Barbara Albert: “An important and great task”

“An important and great task”

Barbara Albert, chemist and rector of the University of Duisburg-Essen, on her first year in office, dealing with a cyberattack and focus topics in the Excellence Competition.  

Professor Albert, you have been Rector of the University of Duisburg-Essen, or UDE for short, since spring 2022. How was your first year in office?
It was exciting and productive, but also challenging. As the University of Duisburg-Essen, we are part of the University Alliance Ruhr and this year we had the chance to establish a new Research Alliance that catapults our research into a new league. At the same time, we have vigorously pursued applications for the Excellence Strategy competition of the federal and state governments, as well as our sustainability initiative and the founding of a new faculty – to name just a few examples. 

With what goal and what topics is your university entering the Excellence Competition?
Together with the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and the Technische Universität Dortmund, we are sharpening our research profile, for example in the field of neuroscience. Traditionally, however, drinking water and freshwater research is also very strong at the University of Duisburg-Essen. With the interdisciplinary Centre for Water and Environmental Research, which has been making a name for itself for twenty years, we have an internationally renowned scientific institution with impact at the UDE. Climate change requires a responsible and flexible approach to water as a resource, and that is why it was important for us to place the topic in the competition for excellence. 

On 27 November 2022, you had only been in office for just over half a year, there was a major cyber attack on your university. What exactly happened back then?
Our IT infrastructure was attacked and data was encrypted. We discovered the attack on a Sunday morning and had to disconnect the entire university from the internet on the same day. We worked for more than three months to rebuild our IT infrastructure. Part of our data was published on the so-called Darknet. 

How did your university react to the attack?
With great commitment from all members and enormous solidarity. Despite the technical difficulties, we were able to go through with the examination phase for the students at the beginning of February with more than one hundred thousand individual examination performances – that was a great achievement. But at the same time, even now, many of us are very stressed and drained, because all the involuntary extra work is getting to you. 

The state government of North Rhine-Westphalia supported your university financially in dealing with the cyber attack. How is the cooperation with politics in general?
There is a strong awareness of the value of science in the state government. However, we need more support very urgently in the building sector. Many of our buildings were built in the 1970s and urgently need to be renovated. Others we want to build from scratch. 

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl


Aerial view of the Essen campus of the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Politicians often associate science funding with the hope of economic benefits. How do you deal with this?
The hope is justified, because money that flows into universities often pays off in economic benefits – especially in the region around a university. And the Ruhr is a region that is willing and able to transform. It rightly sees itself as an innovation region. The starting point for an innovation is the invention, and where does that come from? First and foremost from the universities. The UDE, for example, has been doing hydrogen research for many years, which is in great demand from partners in the economy. In my rectorate team there is Professor Pedro José Marrón, a prorector for transfer, innovation and digitalisation. He takes care of the exchange with partners from business and society and energetically promotes entrepreneurial activities, for example the founding of start-ups, from within our university. 

As a chemist, you have worked on the development of new materials. As a science manager, do you still have time for your own research?
I’m involved in Collaborative Research Centre 1487 “Iron, rethought!” and supervise – on weekends – the completion of individual doctoral theses. Unfortunately, there is not enough time for more. Saying goodbye to individual research was not an easy step, but it was a conscious one. I like being where I am now. Leading the UDE is an important and great task.

Labor im Innsbrucker Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© UDE/Frank Preuß

Dr Daniel Grabner, coordinator in the UDE’s RESIST special research area, checks so-called mesocosm experiments. These replicate artificial mini-ecosystems and are filled with water from the Boye, a tributary of the Emscher. Various stressors are added to the water, i.e. factors that can negatively influence organisms.

You have been a member of the GDNÄ for a good ten years. What does it mean to you?
Professional societies like the GDNÄ play an important role as a contact and interface between science, civil society and politics. Their professionalism gives them credibility and neutrality. The GDNÄ in particular is exciting because of the diversity of disciplines it represents. This fits well with the aspirations of universities, whose special appeal for me is that scientific depth and expert knowledge are institutionally linked with professional diversity and breadth in aspiration. For the future of the GDNÄ and for all other scientific societies, it is important to convince new members of the appeal of scientific societies – also so that they become more international and diverse. To this end, it is necessary to develop formats that appeal to young people as well and that fit today’s times. I attended the 200th anniversary celebration in Leipzig and had the impression that the GDNÄ is on the right track.



