Humboldtians in Focus

The Big Questions

By Kilian Kirchgeßner

What drives researchers and what they are currently working on: we looked over their shoulders – and found some surprising answers.

Why is Aachen better than New York?

David DiVincenzo
David DiVincenzo
Photo: Thomas Meyer / Ostkreuz 

There’s this line David DiVincenzo still gets from friends: “Hey David”, they say, “we hear you’re in Germany on sabbatical!” No, he then patiently explains: he’s not just in Aachen for a short break, he’s here for his research – and more to the point, he’s here permanently. He has left New York City and works here now, researching the future of computers. DiVincenzo was one of the first physicists to become involved in quantum information science back in the 1980s; in Germany he is now putting together a top team of high-profile experts in the field. Their aim is to build a quantum computer – a computer based on an entirely different functional principle than that of today’s computers. It would allow calculations that are so complex that no previous computer has been able to handle them. And why in Aachen, of all places? “Conditions for basic research are ideal here,” he says; both the university and the nearby Forschungszentrum Jülich are excellently equipped – and his family with its European roots loves being in good old Europe. Finally, DiVincenzo does permit himself a little smile when he compares New York and Aachen. “It’s not as if I used to live at Times Square in New York either,” he says then. He doesn’t feel he’s missing out on anything at all in Aachen – “but sometimes I think: that cosmopolitan feeling, you do get a bit more of that in New York!”

  • Prof. Dr. David DiVincenzo is regarded as a pioneer of quantum computers. These high-tech devices, which are currently still in the development phase, are expected to be significantly more powerful than conventional computers. DiVincenzo was appointed to RWTH Aachen University as a Humboldt Professor, and also works at Forschungszentrum Jülich. He previously conducted research for computer manufacturer IBM in a New York development laboratory.

Can Web 2.0 change Russian politics?

Anna Litvinenko
Anna Litvinenko
Photo: Thomas Meyer / Ostkreuz 

One of her favourite words is »blogosphere«, a term for the Internet-based microcosm that young people have made their own. “New media play a far greater role in Russia than in Germany,” says Anna Litvinenko. Many Russians, she explains, sidestep the widely distrusted traditional media in favour of blogs, online newspapers and social networks, where they take the powerful and their machinations to task. Examples include the well-known lawyer who reports openly on corruption and the online newspaper where experienced journalists can write more freely than anywhere else. Added to these are countless blogs and protest groups that have formed on the Internet. But – does all this really change anything? Gradually, yes, Litvinenko believes: “Of course, society first has to be ready for open debate.” This coming of age is currently taking place, she says. And the Russian culture of criticism on Web 2.0 is already yielding its first results: according to Litvinenko, politicians are, for example, becoming less self-aggrandising in public – for fear that revealing amateur videos might find their way onto the Internet.

  • Dr. Anna Litvinenko heads the German-Russian Journalism Centre at Saint Petersburg State University and is currently conducting research at the Institute for Media and Communication Studies at Freie Universität Berlin on a German Chancellor Fellowship. Her subject there is “Media and politics in modern Germany: media democracy in the age of the Internet”.

Why did you shed tears at the dawn of the Arab Spring?

Wessam Farag Alieldin
Wessam Farag Alieldin
Photo: Thomas Meyer / Ostkreuz 

“In my discipline, I normally only consider what is over and finished,” says historian Wessam Farag Alieldin. “I never thought that I would someday experience for myself the moment when history is made.” His speciality are the Arab countries; he knows about all the fruitless attempts by the population to change their circumstances over previous decades. When the powerful wave of revolution recently washed over his Egyptian homeland, he was in his living room weeping for joy. “I know many of those involved. It was, after all, the students who were behind the revolution, the young generation who I encounter in the lecture halls and who had no prospects after graduation.” The revolution has also given Farag new impetus for his work: he conducts research into the Islamic powers in the Middle East whose methods and significance are currently changing fundamentally. The Arab Spring has provided impressive proof of this hypothesis: the movement originated in the middle classes – and not among religious zealots.

  • Prof. Dr. Wessam Farag Alieldin teaches at Mansoura University in Egypt. As a Humboldt Fellow, the historian regularly comes to Germany, where he conducts research at the Centre for Religion and Society at the University of Bonn. An important factor driving his work is the will to reconciliation: he believes that intellectuals from the Arab countries should work towards “reasonable and forward-looking transformation” in the region.

