara, to Kiruna and Fort Churchill. I often spent three or four weeks with these teams. That was important for me to have the opportunity to follow one’s own ideas away from everywhere. The Max Planck Institute for Extra-Terrestrial Physics was to be established out of my research group; it became an autonomous institute in 1963. Then, in 1965, there was a certain discontinuous change when I was unexpectedly elected into the German Scientific Council (Wissenschaftsrat). Until that date, I hardly had anything to do with scientific policy in Germany, only when establishing ESRO. From 1965 onwards, I also became involved in university issues.
Then in 1969, you even became the chairman?
My predecessor was Leussink. He became a minister and — I was unexpectedly asked whether I would take the chair, which I accepted for three years.
Are there still traces of this three-year period in the German research scene?
Oh yes, the University Framework Plan, presented in 1970, was an important recommendation. It suggested a study time of 6 semesters, and it seems that it may be finally realized in the near future.
That was already suggested in those days?
The department system for restructuring the universities was also recommended. On principle, the Framework Plan already contained a lot, but that drifted away because hardly any state went along with it. It was transformed into a much larger monster, the education master plan which, however, was quickly stifled in the Conference of Culture Ministers. It ended up in the hands of bureaucracy, and nothing happened. I had argued for the introduction of a bonus system, i. e., the universities participating in the reform should receive financial incentives. Even the thought of introducing such a bonus system was absolutely inconceivable for the administration. I had suggested that a university in Hamburg, a university in Munich and two technical universities should be given the chance to experiment.
Was it the concept of the federal government that the federal government should provide more support for the states?
Yes, the federal government had implemented the Special Collaborative research Units (Sonderforschungsbereiche — SFBs) which received an additional several hundred million Deutschmarks, I think. This was the first time the federal government had ever provided a large amount of funds for the universities through the German Research Council (DFG). Even the DFG had rejected the SFBs at first. I still remember the heated discussions in the DFG. SFBs at first. I still remember the heated discussions in the DFG. They said no, it would ruin their whole system. They were in favor of single projects. SFBs would not fit into the system.
Nevertheless, you were successful, and Hamburg, in particular, profited a great deal from the SFBs.
Leussink as federal minister forced it through with the power of a bull.
This must have been about 1972.
One more thing regarding the end of that period: We needed rockets for our experiments. The first rockets rose to about 200-300 km, or even 400 km altitude. In our experiments we found that even at that altitude we obtained scientifically useful results, because the barium clouds interacted with the Earth’s magnetic field. This enabled us to measure the drift of the Earth’s magnetic field lines, meaning that we were able to measure the Earth’s electric field for the first time. At first, this method was mostly used to assess the electric field in these altitudes, particularly in the area of aurora borealis. But we were able to carry out our first experiment in the magnetosphere —, although not yet in the solar wind — with a large American rocket in 1970 or 1971. Haerendel finally succeeded in producing an artificial comet tail in 1984. My time at the institute, however, ended in 1972.
With your being elected President of the Max Planck Society?
The term ‘one-third’ parity had become fashionable at that time You were surely confronted with it during your time as a president?
My election came quite unexpected for me. The annual General Assembly of the Max Planck Society took place in Berlin in 1971, and it created quite a stir. The assistants in the Max Planck Society had formed their own organization, the Assistant Conference, and they called loudly for the one-third parity. The meeting of the Scientific Council was highly emotional.
Why one-third parity? There are no students at the Max Planck Institutes.
The parity was to be divided between professors, assistants and employees. After the very emotional and chaotic meeting of the Scientific Council, Heisenberg took me aside in Berlin and suggested we take a walk together. He explained that I was both young enough and old enough, and I had to be ready to run for president in November. He had heard that I had an offer from the industry, namely as a board member at Siemens. He said I could not do that to him; I had to stay with the Max Planck Society. In fact, I then rejected the offer from Siemens, without knowing whether I would be elected. My rival candidate, Wolfgang Gentner from Heidelberg, withdrew his candidature at the last moment. So, I was elected by the senate in November. Two days later, during a newspaper interview with the ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ I suggested that every institute should send a representative with unlimited voting rights into the sections. This caused severe consternation in parts of the Max Planck Society. They said I had given away everything. The majority of our section, the Physical-Chemical-Technical section, was in favor of this proposal. The Biological-Medical section was radically opposed, virtually unanimously, while opinions in the Humanistic section were split. There was a dramatic meeting of the Scientific Council in April, where my proposal was accepted by a narrow majority. Before the handing over of office, the proposal was put to the vote of the General Assembly of the Max Planck Society, because a two-third majority was needed for a change in the Constitution of the Society. The Biological-Medical section was still predominantly opposed. The former State Prime Minister Stoltenberg got op during the General Assembly and explained that if the universities had understood the need for change in time, surely many things would have been avoided at the universities. He could only advise the Max Planck Society to accept the model. His intervention helped that the change in the constitution was accepted by a narrow two-thirds majority.
