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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 48 - February 2006   
 A scientific conclave and public meeting
 Concerted voices on strings
 Two months flat on their backs
 The wild card of distributed production
 Action stations for in vitro
 The added value of mobility
 Analysis of a stalled constitution

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Title  Wolfgang Heckl’s straight talking

Recognised as one of Europe’s leading pioneers in the nanosciences and their applications, Wolfgang Heckl has been committed to the cause of sharing knowledge and making it accessible to all since a very young age. A long-standing firm favourite with the German media, today he is also known outside national borders with a reputation that, in 2004, brought him the Descartes Prize for science communication. RTD info presents a profile of a very warm and friendly biophysicist who is Professor of experimental physics at the Ludwig-Maximilians University as well as Director of Munich’s famous Deutsche Museum.

Wolfgang Heckl
Wolfgang Heckl
Built in the 1920s, the Deutsche Museum stands like an imposing fortress topped with astronomical domes, occupying the entire island which lies in the centre of the River Isar that runs through the city of Munich. With its exhibitions on the development of science and technology, this venerable institution of international renown has long been one of the Europe’s leading museums dedicated to educating the general public.

Its Director for less than two years, Wolfgang Heckl, the brilliant 48-year-old bio- and nanophysicist, welcomes his visitors with a disarmingly spontaneous show of warmth and simplicity. “As far back as I can remember in my life, achieving progress in scientific knowledge – which for me is the most fascinating way possible of understanding the world and nature – and sharing this knowledge with the greatest possible number of people have been two inextricable objectives.”

Wolfgang Heckl, the son of a country doctor, retains a very vivid memory of his two favourite fields. First, the rural environment that he loves so much: “the observation of birds, plants and insects played a big part in arousing my insatiable interest in understanding life”. Then there was his father’s passion for collecting old radios. “He loved getting his hands on them, models dating back to the very beginning of radio, and when I think back, it is no doubt thanks to him that I was able to develop my knowledge of technology. He allowed me to take these radios apart and then try and put them back together again, with no guarantee of success…” 

The taste for communication was also born at a very young age. When he was asked to speak in public, the young Wolfgang had just one fear: the fear of boring his audience. “At the age of about 16 I realised that this really was a character trait. I was a member of the local astronomy club that organised small public conferences. These were often pretty boring events which did not exactly play to a full house! So I had the idea of making a speech that I dared to entitle ‘Where do we come from? Where are we going?’. No doubt rather oblivious to what I had taken on, in my own way I set about sketching a vast panorama, half scientific and half philosophical. I tried to show how, since antiquity, astronomy had broken free of the limits of the religious approach to become a science that penetrates the mysteries of the universe.”

Perhaps it was the title that attracted them, but the audience was not only much larger but also much more diverse than his local astronomy club was used to. They seemed to be genuinely interested in the talk that was followed by a lively debate. “I was both surprised and delighted. Pleased with myself, of course, but that was not the most important thing. I had realised that finding quite simple words and pictures with which to share knowledge with others is an enriching exercise in itself. Einstein once said – and I paraphrase – that if a physicist is not able to explain his theories to his grandmother then he has not grasped their implications.” 

From biophysics to the nanosciences
DNA molecules
DNA molecules – painting is also one of Wolfgang Heckl’s hobbies.
Following this experience of confronting the ‘big issues’ head on, it is not surprising that Wolfgang Heckl began concentrating on the fundamental sciences. Very impressed by Erwin Schrödinger’s book What is life?, published in 1944, he decided to explore life, not through the conventional means of biology, but through the concepts of material physics, and in 1988 he presented a doctoral thesis in biophysics at Munich’s Technical University.

This was followed by a one-year postdoc on organic chemistry, in Toronto. “When I came back to Europe I was lucky enough to land a second postdoc at the IBM research centre in Zurich. I joined the team headed by Gerd Binnig who, with Heinrich Rohre, had received the Nobel Prize for physics two years previously for his invention of the tunnel-effect microscope. This formidable instrument marked the birth of the nanosciences. I will always remember the truly exciting moment when I was able to use this instrument for the first time, not only to see atoms appear but to manipulate their arrangement. Gerd Binnig was my mentor. His laboratory was a genuine school of creativity. For me the scientific path was now clearly traced and I was determined to devote myself exclusively to this pioneering field.” 

Yet once again it was not purely from the perspective of research that Wolfgang Heckl saw his work. His passion for communicating science first expressed itself through teaching. During the three years when he was preparing for the exam to qualify as a university lecturer, he worked closely with Theo Hänsch who was engaged in advanced research in the field of laser spectroscopy. “All these meetings reassured me that my scientific path was under a lucky star. In 2005, Theo Hänsch also became a Nobel prizewinner of physics.” 

Media and the museum
After 1993, Wolfgang Heckl divided his time between ‘nano-research’ – in particular becoming known for taking the first-ever pictures of DNA strands – and teaching experimental physics at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians University. Over recent years, he has become recognised as a leading expert in local probe microscopy, a tunnel-effect device that has enabled considerable progress in the field of nanotechnologies applied to materials. 

At the same time, his commitment to dialogue between science and society has continued to develop. The German media soon picked him out as someone whose ability to explain things simply and clearly would be an asset when presenting the latest developments in science to TV and radio audiences, particularly in the field of nanotechnologies. “I have appeared on television, worked on documentary programmes and given interviews on the radio and for the newspapers. Finally, in 2004 I went one step further when I committed myself to a genuine long-term mission in science communication when I agreed to manage Munich’s Deutsche Museum," he explains.

But why is it that he is prepared to devote so much energy to the job of communicator? “It is very important for a few scientists – not all of them by any means – who, like me, have a very personal desire to play their part in the scientific education of the general public, to play this role of transmitting and explaining new knowledge. To the extent that science and technology are increasingly shaping and transforming our collective future, I see it as meeting a profound democratic need.” Wolfgang Heckl believes the lessons must be learned from past mistakes, as in the race for genetics and genomics. He believes that by presenting this field as the best of all possible worlds, evoking the ‘authority of the experts’, failing to mention many scientific or ethical unknowns and evading debate, the scientific community succeeded in increasing public suspicions of whole fields of research. “When I speak of the scientific progress of the nanotechnologies, for example, I show tangible realities. These are considerable, especially in the medical field, for new materials or quantum computing. But that does not mean that when I present them I do not also speak very openly of the potential risks of these innovations where these risks exist. And above all, of making no secret of the present limits to our knowledge. When science cannot answer a question, it must say so clearly.”