MaxPlanckResearch science magazine
Learning, i.e. the acquisition of skills, follows complex rules and principles - whether in humans, animals, or the world of computers. In any case, the learning of living creatures requires mental peak performance – be it in language acquisition in childhood, or when birds learn to sing. Machine learning, on the other hand, requires sophisticated algorithms and large data sets so that a computer can interpret human eye movements, for example. Researchers of the Max Planck Society are working on all these topics.
For 70 years, the German Basic Law has safeguarded fundamental rights and freedoms. Academic freedom is essential for science. One aspect of this issue of our magazine is how such freedom has developed over the centuries. But freedom is also the subject of research itself. Researchers are investigating the state of judicial independence and how people experienced the transition from the GDR to the liberal Western system.
What does the energy of the future look like? This question is the focus of this edition of our science magazine. With nuclear fusion, Max Planck researchers are breaking new ground in producing large quantities of electricity in a way that conserves resources. Fundamental physical and technical problems, however, are still open. Scientists are also working on suitable storage facilities for wind and solar power. And they are looking for catalysts and production processes to harness carbon dioxide.
The European Union is currently experiencing several crises. Brexit is only one of them and probably not even the most serious one. Max Planck researchers are almost more concerned about the diverging views of the rule of law and the massive structural inequalities between the EU members. A look at the history of the international community, however, also shows that Europe has mastered many serious crises in the past – from which we can gain insights into the current situation.
The digitalization of our society is advancing at an ever faster pace – a development that necessitates completely new security strategies. These are also a challenge for research: How can fake news in social media be effectively combated? How can we ensure that robot carers equipped with artificial intelligence act in the spirit of the inventor? And what about the pictures of us that appear on Facebook? Max Planck scientists are looking for solutions to all these problems.
The question of the origins of life still remains an open problem. Various groups at Max Planck Institutes are investigating this genuinely existential question. Some scientists, for example, suspect that the building blocks for organisms have literally fallen from the sky. Other researchers are also focusing on the role played by RNA molecules in the development of life, as well as the problem of the first cells – and experts in the lab are investigating the dynamics of biomembranes.
About 40 percent of all species on earth live parasitically. Even in our genome, countless small sections multiply at its expense. Max Planck researchers are investigating how these 'DNA parasites' work, as well as the various tricks used by sticklebacks and their parasites. In addition, the scientists are studying small threadworms which live in the intestines of humans and animals and have a unique life cycle.
Migration is currently one of the most relevant socio-political issues. When people are fleeing unbearable conditions in their home country, or seek to improve the circumstances of their lives, specific rules apply. Max Planck scientists investigate the needs and goals of refugees and examine how they can successfully settle into their new lives. The researchers also analyze the exclusion of migrants and explore under which conditions different cultures can live together peacefully.
Medical practitioners want safe diagnoses and drugs with as few side effects as possible. To this end, Max Planck researchers are seeking to identify substances in nature that could benefit humans. In addition, they are expanding proteins into sophisticated transporters in the field of nanomedicine. What is more, our scientists want to use positron emission tomography, widely used in cancer diagnostics, for other diseases as well, with the help of appropriate tracer substances.
We live in the Information Age. The amount of data flowing through networks is increasing exponentially. Structuring and using this big data, as experts refer to it, in a meaningful way is becoming more and more challenging. New technologies are needed to manage the torrent. Max Planck researchers, for example, are searching for astronomical objects with special software, as well as seeking unexpected correlations and questions, or looking into the scientific history of huge quantities of data.
On a clear night, the starry sky appears calm and peaceful. In reality, however, all hell breaks loose in the heavens: stars absorb matter from other stars, suns explode and black holes greedily devour gas and dust. In short, there are a lot of extreme places in the universe – and they hold particular appeal for researchers. Max Planck astronomers investigate supernovas, study the properties of black holes and conduct research on what causes particles to accelerate.
Sleep is a basic need and essential for learning and memory function. Our internal body clocks control the day-night rhythm, influencing the desire for rest – in humans as well as in many animals. Max Planck researchers investigate these organic clocks and other related aspects. For example, they study frigate birds that slumber during flight or the link between sleep disorders and depression.
It’s found in the basic building blocks of matter and in the vast expanses of the universe, in flowers, in butterflies and in our own bodies: symmetry is deeply embedded in nature. Perfect symmetry, however, is rare, and it is often precisely the little differences that offer the key advantage for our existence. To understand this phenomenon, researchers are studying such topics as antimatter, the human brain, or the development of flatworms.
Language is the most important form of communication. But how has this instrument evolved in the course of evolution? And what is happening in our brains when we are having a conversation with someone? Language proves to be extraordinarily complex. And as our articles show, the topic is not only interesting for classical linguists and computer scientists, but also for psychologists and behavioural scientists.
Robots are the superstars of the future. They are to drive cars, administer care to people in hospitals and homes, save lives after catastrophes, or perform medical tasks as tiny helpers in the body. Max Planck researchers are working hard to ensure that these scenarios become a reality one day. But at first, they have to overcome many challenges.
If polls are to be believed, a quarter of all Germans listen to one hour of music a day. Max Planck researchers carry out extensive research into the subject of music. They look into the origins of musical preferences and their changes, investigate the changing emotions and moods in the musical life of Europe, and experiment with powerful machines which produce sounds.
Virtually all organisms and living beings have to submit themselves to the natural aging process. But how does this process work? The Max Planck researchers whose work we report investigate fish or a freshwater polyp which have almost attained immortality. And they grapple with the social consequences of age in humans - when it comes to retirement after an active working life.