How many percent of the votes came from the employees of a section?
Of course, I also had long discussions with the employees. During my visits to the institutes I explained to them: ‘Forget the word ‘co-determination’. It is your cooperation that counts. The critical thing is that you can actually raise your voice and be taken seriously, not that you count your votes. The only thing that matters in the section is whether you have good arguments. If you are convincing, you can really achieve something.’ A particularly important issue was whether the employees should also have a say in appointments. That was a special sticking point for the biologists and physicians. I suggested the compromise that the employees would not be given unlimited voting rights at first — just to get the changes accepted in the first place. After the employees had participated for three years in the section meetings — perhaps it may even have taken six years — most of my colleagues perceived that they did not bring about the ruin of the Max Planck Society.
I think, the impact of these rules is demonstrated by the simple fact that — although I have been experiencing the involvement of the section’s employees for more than 20 years — I never knew whether the employees had a voting right or not. Decisions in the section are always made by consensus on the basis of detailed discussions — also including the employees. Voting rights are indeed unimportant.
There was another point that I found important. The employees, but also the directors, have no voting right regarding the election of a new director to their own institute. But I also thought it was important that, if possible, there was at least one employee present as observer in every appointment committee, so that they could watch the procedure. This helped a lot in establishing peace. Two years later, the issue no longer played role anyway.
During your total of twelve years in office, another important task for you was the question new institutes, old institutes…
That was the situation I found when I became president. In the era Butenandt in the previous twelve years, the Max Planck Society had been able to expand rapidly. Many new institutes had been founded. When I took office, the budget stagnated, worsened further by the two oil shocks, so that there was no real growth increment during my whole term in office. Not even the rate of inflation, which then amounted to about 10%, could be fully compensated. We have completely forgotten that Willi Brandt was practically removed from office due to the strike at the ÖTV (a large public service union) triggered by the high rates of inflation. In my view, the most important task for the Max Planck Society was the appointment of new directors and the founding of new institutes. Butt his implied that we needed to radically close old institutes. I still remember the first institute I had to close down. It was situated in Bad Kreuznach. There were three members of parliament with a wide influence: Mr. Pieroth of the CDU, later Senator in Berlin, Mr. Friedrich of the FDP, minister for economic affairs, as well as Mr. Ahlers of the SPD, a government spokesman. Each of them wrote me a letter telling me how impossible it was to close down the best of all institutes in their election district. So I learnt that perhaps it was better to proceed with tactics. But still, twenty institutes and departments, genuine independent departments, were closed in those twelve years. In this manner we were able to free 680 positions of new appointments. In the same period twenty new institutes were founded, among others in meteorology, polymer research, etc. The founding of the Institute for Polymer Research took place against the vote of the Physical-Technical-Chemical section, because they were afraid of losing funds for their section.
So one function of closing down old institutes is to set funds free for new directions. Did it also fulfill psychological functions?
Yes, of course, it demonstrated that the Max Planck Society was the only institution that within its own authority was able to close down institutes. All other institutions, even our state, are no longer able to withdraw from anything, as shown by today’s discussions. The Max Planck Society has a structure which makes that possible — even against the will of a section that is, against the faculty. It was even possible to close down the well-known institute in Starnberg. I was attacked a lot because of Starnberg, by ‘Spiegel’, for example, personally and below the belt. The Senator in Hamburg, Meyer-Abich, even wanted to bring me before the Federal Constitutional Court for disregarding the freedom of science, established in article 5 of the Federal Constitution.
Was he not in Starnberg himself in those days?
He was a scholar of Weizsäcker, the director. Of course, the Max-Planck-Society also had a social responsibility. In the majority of cases it took five or six years to close down an institute. Social plans had to be set up. It is considerably easier to found an institute than to close it.
Perhaps you should recount a bit more the story of Starnberg, because in a way it has still left you with a stigma. Therefore, it would be good if you could clarify your position once again.
