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From the Dark into the Light – Research initiative spotlights astrophysics in Potsdam

The Flame Nebula in the constellation Orion. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Flame Nebula in the constellation Orion. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Potsdam is one of the four most important astrophysics research sites in Germany. Besides the University of Potsdam, three internationally leading institutes are located here, which conduct research across an unparalleled range of topics in this field. Joint appointments and working groups underpin the university’s teaching. In an interview, astrophysicist Prof. Philipp Richter speaks about the advantages of this network, the attractiveness of the degree program, and promoting young researchers.

Astrophysics in Potsdam has a long tradition. In the 19th century, several observatories were built on Telegraphenberg. Visible from afar, the domed building of the large refractor towers over the city’s silhouette. The last German Emperor had it built on the hill in 1899. Why in Potsdam?

They wanted to have a place outside but not too far from Berlin. The lights of the big city would have prevented seeing anything in the sky. In addition, the site had already been structurally developed for the old optical telegraph line.

Potsdam also has too much light now, doesn’t it?

Yes, without a doubt. Large telescopes now used for scientific observations are found around the globe: for example, in Chile, in Antarctica, and even in space. We rarely make observations personally on-site; instead, we evaluate data that has been recorded for us. Some of the topics we deal with today, however, have their origins on Telegraphenberg. My own research field, for example, – the interstellar medium – was discovered here in 1904.

Potsdam’s days of being in the dark are definitely over. The city has become a hotspot of astrophysics. What is so special here?

It is the density of major extramural research institutions and their close collaboration with the university. There is the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics, which belongs to the world’s leading institutes in instrument development. In Golm, there is the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics. In 2015, it was involved in the first measurement of gravitational waves, for which a Nobel Prize was awarded. Last but not least, the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Zeuthen is an internationally renowned center for astroparticle physics. Thanks to the joint appointments and the good collaboration with these institutes, we can now cover virtually all areas of modern astrophysics in our courses at the University. This is unique.

Some time ago you started a new research initiative. What is your objective?

We wanted to be able to better coordinate our collaboration, increase the visibility of Potsdam astrophysics, and act more concertedly, also to show prospective students and young researchers what and how they can study and research here. We also have a professionally designed joint website that offers a good overview of our activities. In 2016, we started offering the international Master’s program “Astrophysics” as well as a structured graduate program with excellent conditions for doctoral studies.

How has the new Master’s program been received?

Word has spread! The students come from all over the world: India, Pakistan, the US, and Canada but also from European countries like Italy, Spain, and Great Britain. We only have 20 places available every year in the Master's program, because the studies are very research-intensive and supervising theses takes a lot of time. We attach great importance to this. Accordingly, many are highly interested in doing a PhD afterward.

What makes it especially attractive?

The opportunity to already specialize during your studies and to do research at the extramural institutes for the Master's thesis. Students can engage in a variety of topics, such as galaxy clusters and large-scale structures, interstellar and intergalactic gas, stellar winds, or solar physics. Cosmic magnetic fields, planets, astroparticles, and gravitational waves can also be examined in the context of a Master's thesis. Together with our jointly appointed colleagues, we have now a team of 15 professors teaching courses. There are also post-doctoral candidates, honorary professors, and other lecturers who intensively advise students.

Has this changed scientific collaboration as well?

Today, we work together much more closely than we did 10 years ago. We formed a joint working group with DESY at the University, for example, which means that astroparticle physics is also represented here in addition to stellar and interstellar astrophysics and planetology. Our research initiative also includes joint applications for major projects. In the not too distant future, we want to initiate a DFG Research Training Group.

What role does promoting young female researchers play? There are still not that many women in astrophysics.

It's like in other subjects. There are many successful female scientists, but when they reach the doctoral stage – at the time of starting a family – it is getting difficult. We need to improve the conditions so that they are able to continue their research at this stage and consistently pursue their scientific careers. But we have made good progress. In the past seven years, we jointly appointed two female professors in astrophysics and a third female colleague is expected to take up a professorship later this year. 

A path you have taken yourself. What attracted you to astrophysics?

It was the question of the origin of the laws of nature and the fact that they apply in the cosmos as they do on Earth, albeit in different spatial dimensions. You need a lot of imagination for astrophysics. You cannot actually touch anything or verify things experimentally. I have to draw my conclusions with the help of physics from the properties of the radiation received. I particularly like this creative aspect of my work.

You explore the interstellar medium, clouds of gas and dust. How do you proceed? What counts as observation, calculation, and simulation?

Observations, in the very traditional sense… being alone at a telescope – I have not done research in this way for a long time. Today we get the data electronically from the large observatories in Chile or, especially in my case, the Hubble Space Telescope. Evaluating the data requires a lot of experience and intuition. It would be a mistake to only evaluate this data automatically. If you leave everything to the computer, you only get what the computer knows. Instead, you have to critically inspect the data yourself, look at the spectra of light with your own eyes, and develop an intuitive feeling. We sometimes spend entire days making sketches and thinking about how to approach and observe things. These thought experiments, the creativity – these are what this field of research lives on.

Do you find it regrettable that astronomy is hardly taught in schools these days?

I actually think one can use the unbroken enthusiasm for the universe, the fascination for black holes and dark matter to make the subject of physics more interesting for children. Astronomy does not, however, need to be taught separately in schools. Astronomy is part of physics and should be much more integrated into it. We often have physics teachers in the continuing education programs at the university. Teacher-students taking astronomy as an elective subject come to our training observatory but so do high school students doing an internship. Of course, it is great when we see these students again a few years later.

The training observatory on the roof of the physics building in Golm was once again an attraction on the Potsdam Science Day...

Yes, and there were not only well-informed amateur astronomers but also many prospective students with questions about the studies and programs. Our bachelor students learn to use the telescope in the observatory to take their own pictures. Later, during the Master’s program, they focus more on the physical evaluation of the images, for example when we determine the age of star clusters.

Is it dark enough in Golm? Returning to the beginning!

Unfortunately not quite. The light from the large window of the library next door sometimes considerably disturbs the observations.

Maybe you should move to the biological research station of the university in Gülpe in Westhavelland, supposedly the darkest place in Brandenburg.

Yes, we have thought about that, but unfortunately the logistics would not be so easy...

 

THE RESEARCHER

Prof. Philipp Richter studied physics and astronomy in Marburg and Bonn. Since 2007, he has been Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Potsdam. 

prichter@astro.physik.uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

A STRONG NETWORK

Visit www.astrophysik-potsdam.de to learn more about the variety of research and teaching activities of the Astrophysics Network Potsdam. Students and researchers share information on the discoveries and puzzles of astrophysics, their own scientific work, and the observation campaigns in remote locations in the world.

INSTITUTIONS IN THE NETWORK

The University of Potsdam researches stellar, galactic, and extragalactic astrophysics, planetology, and astroparticle physics. 

The Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP) researches Cosmic Magnetic Fields and Extragalactic Astrophysics as well as the development of future-proof instruments and software for large-scale projects.

The Deutsche Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Zeuthen researches high-energy neutrinos and gamma rays from cosmic sources and participates in constructing and operating observatories worldwide and experiments in astroparticle physics. 

The Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, AEI), whose range of activities include basic research on the theory of general relativity and quantum gravity as well as experimental and theoretical aspects of gravitational waves, which were directly measured for the first time in 2015. 

Text and Interview: Antje Horn-Conrad
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Alina Grünky
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de