Landmarks in science

Max Planck President's review looks ahead to future research topics

June 13, 2018

100 years after the physicist Max Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize, Martin Stratmann believes science is currently undergoing another epoch-making revolution: "We are seeing an enormous upheaval similar to what happened at the turn of the last century, and science is changing, too: it is global, cross-disciplinary, affects human beings more directly and is considerably more complex," said Stratmann in his speech at the 69th Annual Meeting in Heidelberg. For this reason and in view of the hostility to science that is starting to emerge in some countries, Stratmann stated that "openness in research and ongoing dialogue with the public at large" were crucial in order to maintain trust in the freedom of research.

Science was initially focused on empirical research geared towards descriptive analysis; later on, it was thinkers like Max Planck who hit upon the great theories such as quantum physics that became the driving force behind the acquisition of knowledge. Since the rise of simulation towards the end of the 20th century – as in the case of climate modelling, for example – we are now seeing the "fourth paradigm" of research: data-driven science "now takes its place alongside experiment, theory and simulation," as Stratmann said in his speech at the Kongresshaus in Heidelberg. Other speakers at the event included the Baden-Württemberg Minister of Science Theresia Bauer. The ceremonial address was given by Stephen Mann of the University of Bristol. As a pioneer of the newly established research field "Origins of Life", he talked about how science is investigating a new way in which life itself came into being.

Stratmann had previously set out the approach characteristic of the new age of science. The key here, according to the MPG President, is that given the huge volumes of data and machine learning methods, we will be able to "approach old issues in an entirely new way in the future". Stratmann cited numerous examples from current MPG research, including the work of Max Planck Director Iain Couzin on collective intelligence in groups of animals, and also the SHARE project where data on more than 120,000 people aged over 50 allowed conclusions to be drawn about ageing and health in Europe and Israel. In virtually all disciplines, said Stratmann, complex systems were being investigated with a focus on the properties that arise from interaction – i.e. emergence.

He said that in the biological sciences the "data explosion" was due to the use of modern imaging techniques such as cryo-electron microscopy and tomography. But in addition to Big Data, Stratmann also pointed to other revolutionary advancements that could drive major upheaval –especially in the biosciences: the CRISPR-Cas9 gene scissors and so-called organoids, i.e. the breeding of organ-like cell tissue in a petri dish that "allows the development of dangerous diseases to be studied in detail and could eventually even be used as substitutes in human beings", according to the President.

Max Planck Day establishes new dialogue

The President also mentioned public concern at recent developments in science. Referring to cognitive robotics, which ultimately aims to develop intelligent machines, Stratmann said: "It sounds rather like something out of science fiction and is worrying to many people. MPG takes these fears seriously – and we're serious about our responsibility, too. This is not least reflected in the new Max Planck Institute for Security and Privacy, which we are intending to establish this year." In this context, he also noted the fact that ongoing dialogue between the scientific community and the general public was to be promoted on 14 September at a Max Planck Day, where the latest scientific insights are to be presented to the public at large at all MPF locations.

The Annual Meeting, with approx. 700 attendees, kicked off on Tuesday with a scientific lecture by Heidelberg Max Planck Director Werner Hofmann in the auditorium of the University. His presentation, entitled ‘The sky over Namibia in a new light: astronomy with gamma rays’ focused on the H.E.S.S. telescope system, which allows the astronomers of this international collaboration to map the universe, from the remote Khomas Highlands in Namibia, in their search for extremely high-energy gamma rays. Hofmann, as the pioneer of the device, which features a total of five reflector telescopes, provided a vivid insight into the research into gamma radiation sources inside and outside the Milky Way and also told of the challenges involved in setting up the telescopes, which had seen their' first light' in 2002.

As the evening's host, the Rector of Heidelberg University, Bernhard Eitel, had opened the event together with Max Planck President Martin Stratmann. “Heidelberg has always been famous as a city of science and continues to be a flagship for groundbreaking research today. It is home to the university, the German Cancer Research Center and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, as well as four of our Max Planck Institutes. This enormous concentration of scientific expertise make it the perfect setting for an Annual Meeting," says Max Planck President Martin Stratmann.

Excellent local networks

A total of some 1,175 employees work at the four Max Planck institutes in Heidelberg. While they are very international in their orientation, the scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, and the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law also have regional links in their research. In addition to honorary professorships at Heidelberg University, these include academic partnerships such as HeiParisMax, which brings together the legal specialists of the MPG and the university with the expert colleagues from the Sorbonne and Sciences Po in Paris. Then there is the large-scale research network "Biology at the Nanoscale" in which the University of Heidelberg and the MPI for Medical Research are engaged in a new type of collaboration with partners, including industrial companies, in order to achieve rapid application of insights gained from fundamental bioscientific and biomedical research in medicine. This cooperation has recently obtained a further boost with the announcement of an investment of EUR 25 million the state of Baden-Württemberg in a new university facility to be built in close proximity to the Max Planck Institute. Last but not least, the joint doctoral programme helps promote additional networking: the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy collaborate with Heidelberg University through the International Max Planck Research School for Astronomy & Cosmic Physics , for example. What is more, leading minds from several institutions in the field of life sciences have joined forces in the Max Planck School Matter to Life – the new nationwide format for doctoral training in Germany.

Meeting of the governing bodies

On Wednesday and Thursday, the governing bodies of the Max Planck Society met in Kongresshaus. In addition to the Senate and Executive Committee, the governing bodies are the sections that consult on the appointment of new Scientific Members. The General Meeting of Members will pass the newly published 2017 Annual Report. As well as setting out the main facts and figures, this report provides an additional summary of the past year's research highlights. New insights include the fact that Homo sapiens is onsiderably older than assumed and that using less fertiliser reduces particulate air pollution. The 12 highlights in total also include a study showing how learning to read alters the brain in adults.

About the Max Planck Society

With a current total of 84 institutes and research facilities, there are more than 7,300 scientists, over 3,400 doctoral students, and some 1,800 visiting academics conducting fundamental research in the natural sciences, life sciences and humanities under the auspices of the Max Planck Society. Since the Max Planck Society was founded in 1948, it has produced 18 Nobel Laureates. The Max Planck Society is the international flagship of German science: in addition to five institutes abroad, it also runs 20 Max Planck Centers in collaboration with such partners as Princeton in the USA, Science Po in France, University College London in UK and the University of Tokyo in Japan. With the German federal and state governments each providing half of its financial resources, the Max Planck Society received core funding of some 1.8 billion euros in 2017.

Personnel figures accurate as of 31.12.2017

Go to Editor View