In 1969, the institute in Starnberg was founded for a scientist, namely for von Weizsäcker. Weizsäcker had been with the Institute for Physics for a long time. In 1958, when the institute moved to Munich, he went to Hamburg to accept a chair for philosophy. However, he wanted to be able to investigate the long-term perspectives of our scientific-technical world. That was the reason for the foundation of the institute. He then called Habermas to the institute as a codirector. Their work was definitely of considerable scientific interest, particularly with regard to the prevention of the consequences of the war, but also with regard to economic aspects. At the beginning of the seventies, however, the issue of Weizsäcker’s succession was raised, and finally the deliberations concentrated on Dahrendorf as his successor. Two days before the senate’s decision, Dahrendorf backed off, because he wanted to stay in England. Since no one saw any other way of continuing work in this difficult field, Weizsäcker’s department had to be closed. It was quite difficult for me to discuss the closing of the institute with Weizsäcker. He was of two minds. On the one hand he understood the Max Planck principle. On the other hand he found it hard to accept that just this institute which was so enormously important to him, should no longer exist. He thought, the employees could carry on by themselves. The plan was for Habermas to manage the entire institute during an interim period, but in that case Habermas would have had to sign the notices of termination of those who had to be dismissed, and that was something Habermas did not want to do. He felt that he, Habermas, could not appear in court to advocate their dismissal. So I had to explain to Habermas that if he was not willing to accept this responsibility as institute director, he would have to resign from his function as a director of the institute. Apart from this, it was already forseen that Habermas would move to Munich with his department. Habermas wanted to be near the university. It was a mystery to me why the LMU was not willing to give Habermas an honorary professorship, but it just shows how deep the resentments actually went. The trenches were drawn. Habermas decided to return to Frankfurt, and that was the end of the institute in Starnberg. However, we had already elected Mr. Weinert to be a co-director of the institute, which would have brought three directors to the future institute: Dahrendorf, Weinert and Habermas. I had a long conversation with Weinert who had already given up his professorship in Heidelberg. In a quick decision I founded an Institute for Psychological Research for him in Munich. In the autumn I was summoned, as the president to the Humanities Section meeting — I still see Mr. Zacher and others who accused me of breaking the rules. How could the president found a new institute without asking the section? I said they would have to take a look at the constitution. The president did have the right to make decisions in absolutely urgent cases, but he had to inform the organs afterwards. I said, here I was, sitting there and informing them. You as lawyers will surely not say that I broke the rules. Mr. Zacher dislikes remembering this situation, too, his saying with a sonorous voice: Mr. President and so on... That was the origin of the Institute for Psychological Research in Munich. I accepted responsibility for it.
It must have been a very difficult situation. Weizsäcker was a strong personality. But you cannot lead an institute of this type without a strong director. There are many examples, e. g. in peace research. Without a strong personality, you achieve nothing.
Speaking of peace research: When I chaired the Scientific Council, a program for peace research was to be installed under Heinemann. The Scientific Council was asked to give an opinion and summoned a working group of peace researchers. I took the chair. After an hour I had enough and said: “I come from a family of theologians. I know that even theologians are not peaceful at times, but now I must attest that theologians and peace researchers are the least peaceful people I know.” The closing down in Starnberg pursued me for some time, also because so many myths were spread and wrong things reported. I did not want to publicly expose Weizsäcker and say: “No. It was not like that”. Only on the occasion of his 90th birthday I mentioned Dahrendorf’s name for the first time. Weizsäcker did not seem to know that he had been considered as his successor. He must have repressed that there was a real effort to continue with the institute. Dahrendorf had quite different ideas on what he wanted to do.
Dahrendorf then got a leading position at a London university?
He was the Head of the London School of Economics, later the Master of an Oxford college. It was also important that Scientific Advisory Committees were introduced at the beginning of my period of office. For the first time there was a really serious quality control for our institutes, and not all directors were fond of that. They thought that we ourselves knew well enough how good we were.
I remember well the time when our institute had just been founded. Schmidt attended the annual General Assembly of the Max Planck Society. He said that the Society would need to get used to no longer being able to expand. This heralded the budget situation that you described. He spoke without a manuscript for one and a half hours quite impressive.
