Humboldtians in Focus

Chemistry Is Our Life

By Kerstin Schweichhart

The main lecture hall at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg is bubbling with excitement. Students are thronging in the corridors and stairways, trying to bag one of the much sought-after seats in the hall. The chant "RUDI, RUDI, RUDI" echoes through the hall. The Magic Show's audience want to see the star – and there are still 90 minutes to go before it starts.

When Rudi van Eldik plays the drums, the sparks fly.
When Rudi van Eldik plays the
drums, the sparks fly. The
chemist was the drummer in a
band at the former Potchefstroom
University in South Africa.

Foto: Marion Wolf

What is drawing the crowds of students at Erlangen into the lecturehall on this Thursday evening is an appetite for “Edutainment”, a concept with which Rudi van Eldik – alias “Magic Rudi” – has attracted both passionate chemists and enthusiastic amateurs to his lecture hall and held them spellbound for the last 15 years. Edutainment: a perfect mixture of education and entertainment, of serious teaching and outright fun, of scientific discipline and artistic perfection. Edutainment, certainly, but on this evening that also means 25 hard-working chemists, 40 perfectly prepared and meticulously conducted experiments, professional lighting and sound technology, sponsors, paramedics and security guards. It is van Eldik’s last Magic Show before he retires in 2010. And it has the same motto he has used to open all his previous shows: “Chemistry is our Life”. A homage to his love of chemistry.

“For every part of the plot the most appropriate experiments have to be shown. The result is a story in which chemistry plays the leading role.”

When van Eldik came to Erlangen in 1994 as Professor of Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry, he took over the Magic Show from his predecessor Klaus Brodersen who had already performed magic for the students of Erlangen on the first Thursday of the semester for almost 25 years. So the Magic Show had already become something of a tradition, but van Eldik wanted more than a bit of magic at the beginning of each semester. He wanted to pass on his enthusiasmfor chemistry to a wider public, wanted to transfer the heat and fire of his experiments to the atmosphere in the lecture hall. He is spectacularly successful at that. When on stage the flames leap up the audience cheers and shouts “EXOTHERM!” But the Magic Show does not just excite the audience. Behind the curtains his lecture also stirs emotions. Van Eldik’s working group spends four weeks a year rehearsing the new programme, and each time there is a new script. They rehearse their roles and dialogues, design the costumes and select the music. Not least of all, the most appropriate experiments have to be shown for every part of the plot. The result is a story in which chemistryplays the leading role: The chemists have already been on a worldtour, journeyed into space and solved a murder mystery called “Alchemy”. Now, in van Eldik’s last Magic Show, they are taking a closer look at his life. In “Chemistry is our Life”, little Rudi lights up Mrs Antje’s paper tulips, a steamer which is supposed to be taking him to South Africa hits an iceberg at the equator and student Rudi lets himself be thrown out of bed by an alarm clock made of detonating gas balloons. As well as the Magic Show for students, there is also an annual Magic Show for school students, and a charity event whose net proceeds totalling 10,000 EUR a year benefit needy children from the region.

“Magic Rudi” and assistant Stephanie Hochreuther send the flames soaring.
“Magic Rudi” and assistant
Stephanie Hochreuther send
the flames soaring.

Foto: Marion Wolf

Team spirit by magic

The team project creates a strong bond amongst the researchers. “We’re like a family. There’s an incredible atmosphere in the team,” says van Eldik. During the year the chemists work on their own projects. Then, once a year for four weeks, everyone has the same goal. “We can afford to do this if we really are at the very cutting edge of research,” says van Eldik, referring to his team’s impressive list of scientific publications. The latest publications are pinned up in the corridor outside his office, right next to the posters advertising the Magic Show. Research and Magic Show are not in competition with each other, they spur each other on. Exhilarated by the successful shows and public applause, the academics then return to their research work, highly motivated.

Van Eldik, who was born in the Netherlands and grew up inSouth Africa, came to Frankfurt as a Humboldt Research Fellowin 1977. No sooner had he arrived in Germany than van Eldik and his young family spent their weekends exploring the Republic,gathering impressions. “We thought we had just this one year in Germany,” says van Eldik, who has now lived in Germanyfor almost 30 years. “The Humboldt Fellowship is a golden opportunityto become more deeply involved in science,forge relationships, and to get to know other people, other worlds,” enthuses the Humboldtian who, without the fellowship, may never have come to Germany. “That time was a real eye-opener to me. My advice to all fellows is to enjoy your stay and to use every opportunity it brings.

A team player retires

After periods working in the USA and South Africa, van Eldik returned to Germany in 1980, first to Frankfurt University and then to the University Witten/Herdecke. In 1994, a large part of his Witten team followed him to Erlangen when he took up his last post – a particular success for the team player whose academicwork focuses on the elucidation of inorganic, bioinorganic and metal-organic reaction mechanisms, as well as the development of high pressure techniques. Having to break up this team in the near future brings a tinge of sadness to the chemist who is to be found in the department from 6 in the morning till 9 at night, five days a week, and also on Saturdays. When they bid him farewell on his retirement in autumn 2010, “his” working group will no longer exist. But van Eldik hopes that the magic will nevertheless live on at the University of Erlangen, just as it now does at numerous schools and other universities, where his enthusiastic audience or team members perform magic for pupils, colleagues or students.

The audience at the Magic Show want to see the star – and there are still 90 minutes to wait.
The audience at the Magic Show
want to see the star – and
there are still 90 minutes to wait.

Foto: Marion Wolf

Van Eldik has mentored numerous Humboldtians at his institute. It has always been a good experience, according to the chemist.Each guest researcher from abroad has enriched his team and his research work. He is happy to be retiring while he is at the highpoint of his career. Receiving the Federal Cross of Merit in April this year was a particular honour, although he does not wish to take all the credit for himself. He owes it in no small measure to the Magic Show, so “it is also in recognition of the team that has shaped the Magic Show over the last 15 years,” he emphasises. And it is with this in mind that “Magic Rudi” ends his last show with a version of Sinatra’s “I did it my way”: with a standing ovation from his students, the Edutainer from Erlangensings “We did it our way."

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Rudi van Eldik Rudi van Eldik
Foto: Marion Wolf

Professor Dr. Rudi van Eldik teaches Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry and has been professor at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg since 1994. In 1977, he went to Frankfurt University as a Humboldt Research Fellow. Since 1980, van Eldik has been living and researching permanently in Germany and has been the academic host to numerous Humboldt Fellows.

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