Reimar Lüst


Reimar Lüst
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Reimar Lüst - From U-Boat engineer to University founder

A portrat by Michael Globig

People don't generally say that they have two dates of birth; however, physicist and science manager Professor Reimar Lüst is one who does. The first date of birth is his real one: 90 years ago, on 25 March 1923, is when he was born in Barmen (now a part of Wuppertal). He mentions his other birthday in the book Der Wissenschaftsmacher, a collection of conversations recorded between historian Paul Nolte and Lüst two years ago: that date is 11 May 1943. That's the day when Lüst, then an engineering officer, was the last man out of a submarine.

The U-boat had been severely damaged by depth charges and artillery fire, and was going to be sunk to prevent it from getting into the hands of the enemy. Lüst swam over to the English frigate that had attacked the sub and was heaved onto the deck – one of 45 crewmembers to be rescued (eleven died). That's why he sees this date as his second birthday.

But the day was to have a significance of another kind for Lüst, a mechanical engineer by background: He was taken into British captivity and later handed over to the Americans. They in turn put him in a prisoner-of-war camp where the inmates – all officers – had set up their own university. Here, the prisoners had the opportunity to listen to lectures given by their fellow prisoners, many of whom had highly specialised backgrounds. It was even possible to sit exams and have them marked. Lüst seized the opportunity and spent four semesters studying theoretical physics and mathematics. He was released from war imprisonment on 25 May 1946, his 23rd birthday. He then took up the studies he had begun in the camp at the University of Frankfurt. The university recognised two of the semesters he had completed in the camp, which enabled him to sit his degree examination as early as the beginning of 1949.

He obtained his PhD in Göttingen in May 1951 under Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who had given him a problem from theoretical astrophysics for his dissertation topic. With his doctorate under his belt, he took up a post at the Max Planck Institute of Physics, which he interrupted in 1955/56 upon receipt of a one-year Fulbright Scholarship for the US and in 1959 when he was given a guest professorship in mathematics in New York. In 1960 he eventually obtained his postdoctoral lecturing qualification for physics at the Universität München. Lüst became a Scientific Member at the Max Planck Institute of Physics and Astrophysics, which had since moved from Göttingen to Munich, and had added a separate department for extraterrestrial physics in 1963, of which he became Director.

An artificial comet's tail

Naturally, there was a back-story to this: Ludwig Biermann, a colleague of Lüst's from his Göttingen days, had discovered in the early 1950s that comets have a tail consisting of ionised particles which are affected and thrown off track by solar corpuscular radiation (the solar wind). He and Lüst discussed how an artificial comet's tail could be created to test the theory. A mixture of barium and copper oxide proved to be particularly suitable as the starting product for the artificial tail: when a chemical reaction was caused between them, the mixture evaporated and left a cloud of ionised barium atoms.

From the early 1960s onwards, barium containers, which had been developed at the institute, were shot up to great heights with the help of French rockets to produce artificial comet tails. These made the solar wind visible and in the Institute's later experiments also interacted with the Earth's magnetic field. From Earth, they were visible as elongated coloured clouds which aligned themselves with the lines of the Earth's magnetic field. These were the successful beginnings of German space research. And they are what led to Lüst acquiring the department mentioned above – his 'little institute', as it was known – which later became the MPI for Extraterrestrial Physics.

So much for Lüst the scientist. Much more multi-faceted is the life of Lüst the science manager. It began in 1961, when a planning committee was convened for the establishment of a European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), which Lüst charged with handling the entire coordination of the scientific programme in Paris. Lüst's policy consisted in giving the ESRO a remit to provide the technical resources only (rockets, satellites, payloads). The experiments done in the satellites, on the other hand, were to be built and supervised by the national institutes. Lüst eventually parted ways with the ESRO in 1964 to put all his efforts into building up his own institute. But he was called back into the world of science policy in 1969: The German Science Council, which at the time dealt mostly with the expansion of universities and the establishment of new ones, elected him chairman – a post he held until 1972.