He had just become chancellor when the General Assembly took place in 1975. He invited me a few days before his speech in order to find out what he was supposed to say. The main problem in those days were the fixed-term contracts. He said in the armed forces it was taken for granted that the physical working capacity decreased with age, while it was not accepted that the intellectual performance of scientists could also decrease. The customary procedure of the assembly was: the mayor spoke first, then the state Prime Minister, and then the chancellor. The president spoke only at the end. Schmidt said: “This is impossible. First I want to hear what you say so that I can reply.” I answered: “I want to hear what you say, so that I can reply”. He absolutely did not want this. I explained that the order was prescribed by the tradition of the Society. When Mr. Schmidt drove up at the CCH, I received him wearing my chain of office. He said: “Mr. Lust, you are dressed up like a prize bull. Nobody wears these things any more… (That was in 1975.) After the assembly he took me to dinner at the Vier Jahreszeiten in his car. I said: “Mr. Chancellor, look, there are the names of all my predecessors on this chain of office. Shall I really be the first not to wear it anymore?” He said oh well, as a chancellor would also have liked to wear a chain of office with Adenauer’s name on it. I should carry on wearing my chain of office, this was all part of Hamburg. Another story, perhaps: We had a new chief of protocol from the Foreign Office who always took care of events. Shortly before the Hamburg assembly, he became afraid that there may not be enough people to fill the large hall in the CCH. He reported to me that he had already taken care of that problem by sending about 300 cards to ASTA (the student association). I said: “Then we can forget about the event. When they hear that the chancellor is coming, all is over. We have to find another hall out-oftown.” I called Fischer-Appelt (the president of the University) who could hardly calm himself down over the naivety of sending 300 cards to ASTA. How could we get them back? He promised to call me back half an hour later. Then he called again. saying: “Mr. Lust. I went over to the office of ASTA, where the 300 cards were lying about, and I just took them with me.”
In 1984, you no longer wore that chain of office. Did you get a new one?
No. There was nothing like that. I had already arranged everything for spending a year at Caltec, because I wanted to go back to research. At that time, Caltec had a special guest professorship, called the Fairchild professorship. The nice thing was that it included a house and a car. All that had already been organized. The house and the car were there, and I intended to go to Pasadena on the 1st of September - my period of office ended in July. However, in the meantime I was asked to become the Director General of ESA. I was already elected, but I still wanted to spend half a year in Pasadena. But Minister Riesenhuber said I had to go to Paris immediately, because Conferences of Ministers were due. I thus had to go to Paris already in September and did not get the half-year recuperation break I had been looking forward to.
How did you survive the fact that you had to work in France without being able to speak French? After all, you spent six years there.
The bonus was that I got to know Paris. You can live in Paris without speaking French very well — my wife learnt French well. My language as a scientist at the ESA was neither French nor English, but BE, Broken English. I managed quite well that way, but I still regret that I did not learn French properly.
Which were the highlights you remember from your time at ESA?
In contrast to my period at the Max Planck Society, I arrived at ESA during a phase of expansion. That was lucky. Suddenly budgets increased by 5 % annually, also at ESA. Everyone was in an euphoric mood. Finally everything was to get better. We started a co-operation on space stations with the Americans. That was difficult. I could never get excited about manned space flight myself, but it was a political necessity. The ‘Ariane 5’ was to be constructed, then the aerospace transporter ‘Hermes’ for human beings. The scientific program could finally be extended again to the so-called Horizon-2000 program. These were all new tasks. It as useful to me — and that as noticed at ESA, too — that during my time in the Scientific Council and in the Max Planck Society I had learnt to deal with politicians. In Germany, those were the Prime Ministers and Ministers of Research. It therefore went without saving that my first act was to make official visits to all ministers, I really tried to establish relations with the politicians. The first Conference of Ministers already took place in January 1985. My predecessor had had a hard furrow to plough. He had worked during a time of standstill. When I came, a strike at ESTEC (ESA’s technical centre) was in full swing. From my time at the Max Planck Society I was familiar with such things and knew how to deal with employees. Everything I had learnt at the Max Planck Society was very useful for me now, also the fact that I was a scientist. My predecessors had mostly been administrators. As a scientist I could speak my mind more freely. Once during a sluggish council meeting I burst out in exasperation and said: ‘This is worse than having to dance with an octopus.’ Word got around of that incident and also of the fact that I succeeded in pushing a lot of things through — after detailed counseling and preparation. I cannot remember any council meeting — the lengths of which were often frustrating — which ended without my eventually getting agreement on the important issues. This was the case for example for the large Conference of Ministers in Den Haag in which the English Minister was absolutely opposed to all plans. A discussion forum usually started in alphabetic order, in other words, with Austria or Belgium. As I knew, however, that there was not a thing the English minister would agree to, I asked the chairman not to start from the right this time, but with the Englishman, who was the last in the alphabet as United Kingdom. So, the English minister began, and everyone afterwards was against him. Had I started to the right, he would have had the last word. That is one of the strategic tricks you learn in the international arena. There were also highlights. The ‘Ariane’ functioned well, particularly with the launch of Giotto to Halley’s Comet. Nevertheless, Giotto gave me one of my darkest hours. It was early in the morning, and I was still at home when I got a call from Darmstadt informing me that they had lost contact with Giotto. I thought: ‘How can we face the press now?’ We spent the whole day desperately trying to make contact. As the Americans had much larger antennae in Goldstone, I finally called the Head of NASA, who told me that they were just watching their space probe passing Saturn, neither of their two antennae was available. By the evening, however, I had persuaded him to place one antenna at our disposal for half an hour to begin with. In the meantime it had already been announced that ESA had lost contact with Giotto. It was in the media. At midnight I got a call at home telling me that the contact was re-established. From then on everything went as anticipated. Another exciting story happened during a brief vacation on Sylt. I received a call informing me that Mitterand had decided to fly to Kourou the day after tomorrow in order to watch the ‘Ariane’ launch. I thus had to hurry to return from Sylt 10 Paris in time. I was then allowed to accompany the president in the Concorde. It is great to see how a French president flies, A Concorde has two sections. In the front, there was only the president with a bed, a desk and all the paraphernalia. In the rear, there were six ministers in normal seats, with me among them. It was hot; we had to stew in the Concorde for half an hour before the president drove up and entered majestically. The Concorde rolled to take-off, then just before take-off, put on the brakes, the take-off was cancelled. We rolled back. Half an hour later we rolled to the take-off again, and the same thing happened, another break. The president got off. We had to remain seated. Half an hour later someone came, took the name tags from our seats and told us to change for another Concorde. We changed. The new Concorde was not furnished in a president-like style, but all backrests in the front cabin were turned down. Only one backrest was up for Mitterand. We sat in the rear. We were already delayed by two hours. The Concorde had to make an intermediate landing in Nigeria, where the president awaited us. We finally reached Kourou with a delay of two hours. I immediately drove on with the minister while Mitterand greeted the dignitaries. He arrived ten minutes before the start and did not want to be seated on the tribune, but in the control centre. To his one side sat minister Curien, to his other side, myself. The countdown began, everything went according to schedule, the ‘Ariane’ lifted off right on time. The planned and real trajectories on which the ‘Ariane’ were flying, were projected onto a screen, first stage — perfect agreement, second stage — also, third stage — the first point was slightly lower. I put on my headphones and heard: embarrassing, embarrassed stuttering, no ignition. The TV people realized it and aimed their camera fully on Mitterand. After the second point it was obvious that the launch had failed. I looked at the minister, a good friend. I bent over and said: ‘Mon président, c’est fini!’ Mitterand stood up, it was towards midnight, we were on the third floor, no elevator, the president passed us and ran down the stairs. Curien and I had difficulty following him. Then he climbed into his car and disappeared into the night. Curien and I stood there alone. What should we do? I said: “It’s no good, we have to go up to face the press.” Mitterand returned ten minutes later. There is usually a big party after a successful launch, and the champagne flows freely. After an unsuccessful launch there is, of course, no champagne. Mitterand delivered a speech, and afterwards he went to the helicopter together with several others. There were two helicopters which were to bring him back to the airport, and one of them was out of order. I finally said with my limited language proficiency: ‘Mon président, this is all my fault.’ He looked at me, why, and I replied: “Yes. Mr. Président, today is Friday the 13th. I as a marine officer should have known. On Friday the 13th you do not put out to sea.“ He was not sure whether he should smile. But two years later, on the occasion of a 30th anniversary, he remembered my remark. This had happened on his way to Tahiti, where the French secret service had sunk a Green-peace vessel. He had wanted to brighten the atmosphere and hoped to have the press on his side again after a successful launch of the ‘Ariane’. And then there was the failed launch. It was terrible.
You must admit that the French were better organized. They actually had two Concordes and two helicopters while you only had the one ‘Ariane’.
It would have been impossible to make another ‘Ariane’ ready for launch that fast. You are right, the French were well organized. A successful launch — the French ‘Ariane’. An unsuccessful launch — the European ‘Ariane’ failed.
