A sure hand at the scientific helm

Reimar Lüst, former President of the Max Planck Society and pioneer of European space research, has died

He was the youngest President in the history of the Max Planck Society, at a time of social and political upheaval. Nevertheless, Reimar Lüst succeeded in mastering these challenges with sustained effect. Many of the structures and instruments introduced by him during his term of office from 1972 to 1984 still characterize the Max Planck Society to this day. Moreover, for many years Reimar Lüst was one of the most versatile drivers of German and European science policy. He died on March 31, 2020 at the age of 97. Max Planck President, Martin Stratmann described Lüst as an outstanding scientist and gifted science organizer, without whom the modern Max Planck Society would be inconceivable.

Reimar Lüst is regularly quoted as saying that the office of Max Planck President is the finest that our country has to offer in the area of science - even though, by the time he took up his post in 1972, the Max Planck Society’s golden age of growth was at an end. His greatest challenge was to guarantee and extend the future of the Max Planck Society despite a budget that in effect remained stagnant.

During his term of office, according to his own reports, Lüst was forced to close 20 independent departments, research units and Institutes – a lengthy process which would take time before finally yielding fresh scope for development. As a result, however, he was able to establish in long term 12 new Institutes dedicated to, for example, meteorology, neurology and the study of societies, while others were reoriented or amalgamated. He also introduced fixed-term project groups, some of which served as the forerunners for subsequent Max Planck Institutes.

Where means were lacking to address innovative topics independently, under Reimar Lüst’s aegis the Max Planck Society increasingly involved itself in major national and above all international research institutions and projects, such as the Berlin Electron Storage Ring Society for Synchrotron Radiation (BESSY), the German-French Institut de radioastronomie millimétrique (IRAM) and the Joint European Torus (JET) project in Great Britain. Overall, Reimar Lüst substantially developed the international activities of the Max Planck Society. Perhaps the most long-lasting was his decision to reach out to China: The contacts he established as long ago as 1974 between the Max Planck Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences provided the basis for scientific cooperation, which remains fruitful to this day.

Within the Max Planck Society, too, Reimar Lüst established structures that have endured. Whereas the universities, following the upheavals of 1968, found themselves engulfed in turbulence, Reimar Lüst succeeded, in a relatively short time, in democratizing the Max Planck Society – even in the face of some resistance from within his own ranks – and upholding the Harnack principle. He initiated reforms to the Statutes which still characterize the Max Planck Society to this day. It is thanks to him that scientific staff have since been represented by elected delegates appointed to important governing bodies of the Max Planck Society. Lüst also introduced Boards of Directors at the Institutes, while limiting the management function of Directors to seven years, with any extension to be decided on by the Executive Committee. In addition, he laid the foundations for the system of Scientific Advisory Boards, thereby enabling the Institutes to be evaluated by external experts.

In his relations with politicians, Lüst vehemently defended the elitist stance of the Max Planck Society, as well as the self-management of science. Eckhard Henning, former Director of the Max Planck Archive, recalled that Lüst had a motto which reflected his former role as a naval officer: “Hold your course, hoist a flag, and if need be, give them a shot across their bows.”

His time in the German navy had a lasting effect on Reimar Lüst. He joined at the age of 17; in March 1943 he was appointed as engineering officer in a U-boat which just a few weeks later came under heavy fire. In order to escape, the U-boat dived to a depth of more than 200 metres – far deeper than it was designed to go. The very fact that it returned to the surface borders on a miracle. Most of the crew were rescued by the British navy. Lüst described the day of these dramatic events, 11 May 1943, as his “second birthday”. It is quite possible that his doggedness, but also the relaxed optimism with which he consistently overcame challenges, were the result of this experience.

As a prisoner of war in America, Lüst began to study physics and mathematics at a camp university. Back in Germany, he graduated in 1949 and applied to study for a doctorate under Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker – with success. There, Lüst encountered what would subsequently be the focus of his scientific interest: astrophysics. By 1951 he had completed his doctorate, and after research residencies in the USA, he qualified as a professor in 1960 at the University of Munich.

In the same year he was appointed by the Max Planck Society as a Scientific Member of the then Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics in Munich. He rapidly made a name for himself in science, for example by succeeding in measuring the solar wind with the aid of artificial comets comprised of barium atoms.  This branch of research led shortly afterwards to the creation of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, with Reimar Lüst as Founding Director. However, his commitment to the scientific aspects of space travel extended far beyond the Institute. In the early years of the newly established European Space Research Organisation, he was appointed as Scientific Director and subsequently became Vice President. From the end of the 1960s, he began to amass experience of science management and policy in the role of Chairman of the German Science Council - experience which he was able to profitably apply and expand in his time as Max Planck President.

After two terms of office at the Max Planck Society, Lüst continued his involvement in science policy. As Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), he established the then still young organisation as an internationally renowned partner in space travel. In 1989 Lüst became President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and in the following 10 years developed relations with scientists in Africa, Eastern Europe and the territories of the former Soviet Union. Even at the age of 76, Reimar Lüst had no thoughts of retirement. Instead he contributed his experience and contacts as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the newly founded International University Bremen, now Jacobs University.

In recent years Reimar Lüst remained exceptionally active. Aged over 90, he regularly worked in his office at the MPI for Meteorology, attended events and gave lectures. He also took part in Max Planck Society Senate and Section meetings and contributed his experience.

Biographical notes

Reimar Lüst was born on 25 March 1923 in Wuppertal-Barmen. Following his release from captivity as a prisoner of war, in 1949 he took a degree in physics at the University of Frankfurt am Main. In 1951 he was awarded a doctorate at the University of Göttingen, after which he worked as a researcher at the Universities of Chicago and Princeton. Lüst qualified as a professor of physics at the University of Munich in 1960, and in the same year he was appointed as a Scientific Member of the MPI for Physics and Astrophysics in Munich. In 1963 he accepted an appointment as Director at the newly established MPI for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, near Munich. Reimar Lüst received many awards for his achievements, among them the Grand Cross with Star and Sash of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the title of Officer of the French Legion of Honour, as well as numerous honorary doctorates and professorships. There is even an asteroid that bears his name. 


Reimar Lüst was married in second marriage to Nina Grunenberg-Lüst, who died in 2017. He had two sons by his first marriage to Rhea Lüst.

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