Professor Barbara Albert, Rector of the University of Duisburg-Essen.

About the person

Barbara Albert acquired her scientific qualification at the University of Bonn. After studying chemistry, she received her doctorate in 1995 and then spent a year doing research at the Materials Research Laboratory of the University of California, Santa Barbara. She habilitated in 2000. In 2001, Barbara Albert was appointed Professor of Solid State Chemistry/Material Sciences at the University of Hamburg. From there she moved to the Technical University of Darmstadt in 2005, where she researched and taught as Professor of Inorganic Solid State and Structural Chemistry until 2022. From 2020 to 2021, she served as Vice President for Research and Young Scientists at TU Darmstadt. From 2012 to 2013, Barbara Albert was President of the German Chemical Society. She is a member of the supervisory boards of Evonik Industries and the Schunk Group, a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and has received several academic honours. Professor Barbara Albert was elected Rector of the University of Duisburg-Essen in 2021 and took office on 1 April 2022.

Further information:

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker: Cooperation with China is indispensable

„Cooperation with China is indispensable“

Research at the turn of the times: Why the long-standing science manager Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker advises cautious continuity and where he sees new potential. 

Professor Winnacker, for decades you have been committed to the internationalisation of German science. What motivated you to do so and what has been achieved?
Science knows no borders and it hardly thrives in intellectual isolation. One of the last universal geniuses, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, is a good example of this: he was not satisfied with discussions in his hometown of Hanover, but sought competition with European peers throughout his life – for example with Christiaan Huygens in Amsterdam and Isaac Newton in London. Working in such a network is indispensable today. When I took office as DFG President, I therefore made internationalisation a priority. We not only established international Research Training Groups, but also offices in important partner countries such as the USA, Russia, China, Japan and India. In addition, as chairman of EUROHORCS, i.e. the European Union Research Organisations Heads Of Research Councils, I prepared the establishment of a transnational, European research council along the lines of the DFG. The European Research Council, ERC for short, began its work in 2007, and as its first Secretary General I was able to contribute to the growing together of research. 

Today we have a war in Europe, the hostilities between the great powers are increasing, the seemingly unstoppable internationalisation is faltering. Are we witnessing the end of a golden age, also in science?
The post-war period until the early years of the 21st century could perhaps be described as a golden age of science. But with increasing restrictions in a number of countries, this is over. In 2014, for example, Switzerland limited immigration and the free movement of persons, thus breaking its bilateral agreements with the EU. For the ERC, the country is therefore only one partner among many. This was followed in 2020 by Brexit, which made the UK an unassociated third country for the ERC. The number of British and Swiss nationals in EU programmes has fallen drastically in recent years. This is a bitter loss for European research, because both Switzerland and the UK have excellent universities and non-university research institutions. They have been important partners for Germany in particular for decades. 

As DFG President, you opened the Sino-German Science Centre in Beijing in 2000 together with the Chinese partner organisation. It was intended to strengthen cooperation between the two countries in research and teaching. What has become of it?
At that time, we actually built a joint building with the National Natural Science Foundation of China, NSFC for short, in the immediate vicinity of its main building in Beijing. The centre still exists today. In the meantime, cooperation with China has become much more difficult than it was back then. At the time, China was considered a developing country. Today it has become a strategic competitor. Nevertheless, the Sino-German Centre is a success story and I am proud of it. The Centre has brought us intensive scientific contacts and cooperation in this huge country, which is about ten times larger than Russia in terms of population and holds enormous scientific potential. 

A recent study by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University criticises the close cooperation. Its author, Jeffrey Stoff, cites hundreds of publications involving German and Chinese scientists. How do you assess the study?
Fortunately, many joint publications have been produced over the years, most of which were funded by the DFG and the Max Planck Society (MPG). Our two scientific organisations had divided up China’s academic world in the 1990s: The MPG worked mainly with the Chinese Academy of Science CAS, the DFG with the NSFC, and with the individual universities, respectively. The Americans welcomed this kind of cooperation until about 20 years ago. What’s more, they even took us as their role model. I remember a joint appearance with Professor Arden Bement, the former head of the DFG’s partner organisation in the USA, the National Science Foundation, when it opened its own centre in Beijing in 2006. Today, cooperation with China is viewed much more critically in the USA. So it is probably no coincidence that German-Chinese cooperation in science is now being taken to task in such a way at Stanford. 