This phase of your life ended in 1990, and you entered slightly calmer channels. You resided at the end of the corridor in the MPI in Hamburger and, what was perhaps more important, you became president of the Alexander-von-Humboldt Society.
No, the chance to sit at the end of the corridor was really important for me. I still know how I came to you, Mr. Hasselmann, and asked whether I had a chance to stay at your institute, and you agreed spontaneously.
Yes, of course, I was very glad that you, who had strongly supported our institute over so many years, and had attended all our Kuratorium and Scientific Advisory meetings, wanted to join us. I found that very nice.
On the one hand I was glad not to have returned to my old institute. In general, this might sometimes cause problems. In my particular case it would really not have been good, because I had established the institute, and perhaps it would have disturbed me that some things were no longer the same. The old employees would surely still have come to me, which might have annoyed the younger colleagues who had succeeded me. The other reason was that I had never really been able to participate in scientific work in Hamburg, but suddenly I was able to follow up a new field of knowledge. These were the two reasons. I also liked the fact that I did not have to go to Bonn, but could manage the Humboldt Foundation from a distance, from Hamburg. The Humboldt Foundation was a new challenge, simply because I had another chance to see more of the world.
You are still active today, namely in the supervisory boards of private universities.
Even at a state university, namely in Würzburg. The Bavarian universities gave themselves something similar to supervisory boards, but above all I got involved in Bremen. One day the city’s mayor, Scherf, called me and asked whether I would be ready to help found an entirely new university. I told him on the phone that my commitment was subject to four conditions which I would formulate in writing immediately. If they confirmed those also in writing, I would be willing to help. The first condition was for the university to have an American structure with a hoard electing the president. The president would have nobody to answer to but the hoard. Second: tuition fees. Third: entrance examination. Everyone who passes the exam must be able to study, i.e. scholarships. Fourth: Whenever possible, not against the existing university, but in consent. Mr. Scherf agreed to these conditions, and I accepted the chair of the planning group. The result was the now actually functioning university, in my opinion the only campus university in Germany. It is remarkable that that was possible in Bremen.
Why do you say ‘remarkable’?
The previous history of the state university’s beginnings was not exactly prestigious. It was ideologically oriented. But Mr. Timm, who was to become the president later on, has really succeeded in turning it around. The University of Bremen is now a quite respectable, successful university. For that reason I did not want to work against it, but in a mutually supportive mode.
One theme that you have often referred to is the role of science in the scientific society, the issue of a term like ‘scientific excellence with social relevance’. How do you see the role of science in our society?
I have a problem with the catchword social relevance. It was introduced by the social-liberal coalition, especially by the SPD, in 1970. I greatly annoyed Leussink back then, when I had to give a talk on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Institute for Plasmaphysics, and I said: ‘This institute emerged from another institute, the Institute for Astrophysics which did not and does not have any social relevance. Nevertheless, I think that astrophysics is of considerable importance for our society’. That is why I have difficulties with the term social relevance. I think, if we take the term seriously, we have to accept that there is a relevance for our society which does not have anything to do with direct use. This is equally valid for the particle physics of the theoretical physicists or for the astronomers who discover a black hole. This is particularly evident in astrophysics. The fact that Hasinger and his colleagues have discovered two black holes is presented as a remarkable scientific discovery on the front page of the ‘Herald Tribune’. I think for the science that you, Mr. Hasselmann, and I and many others conduct the scientific quality is much more decisive than the relevance. Of course, the question then arises how scientific quality can be measured. Any scientist can distinguish quality from humbug quite fast. This is a first criterion. The fact that from certain scientific results something important for our society may emerge is another bonus, as is the case here in climate research which is certainly of social relevance. Or take carbon research, where the Fischer-Trobsch process of fuel liquefaction was invented. Ziegler discovered polyethylene, but through pure basic research, without having that particular application in mind. Or genetic research — which is, of course, most controversial now. I accept the fact that every scientist has an obligation towards society, but in my opinion that is on a different level than focusing on social relevance from the start. I had some heated discussions, sometimes even disputes, on that issue with Helmut Schmidt. I actually rate Helmut Schmidt highly that he was open to these discussions. He also introduced the term ‘Bringschuld’ (obligation for public dissemination of information). Is that your point? Or would you like to argue with me?
No, I, for one, do not want to argue with you, or perhaps I do after all, but not now. I would rather ask a question of current relevance: Are the efforts of the Helmholtz Society to implement a program-oriented management, which relates to that catchword, in fact counterproductive?