How did you become a fan of bacteria?

Samina Mehnaz
Samina Mehnaz
Photo: Thomas Meyer / Ostkreuz 

When Samina Mehnaz entered the world of bacteria, she was actually on the trail of a harmful fungus: a fungus that attacks entire sugarcane plantations and causes the plants to dry out from the inside. How can we protect these plants? The biologist assumed the answer lay with bacteria. “I examined which bacteria are found around sugarcane. Then I isolated the different species.” Her idea was that all bacteria produce substances that are either harmful or beneficial to their environment. Mehnaz is certain that one of these substances will prove to be the right weapon against the mysterious fungus. At the University of Bonn, she is currently working to identify and characterise this substance – and she is on the right track. If the process succeeds, it could make the agricultural use of tonnes of fungicides unnecessary. Sugarcane is grown in over 100 countries; there are 60 known plant diseases that befall the plantations especially frequently. 40 of them, according to Mehnaz, are fungal. Through her research, Samina Mehnaz has become a fan of bacteria: “What is so amazing about them is that they already produce all the necessary chemical substances,” she says. “All we have to do is identify the right substance and, if necessary, increase the amount, then we can solve a lot of problems.”

  • Prof. Dr. Samina Mehnaz is a microbiologist. Following stays in Canada, the USA, Belgium, and at her home university in Lahore, Pakistan, an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship has brought her to the University of Bonn, where she works at the Institute of Pharmaceutical Biology.

Is wood the crude oil of tomorrow?

Roberto Rinaldi
Roberto Rinaldi
Photo: Thomas Meyer / Ostkreuz 

When he sits in front of an open fireplace, Roberto Rinaldi only manages to enjoy the romantic atmosphere for a few moments. “But then I always think: actually, the wood could be used far more efficiently than by simply burning it like this.” That is what he is working on in his laboratory: transforming wood into fuel that is more efficient than today’s biodiesel, for example. Rinaldi has developed catalytic processes that isolate lignin, one of the main components of wood, which can then be processed further. This procedure forms the basis for transforming the bulky combustible material of wood into fluid fuel. Very soon, when crude oil becomes scarce, that could become a key technology – especially because Roberto Rinaldi works with scrap wood. “We use organic waste that would otherwise be thrown away,” he says. “Our processes would even work with straw or other agricultural by-products.” Then it would no longer be necessary to grow special energy plants such as canola, which take up space on fields that could be used for food crops. He is aware of the political importance of his big topic: many industrialised countries hope to cover a significant part of their fuel consumption through biomass in the next decades.

  • Dr. Roberto Rinaldi heads a ten-strong working group at the Mülheim Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung that works on the procedure known as heterogeneous catalysis. The chemist from Brazil has received the Humboldt Foundation’s Sofja Kovalevskaja Award for his research.

What does your Nobel Prize have to do with Germany?

His Negishi coupling has made him famous amongst chemists: Japanese scientist Ei-ichi Negishi discovered a reaction with nickel or palladium that is often used in today’s laboratories – and earned him the Nobel Prize in 2010. His career history makes Negishi a prime example of internationality in research: he has been working in the USA for many years, and came to Germany several times between 1998 and 2001 on a research award from the Humboldt Foundation. “It’s inspiring to work with colleagues from different countries,” says Ei-ichi Negishi. “This exchange also provided important impetus for the research with which I ultimately won the Nobel Prize.” During his time in Germany he worked at the universities of Göttingen, Berlin and Munich and also held lectures in over a dozen other cities. In this way he gained fresh ideas for his work – as did his colleagues in Germany. He was particularly impressed with the diversity of the country’s urban culture: “I love these small but vibrant cities like Bonn, Heidelberg, Weimar or Würzburg, and see them as genuine models of what cities with a great quality of life could look like in other countries in the future, too.”

  • Prof. Dr. Ei-ichi Negishi won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2010. After studying in Tokyo, the Japanese researcher worked at some of the most renowned universities in the USA; today, he researches and teaches at Purdue University in the State of Indiana, USA.

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