In the spring of 2022, Federal Minister of Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger called for attentiveness in scientific cooperation with China. A justified appeal?
Yes and no. Some issues, for example in the IT and AI sector, can be solved at national level. Other issues, for example in the field of climate protection or marine research, require intensive, international cooperation – also with China. Because the results of many of these projects can have financial consequences or be of military use, it is important to carefully examine who cooperates with whom and where, and how the results are communicated. The situation is certainly not simple. For example, the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of research plays a central role here, but this is not the case in China. And when head of state Xi Jinping recently called for the fusion of civilian and military research, it must make us think. In my view, clear dual-use projects, whose results can be used both for civilian and military purposes, should take place without the participation of Chinese scientists. Together with the DFG, the Leopoldina has adopted wise recommendations on the subject of dual use. They should make it easier to find the right balance here. 

Around forty thousand Chinese are studying in Germany and many of them are doing their master’s and doctoral theses here. A security risk?
Possibly so. But how can this be checked? It would hardly be practicable for a central body to monitor it. I think it would make more sense to check the theses individually to see if they are sensitive. The responsibility for this should lie in the hands of the project leaders or the review committees.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, research projects with Russia have been put on hold or terminated. What future do the traditional German-Russian academic relations have?
As long as Russia is waging this war, institutional cooperation can no longer take place. The Federal Government has decided on its “Roma locuta – causa finita” here I think that’s right and appropriate.

Institutional cooperation is one thing, personal contacts with colleagues in Russia and China are another. German academics have cultivated such connections for many years. What of this is still welcome today, what is acceptable and what goes too far?
As far as Russia is concerned, I think private scientific contacts are hardly responsible at present, because they can endanger researchers there. However, if such connections are maintained, the institutional sponsors must be informed. Transparency is the be-all and end-all here. China is not currently waging war against a neighbour. However, as already described, we should look closely and not fund some projects. Nevertheless, I consider scientific cooperation with China in particular to be desirable, if not indispensable. After all, the country has excellent universities and research organisations. In the latest Times Higher Education ranking for 2023, Tsinghua and Beijing rank 16th and 17th, while the best German universities, the two Munich universities, follow only in 30th and 33rd place. 

What future do you see for the major international programmes in space, environmental and energy research? Let’s think about the ISS, climate research and basic research in physics.
The programmes should continue, as long as the sanctions allow it. But the constant discussion of differences of opinion, for example on how to deal with minorities such as the Uyghurs, must be part of our scientific profile. We must not rest on these issues when dealing with the Chinese or Russian side.  

How do you assess German foreign science policy as a means of diplomacy?
Foreign science policy always arises when scientists maintain international contacts. These then not only reflect the quality of the respective projects and people, but also testify to the importance of the science systems and institutions from which they come. Often such contacts take place below the radar screens of official institutions, and occasionally they are used when a cooperation is not immediately intended to have an official character. Foreign science policy has always been a major topic, for example when it came to establishing diplomatic relations with Israel at the time.  Three scientists, Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg and Feodor Lynen, who enjoyed the confidence of Chaim Weizmann, travelled to Israel in the 1950s to pave the way for a meeting between Ben Gurion and Konrad Adenauer. Whether there are currently scientists whose reputation is great enough to influence the Russian government together with Russian colleagues, I dare to doubt. In the field of foreign science policy, there is a very nice book entitled “Wettlauf ums Wissen”, edited by Georg Schütte and published in 2008. Perhaps now, after the proclaimed turn of the times, we should consider a new edition of this book or a conference on this topic. 