The Helmholtz Society has a different task than that of the Max Planck Society. You may argue a lot over the Helmholtz Society. For me there are really only two organizations with clear-cut functions. One is the Max Planck Society, commissioned to conduct excellent research and finding the best people, giving them the opportunity to work freely. Fortunately, the state does not influence these decisions. The other is the Fraunhofer Society, with the well-defined objective to conduct industry-related research and raise the necessary funds. I do not want to say that the function of Helmholtz is somehow suspect to my mind. The state has a legitimate right to set priorities. Major research institutions were founded for that reason, such as Karlsruhe or the DLR. But how can we draw clear lines? The state’s authority is personified by the administrative directors and undersecretaries who have the money and thus the power. That is a difficult thing, I think. The decision what is accepted as socially relevant thus depends on which government happens to be in power.
To what extent there should be a division of labor between the different institutions? You say that the Max Planck Society is responsible for excellent basic research. Is it reasonable for those who come from another organization to state: ‘Max Planck, you must actually be up to this standard, you have to conduct really excellent research.’
Oh yes, of course. If not, the guillotine will fall. For example, I closed the institute for farm labor and agricultural technology. Even the wine was bad there, it was high time to close down the institute.
Well, that is really a forceful argument. You did not mention the blue list institutes.
Those are even more problematic. They gave themselves the nice name Leibniz Society. According to the original definition, the blue list consisted of institutions of major national interest. The motivation for their foundation (they were still called blue list in those days) was to finance economic research institutes, to finance the German Museum, or the Museum König. They were to receive federal grants, but as soon as the dam was broken, every federal state claimed to have at least one institute of equal importance. Now the institutes are distributed over the whole landscape. There are no doubt some very good ones, and they have all been evaluated. Now they argue that all flaws have been eliminated. My major problem with the blue list is in this case it is still more true that me principal administrator in some ministry X holds his protective hand over an institute and claims that it is excellent.
Is it possible to close blue list institutes down?
I think it happened in three cases in recent years, although. I cannot say whether it really happened. Anyhow, the Scientific Council recommended it. I did not pursue the matter. The Scientific Council also recommended to close the economic research institute in Hamburg, but this was not done.
Yes, once they even wanted to close GKSS, but it did not happen. I therefore ask myself whether it is actually possible to close institutions of that dimension which are not financed by a central institution like the Max Planck Society, but which represent mixed interests like the Helmholtz Association or the blue list.
I really think that the main reason why the Max Planck Society can close institutes is that our senate is truly independent, with representatives of the public authorities, from science, and others. The president is elected by the senate and is answerable only to the senate, not to any ministries, let alone the Ministry of Research. I think it is very important that the president of the Max Planck Society does not act under such constraints.
Do you think that the Helmholtz Association with their new president will be able to create something similar.
Fine. At least that is a clear statement.
But why should this be so? Is the Helmholtz Society not producing a formally similar structure to that of the Max Planck Society, with its president, senate, etc.? The senate is regarded as impartial, not representing the interests of the institutions of its members, and it is independent.
Yes, they were obviously oriented by the success of the Max Planck Society…in order to protect themselves against the bureaucracy through the senate. Whether they succeed is a different issue.
No, I simply got the impression that it will not succeed in this form, because the funding administrators exert much more direct pressure and constraint.
Can we talk about populism? To what extent does research comply with the task of providing society with the necessary information and advice, particularly in the field of environmental research? Does environmental research really supply society with the answers needed to judge things more rationally and alleviate fears?
The problem is that on the one hand the public and political expectations are very high, in my view, much too high. This leads individual scientists to believe that they must live up to these expectations. Mr. Latif, a scholar of Hasselmann, always did that very well. He has the gift of being able to explain science. The most difficult thing is to convey the meaning of the term probability. There exist no absolutely certain scientific statements. The public as well as the politicians demand and expect conclusive answers from the scientists. I think environmental researchers have learnt a lot in the meantime. Of course, it is enormously difficult to cope with media like BILD. Another problem is to find politicians who are really willing and able to listen, and who take the time to listen. Our former environment minister Töpfer, who is now responsible for ecological policy at the UNO, always impressed me in this respect. He always took the time to listen carefully, and was truly able to translate problems into the political arena.
