MaxPlanckResearch 4/2018

Viewpoint

Democracy in decline in Africa
Despite some gains in the past decade, democracy is in trouble in Africa. Only nine countries on the continent are currently classified as democratic according to the Economist, with more than half under authoritarian rule. Elections are habitually manipulated, the opposition is harassed, civil society is suppressed, and demonstrations are violently dispersed. Autocrats are also increasingly relying on modern technology and foreign “consultants” to maintain power – and are largely allowed to do so undisturbed. As our author critically notes, Europe and the U.S. far too often look away out of fear of instability. This allows incumbents to cling on to power and gradually erode the institutions and expectations sustaining democracy.

Physics & Astronomy

The oddballs of the solar system
Small bodies orbiting the Sun are either comets or asteroids – for many years, this was the official line in textbooks. At the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Goettingen, essica Agarwal is studying “active asteroids”, small solar system bodies that don’t quite fit into the traditional categories.

Biology & Medicine

A grain of brain
Skin cells, liver cells, neural cells – the human body is made up of various different cell types. Hans Schöler and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine in Muenster have successfully turned these specialists back into generalists that are capable of cell division. These are able to produce different types of cells, and to develop into organ-like structures, for example into so-called brain organoids. The scientists use these to study basic processes in the human brain and the formation of diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Environment & Climate

A nose for feelings
Before Jonathan Williams discovered atmospheric chemistry, he had a problem: he was fascinated by so many things that he didn’t know which scientific discipline to devote himself to. Even today, the scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz has varied research interests. In recent years, for example, another new topic has awoken his curiosity – the trace that our emotions leave behind in the air.

Culture & Society

The nature of children’s curiosity
Children explore their environment with all their senses, and their curiosity knows no bounds. From a certain age onwards, they never seem to stop bombarding adults with questions. Many people consider this form of active learning to be ideal. Until now, however, almost nothing has been known about the strategies that children use on their own initiative. At the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Azzurra Ruggeri and her team are developing sophisticated tests in order to understand the way children learn.
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