Which regions of the world should Germany focus more on in the future? Where does potential lie dormant?
In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, India, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Small Singapore has at least two important universities, on the basis of which the city-state was able to become a member of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP). The situation is similar in Japan and South Korea. Japan was the initiator of this programme in the late 1990s, which still exists today and spends around 55 million US dollars annually on cutting-edge science. At the time, Japan did not have a particularly good reputation in science, which has since changed fundamentally. When one thinks of Taiwan, one thinks of the National Taiwan University (NTU), but also of Academia Sinica and the Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Yuan T. Lee, who was President of Academia Sinica until 2006. I met him often in Lindau, and once also visited him in Taipei at the Academia. Stronger scientific cooperation with Taiwan is definitely worthwhile. The DFG has maintained intensive scientific relations with India for decades, especially with the various Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), but also with INSA, the Indian Academy of Sciences, and the International Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) with its two branches in Trieste and in Delhi. During my presidency, a DFG office was even established in Delhi. Cooperation with countries in South America has a long tradition and a promising future, for example in the operation of large telescopes, in environmental sciences and biomedical research. 

What role can the GDNÄ play as a German-speaking scientific society in the modern scientific world?
The GDNÄ must act as a credible mediator of science, today more than ever. Perhaps it should join forces more with other players to this end, for example with the Leopoldina. A good starting point would be engagement with school students. In this area, the GDNÄ has achieved impressive things in the past years.


© Michael Till / LMU

Prof. Dr Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, GDNÄ President in 1999 and 2000.

About the person

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker was born in Frankfurt/Main in 1941. He studied chemistry at the ETH Zurich and received his doctorate there in 1968. Postdoctoral positions followed at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1968 to 1970 and at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (1970-1972). In 1980, Winnacker was appointed Professor of Biochemistry at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich; in 1984, he took over as Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology – Gene Centre at the University of Munich. From 1987 to 1993 Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker was Vice-President and from 1998 to 2006 President of the German Research Foundation. During this time, from 1999 to 2000, he was President of the GDNÄ. From 2007 to 2009 he served as First Secretary General of the European Research Council in Brussels and from 2009 to 2015 as Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program in Strasbourg. He is a member of several scientific academies, including the Leopoldina and the US National Academy of Medicine, and has received numerous honours, including the Grand Cross of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star of the Empire of Japan and the International Science and Technology Cooperation Award of the People’s Republic of China. Winnacker is the author of numerous scientific publications. These include the textbook “Genes and Clones. An Introduction to Genetic Engineering” (1984), the non-fiction books “The Genome”, (1996), “Viruses, the Secret Rulers” (1999) and “My Life with Viruses” (2021).

Further Information:

Student Program: Team portraits now on Instagram

Student Program

Team portraits now on Instagram

New on the GDNÄ’s own Instagram channel @gdnae.society are short video portraits of six student program teams from biology, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, physics and engineering. The young people describe on camera , how they experienced the 200th anniversary of the GDNÄ and what participation in the student program means for their future. On Instagram, the team portraits will be published successively.

The Instagram posts were produced by a young team from Stuttgart Media University. The team includes Gloria Gamarnik, Lena Dagenbach and Maren Krämer, three students from the Crossmedia Editorial/Public Relations program. During the Leipzig anniversary celebration, they provided the Instagram community with up-to-the-minute impressions of the conference events. The focus of the coverage was the GDNÄ’s student program. The GDNÄ Instagram project is led by Dr. Alexander Mäder, science journalist and professor at the Media University.

Nobelpreisträger Paul J. Crutzen

© Webster2703 / Pixabay

School Programme 2022: A brief portrait of all teams

Student Program 2022: Scholarship holders take stock (only in German).
Student Program 2022: Former scholarship holders report back (only in German).
Student Program 2022: The Biology Team introduces itself (only in German).
Student Program 2022: The Chemistry Team introduces itself (only in German).
Student Program 2022: The Mathematics Team introduces itself (only in German).
Student Program 2022: The Medicine Team introduces itself (only in German).
Student Program 2022: The Physics Team introduces itself (only in German).
Student Program 2022: The Technology Team introduces itself (only in German).

Change in the Board

Change in the Board

Heribert Hofer is the new President of the GDNÄ

With the internationally renowned wildlife researcher, a committed promoter of young talent takes over the presidency..

Professor Heribert Hofer, Director of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, has been at the helm of the German Society of Naturalists and Doctors (GDNÄ) since 1 January 2023. The renowned zoologist was elected to the office of President by the General Assembly and The renowned zoologist was elected to the office of President by the General Assembly for the two years 2023 and 2024 and is thus responsible for the scientific organisation of the 133rd GDNÄ Assembly in 2024 in Potsdam. As President, he replaces pharmacologist Professor Martin Lohse, who moves into the office of 1st Vice President for two years. 