The instinct and intelligence of politicians like Mr. Töpfer must indeed be rated very highly. In spite of the frequently distorted presentation of the climate problem by the media and the skewed disinformation of interest groups, they generally know very well what it is all about, even if they have not read the IPCC reports (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) of the UN. So cannot one be optimistic that in spite of the general frenzy and misunderstandings, the basic messages are getting through — although it is then still difficult to implement the necessary policies.
Well, in environmental and climate research this is slightly easier than in genetic research, because there ideological issues play a stronger role. The current debate on genetic research clearly reveals the genetic researchers’ difficulties.
In this context one could ask further: to what extent are the efforts to inform the public by science and by NGOs complementary, and to what extent and contradictory? To what extent are these two ways of communication and information competing with each other? And, if so, who will win this competition? But we should perhaps come to an end. How is it that you know Helmut Schmidt so well?
I ask myself the same question today. I got to know him while he was still minister of defense. It started with Mrs. Schmidt, who was already very much interested in the behaviourist Konrad Lorenz months before I became president of the Max Planck Society. I visited Konrad Lorenz and his institute in Seewiesen with her before my assumption of office. Immediately after I had taken office, I went to see the large 100 in radiotelescope of the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Effelsberg near Bonn with Helmut Schmidt during a public holiday. Helmut Schmidt was still economics and finance minister. He spent the whole day inspecting the telescope and, above all, informing himself of the results of radioastronomy. Finally he asked me about the telescope’s price, and I told him it had cost the tax payer nothing, because it had been financed by the Volkswagen Foundation with 24,5 million DM. Helmut Schmidt spontaneously exclaimed: ‘What, not more than a patrol boat!’ On the occasion of the General Assembly of the Max Planck Society in Hamburg in 1975 — that I referred to earlier — Mrs. Schmidt told me that she herself would like to participate in research, particularly in the work of the institute in Seewiesen and its expeditions. She was enthusiastic when I said that this could surely be arranged. So she went on expeditions to Africa, Indonesia and South America with the institute for several consecutive years. She paid for all of these trips herself. Later my conversations with Helmut Schmidt developed further. I should tell a little story. In 1975 or 1976 wrote a letter to Helmut Schmidt explaining the financial situation of the Max Planck Society and asking him for support. A few days later I accepted an invitation of the Empress of Persia in Teheran. She wanted to found something similar to the Max Planck Society. Helmut Schmidt returned from China that evening and had a stopover in Teheran. Dinner was served in the embassy in the evening. When he greeted me he said: ‘Mr. Lust, this is the right place for you. They have a Wailing Wall. You may lament there...’
That was an auspicious beginning.
After dinner we had a vigorous discussion. Loki Schmidt was kind enough to separate us. He was in the habit of always taking six personalities on his journeys abroad. He did not take a whole bus load as was common practice with Kohl and is still customary today. In those days he took along two economists, two unionists, and two scientists. That way I accompanied him three times. Once he took me to America on the occasion of the 200th anniversary celebration. As soon as were on the plane — together with Mr. Schleyer and Mr. Körber, Mr. Loderer of the metal union and Mr. Vetter of the DGB — he wanted to learn about the experiences of America and the future plans there. Every evening at a late hour we met in the hotel in which Helmut Schmidt spent the night, and everybody had to report on his daily experiences. On the flight back, in the night, I had a long conversation with Helmut Schmidt. He finally said: ‘Well, Mr. Lust, once I no longer hold this office, I would like to have more relations with the Max Planck Society. On the evening of 1st October 1982, when he had been voted out of office, I called his Bungalow. Actually, I wanted to comfort Mrs. Schmidt a little, but he was on the phone, and I said: ‘Mr. Bundeskanzler...’, but he interrupted: ‘Mr. Lust, from now on I am Mr. Schmidt.’ We had a long conversation, and he finally said: ‘Mr. Lust, do you remember our talk on the plane?’ I replied: ‘Is there any chance that you would come into our senate?’ Yes, if you think so. So I arranged it; I was able to find a free senate seat, and he really became involved. When I came to Hamburg, he asked whether I wanted to join his Friday Society.
The Friday Society?
It is a society that meets every second Friday a month. Everybody must give a talk. Mr. Rühe, the former minister of defense, two former mayors. Siegfried Lenz, a sculptor, and an architect are among the participants. The Friday talks have meanwhile been published in a book. These are my points of contact with Helmut Schmidt.
This was a very interesting and gratifying story. After all, we must realize that you are looking back on fifty years, in the course of which science, scientific culture, society, and people have, of course, undergone great changes.
Just like the Max Planck Society.