What did your best professor do so well?

Reinhard Genzel
"Find the best in your field and learn from this person"

Research & Teaching: Professor Genzel, congratulations on the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. How are you - with all the hype about yourself, do you still feel in the middle of a black hole or are you already thinking about everyday life in science?

Reinhard Genzel: In fact, there are still many inquiries and appointments. It can be exhausting at times, but it's also nice to share the joy of research and to be able to explain to people how something like this works.

F&L: ... something like exploring a gigantic black hole in the middle of our galaxy, some 26,000 light years away from us. How did you and radio astronomy come together?

Reinhard Genzel: I am hereditary. My father was also a physicist. Worse still: he was also a Max Planck director. I learned early on what research was and got to know the international part of research life while traveling with my parents. My father was a very good teacher who enjoyed passing things on. I did experiments with him as a young boy and continued to pursue physics in my studies. My father certainly had an influence on the later decision on a branch of research. Solid state physics was his field, "You definitely don't do that, I'm already here", was the announcement (laughs). He drew my attention to a new institute for radio astronomy of the Max Planck Society in Bonn. I went there. After a few years, I had doubts whether it was right for me and considered switching to biochemistry. Ultimately, however, I stayed in astronomy.

F&L: What made the difference?

Reinhard Genzel: I had the opportunity to do research at the Effelsberg radio telescope in the Eifel - one of the largest radio telescopes at that time. At the same time I was able to work with one of the great physicists in the USA: Charly "(Charles) Townes, Nobel laureate in physics from 1964. Together with him I was able to experience the advances in the USA in infrared astronomy, a unique opportunity USA I learned my tools and my style of research.

"Townes led me to experimental astrophysics, which I was able to pursue and even strengthen in Germany."

F&L: What is it, your "style" of research?

Reinhard Genzel: Townes led me to experimental astrophysics, which I was able to pursue and even strengthen in Germany. This means that I think in advance what I want to observe in space and then choose my measuring instruments. Such a planned procedure was untypical in astronomy until then. Rather, the object of observation depended on the measuring instrument used.

F&L: In addition to a Max Planck Institute, you also work at universities with the University of California, Berkeley, and LMU Munich - what are the respective strengths in your opinion and how can universities and non-university students complement each other?

Reinhard Genzel: When it comes to theoretical research and research work with a relatively short training period, I still see the university in first place in the Humboldt tradition as a unit of research and teaching. This is where doctoral students can learn their scientific tools. In fields such as astrophysics, particle physics or space research, however, the development of experiments often takes ten to fifteen years and the costs are correspondingly high. Building the necessary equipment is a very complex task that students and doctoral candidates can "only" participate in. I therefore consider the collaboration between universities and non-university research institutions, for example within the framework of clusters of excellence, to be a very good thing.

F&L: Your personal path seems to be strongly marked by individual people. How important do you think such mentors are for a scientific career?

Reinhard Genzel: I advise every young scientist to look for such mentors. My father was important to me because he not only mastered the subject, but also knew the structures and culture of the Max Planck Society and was able to explain to me how research is carried out there and what the culture of the research institution is like. Without such information, it is much more difficult for young researchers. I regard my second mentor, Charly Townes, like a second father. He died almost six years ago. His family contacted me as soon as they heard about my award and we were happy together. She knows how close Townes and I were. Unfortunately, such connections are becoming increasingly rare in science these days.

F&L: Why do you think so?

Reinhard Genzel: It has something to do with distrust of authority. In the USA I observe a development that almost forbids strong personalities from being too decisive towards a student or a doctoral candidate. The ideal seems to be for a young scientist to reinvent research himself. That can go well, but it is often not the case.

"Thirty years ago there wasn't a single woman in my institute, today it's 35 percent. I'm proud of that."

F&L: Researchers can also be supported here. Many universities are expanding their mentoring offers ...

Reinhard Genzel: That's not what I mean by mentoring. For me, mentoring means: looking for the best in your field, see that you do your apprenticeship with him and learn from this person. He's not always the friendliest person, but you can't ask that of her either. Such a person will tell you what to do or what not to do. Today this is quickly understood as an inadmissible interference in personal life. I understand that something changes culturally because people with power are always in danger of taking advantage of them. However, this will not necessarily be good for research. My principle was: "You can't have everything". Such a thing cannot be reconciled with today's ideal of a work-life balance. The working time that I have put into my research is considerable. It does not help. That all sounds very conservative and I don't mean that it has to be a man who is pursuing these goals. 30 years ago there was not a single woman in my institute; today it is 35 percent. I'm proud of that. I just want to say that nobody just climbs an 8,000 meter mountain. You have to train hard for that.

F&L: Your wife is a professor of paediatrics and worked as a pediatrician. You have two children - how did you organize yourself?

Reinhard Genzel: I have a good relationship with my children, but I've definitely seen them less often than you would ideally imagine ...

F&L: Which professional advice have you not followed in your life and are you happy about it?

Reinhard Genzel: I can't remember such an experience, but I know that when I was in the USA I was left with a bit of a clue when I received the offer from the Max Planck Society to come to Germany full-time. California was great, the university was great, the students were great. I love being in the US and they wanted to hold me. Nevertheless, I decided to switch to the MPG and in the end the decision was the right one, because in the end the opportunities in Germany were significantly better.