Heribert Hofer (62) has headed the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin-Friedrichsfelde since 2000. Until 2017, he was also head of the Department of Evolutionary Ecology at his institute. Since 2000, Hofer has also been Professor of Interdisciplinary Wildlife Research at the Free University of Berlin. Before his time in Berlin, he conducted research at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology in Seewiesen, Bavaria, from 1986 to 1999, initially as a postdoctoral researcher and later as an independent scientist. In 1997, he habilitated at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich with a thesis on the behaviour of spotted hyenas in the Serengeti savannah. Heribert Hofer began his studies in zoology at Saarland University and completed them at Oxford University with a doctorate in “DPhil”. 

The internationally renowned scientist has been closely associated with the GDNÄ for many years. He has been involved in many ways: as an elected subject representative and group chair for the subject of biology, with speeches at meetings and as 2nd vice-president in the preparation of the 200th anniversary celebration in Leipzig. In addition to the dialogue with the public, Heribert Hofer attaches particular importance to the promotion of young talents within the framework of the GDNÄ student programme.

Change in the presidency

Change in the presidency

Looking back, looking forward

Dear members of the GDNÄ,

This year marks the end of my term as President of the GDNÄ. The corona pandemic has forced us to move the meeting originally planned for 2020 in Würzburg first to the following year and finally to merge it with the Leipzig jubilee meeting in September 2022. This has also extended my presidency to an unusual four years.

The first of these years, 2019, served to prepare the conference on the theme of “Images in Science”, to recruit speakers, to design a framework programme. The second year, 2020, took place practically only online after the federal government decided on the lockdown in March. Even after that, meetings in groups were at times forbidden or inadvisable. In March, an expert group consisting of GDNÄ members, state academies and the Ifo Institute produced a statement on how to deal with the Corona pandemic, which differed from the restrictive course of the Leopoldina. Against the background of our now almost two-year pandemic experience, the proposals for a gradual opening are still interesting and up-to-date.

With this statement, we opened our new website at the beginning of April 2020, which became the essential tool for communication for a long time with the help of news, reports, portraits and interviews. Thanks to all who contributed to this, especially to our editor Lilo Berg.

In the third year, 2021, vaccines against the SaRS-CoV2 virus became available – surprisingly quickly. Even if some in the population (and also in the GDNÄ) were sceptical about the injections, looking back as well as looking at China today shows that they played a central role in overcoming the pandemic. But progress was too slow to hold a large meeting, and so the Würzburg meeting planned for September had to be cancelled altogether.

This year, 2022, was marked on the one hand by very high covid case numbers with decreasing disease severity and declining death rates. On the other hand, the crisis of the pandemic was replaced by the crisis caused by the attack on Ukraine. It became clear that we personally and as a society are only partially crisis-proof and resilient – an observation that should concern us. Despite this situation, we have optimistically pursued the production of the commemorative publication “Wenn der Funke überspringt” and the planning of the anniversary conference and have been amply rewarded in both! Take another look back: “Commemorative Publication for the GDNÄ Anniversary” and “200 Years of the GDNÄ – Review of the Anniversary Assembly 2022” .

I am very grateful for the opportunity to run both and I thank everyone who made it all possible: the many excellent speakers who gave insights into their research, the lecturers who set the student programme on a good path, the board council and the staff of the office as well as the team around our local partner Jörg Junhold from Leipzig Zoo. I would also like to thank everyone who contributed to the commemorative publication, the authors, Lilo Berg for editing and Thomas Liebscher from Passage-Verlag for the design. Without financial support, the conference, the student programme and the commemorative publication would not have been possible: I would like to thank the Wilhelm and Else Heraeus Foundation, the Bayer Foundation, the AKB Foundation and the Klaus Tschira Foundation.

Martin Lohse 2022 © MIKA-fotografie | Berlin

© MIKA-fotografie | Berlin

Pharmacologist Professor Martin Lohse was GDNÄ President from 2019 to 2022. He moves to the office of 1st Vice President on 1 January 2023.

Now the focus is on the future. At the General Assembly in Leipzig, Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, Chairwoman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), was elected to the office of 2nd Vice-President; she will assume the Presidency in 2025. In accordance with the statutes, Heribert Hofer, Director of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, will take over as President in 2023/24. I would like to welcome both of them in their new roles and wish them all the best for their tasks. Michael Dröscher will continue as Treasurer and Secretary General; I myself will take on the role of 1st Vice President.