"The no. 1 of the Scholar Republic"

That year a new challenge came his way: Adolf Butenandt's period of office as President of the Max Planck Society (MPG) was coming to an end after twelve years and a new President had to be elected. In search of a suitable successor, the Senate of the MPG had come across Reimar Lüst in late 1971: he had long since made a name for himself as a coordinator who could balance different interests and as a good organiser. After intensive talks with Werner Heisenberg, Lüst was prepared to put himself up for office. The Senate elected him the new President on 19 November 1971. His term in office, which was to last twelve years, began on 20 June 1972 at the General Meeting of the Max Planck Society in Bremen. He was now, as a newspaper dubbed him, "the no. 1 of the Scholar Republic".

The Max Planck Society was up in arms at the time. A structural committee which had been convened to amend the statutes took the view that the staff of the institutes should not only be in the Senate but that every institute should also be represented by a member in the respective Section – Chemistry, Physics & Technology, Biology & Medicine, and Human Sciences. The biologists rejected the proposal vehemently, the human scientists were a bit more open to the suggestion and the physicists thought it was a good idea. By way of compromise, Lüst recommended giving the staff a say in the Sections, but not the right to vote on appointment matters.

Under Lüst's presidency, the Senate Planning Committee was established – with a mandate to decide on the closure of institutes and the opening of new ones. Among the new institutes that came into being at that time are the Max Planck Institute of Mathematics in Bonn and the MPI for Psycholinguistics in the Dutch town of Nijmegen. One of the institutes that was closed is the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Living Conditions in the Scientific and Technical World, which had been founded in Starnberg at the end of the 1960s at the instigation of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and for which no suitable successor could be found after von Weizsäcker's retirement in the early 1980s. It was particularly painful for Lüst to have to inform his former PhD supervisor of the decision to close the Institute.

"A little sad to have to leave this wonderful office"

Lüst's second term of office as President of the Max Planck Society ended in 1984. At the time he was "a little sad to have to leave this wonderful office". However, a new challenge was just around the corner: he became Director General of ESA (the European Space Agency) in Paris, a post he held for six years and one of the many he was given without ever having applied for the job. It was a time when European space travel was in the ascendant: the Ariane III rocket was successfully launched, putting the Spacelab into orbit and carrying Ulf Merbold as the first astronaut to work in it. And in 1985 the European space probe, Giotto – though planned long before the start of Lüst's time in office – managed to get as close as 600 kilometres to Halley's Comet and take photos of the comet's nucleus. Another of the events that took place while Lüst was in office was the Conference of Ministers in The Hague, where the decision was made that Europe should make its own contribution for inclusion in the International Space Station.

By the time Lüst stopped working for the ESA in 1990, he had long since found something else to keep him busy. He had been appointed President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 1989, one of Germany's most important institutions for the advancement of excellent postdoctoral researchers from abroad up to the age of 40. He held this post for ten years. And after that, it should come as no surprise to hear that a new challenge was already awaiting him: the task of establishing a private university, the International University Bremen (IUB, now Jacobs University). Lüst, who had campaigned for German university reform back when he had been Chairman of the German Science Council, was asked by representatives of the Hanseatic City whether he would be prepared to work with them on the planning of the IUB. He consented, but only on several conditions: the Senate and the townspeople had to be fully behind the project, the IUB had to be a fully-fledged university offering courses of study in the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences, and it had to have a board that elected the university president. Other conditions were that it hold entrance exams and lectures in English and charge tuition fees. When he received confirmation that these conditions would be met, he agreed to take part in the planning.

The IUB was officially founded in February 1999. The office of president was assumed by Fritz Schaumann, formerly undersecretary in the Ministry of Education and Research; Lüst was elected Chairman of the Board of Governors, and remains Honorary Chairman to this day. On the advice of Lüst, the IUB was given two faculties: the School of Engineering and Science and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. September 2001 marked the official inauguration of the IUB, and a third faculty, the Jacobs Center for Lifelong Learning, was added in October 2003.

It's hard to believe that this would be the last challenge Lüst sets himself. The Max Planck Society, in any case, is preparing for further surprises.

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