Humboldtians in Focus

Brief Enquiries

What moves researchers and what they are currently investigating.

How Human are Ravens?

By Martina Preiner

Simone Pika
Simone Pika
Photo: Jens Küsters 

Simone Pika is certain that in terms of social behaviour, ravens are not so very different from humans. Cooperation, for example, is everything in day-to-day raven life. And there is no cooperation without communication.

When a raven comes across a carcass, its first move is not to start tearing it apart, but to use a feeding call to assemble all the other ravens in the vicinity – together, they are much better at defending their prize. But ravens can also communicate amongst themselves without making a sound: “They are capable of a kind of non-vocal communication that we have previously seen only in small children and apes.”

These insights are the result of three summers spent staking out Cumberland Wildpark in Austria, during which Simone Pika and a colleague were able to observe ravens picking up moss, small stones or twigs with their beaks and offering or showing them to their fellow ravens. The objects themselves are only a means to an end – like toys that small children hold out to their parents. Once they have succeeded in attracting the others’ attention, what they have in their beak or hand becomes secondary. “These indicating gestures are part of a highly sophisticated form of communication,” says Pika. Such insights can also help us better understand the evolution of communication systems. “Our study supports the hypothesis that complex communication strategies have developed mainly in those species that also demonstrate a certain level of cooperation.”

  • Dr. Simone Pika is a biologist who combines methods derived from ethology and comparative psychology. Her model systems include not only corvids, but also human and non-human primates. As a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner Pika currently heads the Humboldt Research Group “Comparative Gestural Signalling” at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen.

Is Personalised Medicine a Prescription for the Future?

By Regine Laroche

Aaron Ciechanover
Aaron Ciechanover
Photo: Israel Sun 

Individualised treatment methods for each and every one of us are just around the corner, Nobel Prize Laureate Aaron Ciechanover firmly believes.

Such tailor-made treatments are based on the systematic exploration of changes that take place in the human body during an illness. Every human being has different predispositions. “Just think of how differently the same cancer can progress in different people. But still they all receive the same treatment – often with uncertain outcomes,” says Ciechanover. Scientists are developing the first cancer genome atlas designed to help systematise various genetic mutations that cause or affect cancerous diseases; similar projects are planned for other diseases. DNA mapping provides the basis for this work. And the risks? “Our DNA is the most intimate information that can be revealed about us – that will arouse certain appetites,” says Ciechanover. “Dealing responsibly with these new possibilities is therefore not just a scientific challenge, but a challenge for society as a whole.”

  • Professor Dr. Aaron Ciechanover is a medical scientist and biologist conducting research at the Technion in Haifa, Israel. He was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation – the “cellular waste disposal system”. In 2011, he received a Humboldt Research Award which is funding his research stay at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin.

Do You Have a Cure for Political Disaffection?

By Amory Burchard

Thamy Pogrebinschi
Thamy Pogrebinschi
Photo: David Ausserhofer 

It all began at Rio de Janeiro Law School, where Thamy Pogrebinschi co-founded a tutoring centre for university applicants – offering free teaching where private companies otherwise rake in the profits. Then 20 years old, she tutored in civil rights.

“Social inclusion is the only way we can overcome inequality and poverty,” Pogrebinschi says today. The political scientist is examining how civic participation can have a positive influence on traditional institutions of representation, drawing on the results to develop her concept of “pragmatic democracy”. One example are Brazil’s national conferences on public policy in which representatives of civil society and government work together to develop recommendations on topics such as minority rights. “Experiments like this do not replace traditional representation, they complement it and strengthen democracy,” emphasises Pogrebinschi. A cure for political disaffection? “I’m sure people in Germany,” where civic participation currently exists only at a local level, “would also find it attractive to participate directly at a national level.” The extraordinary response to the Occupy Movement and the protests against ACTA, the planned international treaty to enforce copyright on the Internet, is an indicator of Germans’ desire for participation, she says.

  • Professor Dr. Thamy Pogrebinschi teaches at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She has a Georg Forster Research Fellowship, first at the Social Science Research Center Berlin and then in the Institute for Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.

Why do We Need a European Family Law?

By Daniela Weingärtner

Katharina Boele-Woelki
Katharina Boele-Woelki 
Photo: Michael Jordan 

When a child’s parents come from two different countries and perhaps even live in a third, things can get complicated for the entire family in the event of a divorce.

Katharina Boele-Woelki believes the regulations applying to such cases in the European Union are mere stopgaps; they do not solve the problems resulting from differing national laws. Boele-Woelki is comparing laws on divorce, custody and alimony across Europe and searching for the best common denominator. “In Ireland, for example, you have to prove that you have been separated for four years in order to get divorced, while in Sweden divorce is possible immediately, or after six months if children are involved – that’s a big difference. We want to see fewer differences; ideally the same conditions should apply everywhere.” Boele-Woelki does not accept the objection that family law also touches on the substance of national identity. “We want to show that a reasonable consensus is possible and try to encourage people to look beyond the limits of their own legal systems, even while they are still at university.”

  • Professor Dr. Katharina Boele-Woelki is the director of the Utrecht Centre for European Research into Family Law. A distinguished legal professional and specialist in the field of private law, Boele- Woelki received the 2011 Anneliese Maier Research Award. She will use the award amount to extend her cooperation with the Institute of German, European and International Family Law at the University of Bonn.

How Does Your Cement Help Mitigate Climate Change?

By Georg Scholl

José Martirena Hernández
José Martirena Hernández
Photo: Oliver Rüther 

When it comes to cement, it’s not construction sites, mixers or sweat-soaked labourers that spring to José Martirena Hernández’s mind, but climate change.

“Imagine a one and a half cubic metre block of concrete in your front garden,” says the Cuban engineering scientist. “The amount of cement in that block is roughly the amount produced every year per person on the planet – well over three billion tonnes in all, which in turn cause approximately six percent of global CO2 emissions.” Too much, says Martirena. The problem is the amount of energy used in the standard cement production process. Limestone, clay, sand and iron ore are heated to temperatures of over 1,500 °C to create clinker, which is then mixed with gypsum and finely ground to make cement. Martirena is searching for a formula to make cement that can be produced in a climate-friendly way and is also durable, resilient and affordable. Together with Swiss and German colleagues he has now achieved a breakthrough: by replacing clinker with an artificial rock called metakaolin, he has managed to reduce the amount of CO2 generated during the cement manufacturing process by fifty percent. The necessary raw materials can be found in abundance everywhere. In Cuba pilot production has already begun and yields cement that is suitable for a wide range of applications. On construction sites, the difference made by using this cement would be undetectable, but in the global CO2 balance it would be huge.

  • Professor Dr. José Martirena Hernández teaches and conducts research at Universidad Central de Las Villas in Santa Clara, Cuba. As a Humboldtian he collaborates with colleagues in Kassel and Karlsruhe.

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