This year, for the first time, we held the election of the professional representatives electronically. Marion Merklein (Erlangen-Nuremberg) was elected for the engineering sciences, Uwe Hartmann (Saarbrücken) for physics/geology and Peter Liggesmeyer (Kaiserslautern) for mathematics/computer science. I warmly welcome all those who will be newly involved in the GDNÄ.

There is much to do to prepare the next assembly in 2024 in Potsdam and to make the GDNÄ fit for the future. The involvement of young people has proven its worth, especially within the framework of the student programme. And as announced most recently at the award of the Lorenz Oken Medal to Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim in October, we want to further expand the dialogue with society.

I have experienced the GDNÄ as a vital society with many energetic members and am grateful for having been able to accompany it on its way into its third century. It has been a rich time!

I send you my warmest greetings and wish you and yours all the best for the New Year.


Lennart Resch

Martin Lohse, Präsident der GDNÄ

Nobelpreisträger Paul J. Crutzen

© MIKA-fotografie | Berlin

Zoologist Professor Heribert Hofer was Vice President from 2021 to 2022. He took over the GDNÄ Presidency on 1 January 2023.

Prof. Dr. Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla © DLR


The engineer Professorin Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla will take office as 2nd Vice-President of the GDNÄ on 1 January 2023.

Rainer Blatt: Quantum technology is developing at a rapid pace

“Quantum technology is developing at a rapid pace”

For his achievements in the field of quantum physics, Anton Zeilinger will receive the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics. In this interview, Professor Rainer Blatt describes how Austria became a hotspot for this field of research and how Germany is now trying to catch up. Rainer Blatt is known to many GDNÄ members through his lectures and publications He is known to many GDNÄ members through his lectures and publications and has worked closely with Anton Zeilinger for a long time. 

Professor Blatt, how many interviews have you given since the beginning of October?
It must have been five or six. The requests came from national and international news agencies and newspapers. 

What were the interviews about?
The occasion was, of course, the Nobel Prize for quantum research, which was awarded to my colleague Anton Zeilinger together with the Frenchman Alain Aspect and the American John Clauser. The spectrum of topics ranged from questions of basic research to my connection with Anton Zeilinger. 

We are also interested in this: How long have you known Anton Zeilinger and what is the connection between the two of you?
We have known each other for 35 years and started working together soon after I arrived at the University of Innsbruck in 1995. We are connected by quantum physics research, whereby our approaches differ but complement each other well. Anton Zeilinger is dedicated to the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and works with photons, while I specialise in atoms and ions and focus more on applications. Together with Peter Zoller and other colleagues, we founded the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information, or IQOQI for short, in Innsbruck in 2003. Our model was the famous JILA, an institute for atomic physics and astrophysics in Boulder, Colorado. Peter Zoller and I had spent wonderful research stays there. Back in Austria, we were able to convince the local Academy of Sciences to set up a similar institution in our country. In the meantime, the IQOQI has developed into a beacon of research, and that can be said without exaggeration.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

Exclusive location in the Tyrolean Alps: the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI).

How can we imagine the institute?
We work at two locations: Here in Innsbruck, more than 200 scientists from over 20 countries are now conducting research; the team around the director Markus Aspelmeyer in Vienna is similarly large and international. Despite different research foci, we work closely together, and our working groups meet regularly to exchange ideas. In the first few years I led the institute as founding director, since then I have acted as scientific director. 

So, could the IQOQI be described as a nucleus for the Nobel Prize in Quantum Physics in 2022?
Absolutely. Although much of the work honoured with the prize was done before the institute was founded, the IQOQI has greatly promoted the visibility of quantum physics in Austria. 

What significance does the award have for your field in Austria?
The Nobel Prize is also a recognition of the immense development work of the last 25 years. It has led to the creation of a critical mass in quantum information in this country. With its per capita expenditure in this field, Austria is the world leader. Our funding agencies, first and foremost the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, have ensured this – we owe them our very special thanks. 