Light is the elixir of life, inspiration for artists and an indispensable tool in science and technology. Reason enough for UNESCO to proclaim 2015 as the International Year of Light. And a good opportunity to dedicate the focus of our magazine to this topic: discover how Max Planck scientists work with optical tweezers, film the movements of electrons, or analyse the painting by Caravaggio.
Magnetic fields are ubiquitous in the literal sense: they exist around planets, traverse our Milky Way and distant galaxies, and are not only present in galactic gas, but can also be found in the suns that evolve from such gas. Magnetars, for example, neutron stars that are only about 20 kilometers in diameter, have the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. Max Planck researchers learn a lot about the nature of the heavenly bodies by studying the cosmic phenomenon.
The discovery of light-sensitive channel proteins in the 1970s and 1980s hardly made a splash outside the scientific community. Initially, no one suspected that these ion channels would become a popular tool for neurobiologists. Today, neuroscientists can use tailor-made proteins to switch individual neurons on and off. This does not only make it possible to investigate the function of neurons in the brain, but also offers promising applications in medicine.
Conflicts divide and cause injury. They are omnipresent, in our personal environment and in society alike, at the national level no less than in the international context. At the same time, conflicts are a fertile field of study for researchers from various disciplines, such as social anthropologists or researchers of law or human development. They consider the issue in all of its facets and from different perspectives.
Our daily life is increasingly dominated by computers - whether we like it or not. This digital network is both a blessing and a curse. The vast amounts of personal data we leave behind can easily get into the wrong hands. Max Planck researchers are now working on developing a "protective cover". They also use sophisticated computer technology to communicate with immobilized patients and work on absolutely reliable security systems, for example, for cars.
Tomorrow's electronics are diverse. Above all, they take place on the smallest scale. On the nanometre scale, researchers today are already juggling the most varied ingredients: various organic substances on a molecular level or graphene which shows unusual mechanical or electronic characteristics. In the quantum world, scientists encounter superconducting structures & investigate the basic principles of so-called spintronics.
Children have to learn a lot: how to talk, read, and write, but also social skills such as compassion and empathy or the ability to control impulses. Some traits, such as the willingness to help others, appear innate. Anthropologists, educational researchers and neuroscientists are investigating how the social behaviour of children changes over the course of time and which brain areas play a role in this.
Earth is a perfect ecosystem and the best place for life which we know in the universe. The complex interaction between the elements earth, water and air – land masses, oceans, and atmosphere – is finely balanced and functions smoothly. But this fragile interplay can easily go wrong. Researchers are gradually puzzling out the factors throwing our intertwined earth out of balance.
The cosmos of the brain is in a constant state of change. Useless connections are cut and new ones are formed to keep the brain flexible and adapt to the constantly changing requirements. Scientists use sophisticated techniques to visualize the brain’s circuit diagrams. Diffusion tensor imaging, for instance, shows the complex patterns of nerve fibers.
“Those in the darkness you don’t see.” Modern cosmology lends thisline from “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera an unexpected currency: the universe lies largely in darkness. This doesn’t refer to the fact that the night sky is black, but rather that dark energy and dark matter – two previously completely unknown substances – account for 96 percent of the total cosmic mass.
The only constant thing is change - this statement by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus is even more true for today's society. The fact that our society is getting increasingly older, for example, transforms our lives in every aspect. New findings from happiness research and political sciences will also play a decisive role in the future.
Whether in the water, in the air or on land: life is diverse. This is not only true for the global diversity of species, but also for the genetic variation among species, or the broad variety of different kinds of ecosystems. In the current MaxPlanckResearch magazine, researchers provide insights into this kaleidoscope of variation.
Discovering new, renewable energy sources while simultaneously protecting the environment – these are some of the challenging goals that scientists have in their sights on. Max Planck researchers are currently working on methods that would allow us one day to use the vast quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere or wood chips, which are generated as a by-product of the timber industry, as chemical raw materials.
If dissimilar couples enter into a union for life, the relationship doesn't necessarily have to fail. On the contrary: such partnerships have decisively shaped the evolution of our planet. Max Planck researchers examine symbioses in animals & plants - discovering fascinating details. Bacteria, for example, produce protective antibiotics for insect larvae or help deep sea muscle in the provision of energy.
Every fifth German has a migration background - that corresponds to more than 16 million people. Not only politicians and authorities must respond to this demographic trend. Researchers also increasingly turn their attention to the subject of migration. In this issue of our research magazine, Max Planck scientists examine the topic from three different angles.
In the future, will we transport computer chips on banknotes, roll up our monitors before putting them into our pockets, and store and access ever larger volumes of data on our PCs in a very fast and easy manner? Max Planck researchers are working on "organic electronics" and nano storage units in order to ensure that such scenarios eventually become part of our everyday lives.
India is currently experiencing an "economic miracle" and one of the most important growth markets worldwide. And it is also developing into a hub for research of the highest international calibre. All this is reason enough for Max Planck scientists to collaborate with Indian colleagues – or to turn the subcontinent itself into the object of their research.
If you want to reach a specific destination, you need detailed information about your environment. To this end, both humans and animals use various strategies. Max Planck researchers have now attempted to unravel the secrets of orientation by means of sophisticated experiments.
Newtonian physics is completely sufficient for everyday use: it explains why a ripe apple hanging on a tree falls off onto someone's head, helps us avoid an accelerating car, and describes the trajectory of a banana shot. But Newton's formulas aren't even half the truth of physics. For very small-scale objects, quantum physics applies, which contradicts our everyday experience with mysterious phenomena - with quantum acceleration, spooky action at a distance, and compass needles that point both north and south at the same time.