What about the practical application of the research results, for example in the field of quantum computing?
There are first prototypes that can calculate with a few tens of quantum bits, so-called qubits. That’s a lot, considering that a quantum computer can in principle achieve the performance of a current supercomputer with just fifty qubits. The prerequisite, however, is that the quantum calculations can be continued indefinitely and that no errors occur in the process. We are still a long way from that, but intensive work is currently being done worldwide on error correction and scalability. In general, the field is developing rapidly, the potential is extremely large and many young people with fresh ideas are joining the field.

Labor im Innsbrucker Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

View into a laboratory at the Innsbruck Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information.

It is often said that quantum computers with gigantic computing power will soon replace classical computers altogether. Is that how you see it?
No, because quantum computers are particularly well suited for solving special problems, for example for calculating the quantum properties of materials, which is very important in chemistry and for which about half of the world’s computing power is used today. Classical computers need much more storage capacity for such operations than quantum computers. Incidentally, as early as the 1980s, the US Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman pointed out that it makes much more sense to use computers for such tasks that calculate with quantum properties and thus automatically take quantum behaviour into account than to programme this in a complicated way on a classical computer. Classical computers will continue to perform standard calculations and routine work and have their justification, for example, when it comes to Big Data applications, such as in climate research. Here, the rules of classical mechanics apply; this is not the terrain of quantum computers. 

The German government is funding the development of quantum computers “Made in Germany” to the tune of two billion euros. Bavaria added another 300 million euros and launched the ambitious project “Munich Quantum Valley” at the beginning of 2022, in which you are also involved. What is happening there right now?
The Munich Quantum Valley is about developing and operating quantum technology as a whole and competitive quantum computers in Bavaria. The two Munich universities and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg are participating, as well as the Max Planck Society, the Fraunhofer Society, the German Aerospace Centre and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. Munich Quantum Valley, with its 350 employees, is where all the threads come together. We are currently building quantum computers on three different platforms. The project is already setting international standards. As an advisor and coordinator, I now devote half of my working time to it. 

Munich Quantum Valley has set out to inform the public about current topics in quantum research. Is that a good idea?
I think it’s extremely important. The scientific work and the researchers are paid by society, the research environment is provided by it – so we also have a duty to explain what we are doing and for what. 

How do you go about doing this? Quantum physics is not exactly easy fare.
I take people seriously and try to meet them where they are. What I say doesn’t have to sound scientific. It should get to the heart of things as simply as possible, but it must not be wrong. I like to use images, analogies and examples. And sometimes I quote my mother with one of her favourite phrases: “Nothing comes from nothing”. That brings us right to the heart of physics and quickly to my topics.

Rainer Blatt, Professor für Experimentalphysik an der Universität Innsbruck. © C. Lackner

© C. Lackner

Rainer Blatt, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Innsbruck.

About the person

Rainer Blatt has been Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Innsbruck since 1995 and Scientific Director at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information of the Austrian Academy of Sciences since 2003. Born in Idar-Oberstein in 1952, the researcher studied mathematics and physics in Mainz. His academic career then took him to Berlin, Hamburg and Göttingen. Formative for his work were research stays at the Joint Institute of Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder/Colorado with John L. Hall, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005.

Professor Blatt has received many awards for his achievements in the field of quantum physics, including the International Quantum Communication Award in 2016 and, together with Anton Zeilinger and Peter Zoller, the prize of the Chinese Micius Quantum Foundation in 2019. Since 2021, in addition to his work in Innsbruck, the German-Austrian has coordinated Munich Quantum Valley, an initiative to expand quantum science in Bavaria. In 2021, Rainer Blatt was also appointed honorary professor at the Technical University of Munich as well as an external member of the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching near Munich. Professor Blatt has been associated with the GDNÄ for years as a guest speaker and author.

For further reading

For the commemorative publication on the 200th anniversary of the GDNÄ, Rainer Blatt wrote an article on quantum computers (Mit Quanten muss man rechnen). In it, the Innsbruck physics professor describes the current state of research and presents the work of his team at the University of Innsbruck.

>> „Mit Quanten muss man rechnen“ from the anniversary publication of the GDNÄ (PDF, German only)

At the 130th GDNÄ conferende in Saarbrücken 2018, Professor Blatt gave a lecture on “Quantum Physics – Arithmetic with Quantum Physics”:

>> to the lecture of Professor Blatt (German only)

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