Nobel laureate Reinhard Genzel sometimes insults

Demands more honesty: Reinhard Genzel, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, views the compatibility of a lot of family time and a scientific career as self-delusion.

Photo: Stefan Puchner/dpa

Is there life in space? Reinhard Genzel is asked this question time and again. As the discoverer of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way, the astrophysicist made headlines around the world. For this breakthrough, he received the Physics Nobel Prize in 2020 together with the American astronomer Andrea Ghez.

But green men, possibly still in flying saucers? Or fantasies about contact between aliens and Earthlings? The Nobel laureate tells of such visions with a good-hearted smile.

He certainly expects new discoveries about extraterrestrial life in the next 10 to 20 years, he says. But he likes to ask fans of adventurous science fiction ideas, “Is one bacteria enough for you?”

Reinhard Genzel discovered a “supermassive” black hole

He certainly does not expect a “phone call” with aliens, says Genzel with a laugh. In a good mood, he sits in the Schlosshotel at the Karlsruhe train station and talks about his work. A work that fascinates billions of people on earth – and yet it goes beyond the imagination of laymen.

It starts with the misleading concept of the black “hole”. Where there is a hole, according to common parlance there is nothing at all. Genzel’s monstrous discovery, however, is a “supermassive” black hole that holds the mass of more than four million suns. So close that no light can pass through.

The black hole at the center of the Milky Way: Nobel laureate Reinhard Genzel proved its existence long before this first image was published in 2022.

The black hole at the center of the Milky Way: Nobel laureate Reinhard Genzel proved its existence long before this first image was published in 2022.

Photo: dpa/EHT

Genzel also likes to paint non-specialists how a journey to the devouring monster would end: no human, no rocket could return. Well, it’s actually not all that difficult to understand, says the 70-year-old calmly.

It sounds like astrophysicist is just one of many professions. He adds modestly, “You can always understand only a small part” – that includes Nobel laureates like him.

His zeal motto for study and school: “Nothing comes from nothing”

While the new physics Nobel Prize winners for 2022 are announced in Stockholm, Genzel will be staying in Baden as a guest of KIT. He has accepted the visiting professorship of Heinrich Hertz. As announced, next Wednesday he will give a public lecture on “galaxies and black holes” at the university. And before that, he held a seminar for students.

What should the young scientists take with them?

“First: curiosity,” Genzel says. And before moving on, he himself sends a warning: “Now it’s getting awkward!” For requirement number two could also be paraphrased as follows: the willingness to work hard and subordinate everything else to research. “Nothing comes from nothing,” Genzel says firmly. Discussions about work-life balance and lots of family time? “No, no,” Genzel says. That’s not how it works. He is well aware that he is outraged by many younger people. But Genzel talks about the beginning of his career in the US.

I must have worked 80 hours a week at Berkeley.

Reinhard Genzel, Nobel Prize winner Physics 2020

“I was working at least 80 hours a week at Berkeley,” he says. And he didn’t have a woman to support him then. Orsolya Genzel-Boroviczeny also made a career as a doctor and became a professor.

She worked in early investigation. “In the clinic she was on duty every fourth night,” emphasizes Genzel. The couple have two daughters together. Private childcare took care of the girls. “Has it harmed our children?” asks Genzel, and he himself answers, “Yes. no I do not know.”

Nobel laureate considers combining a lot of family time and a career as self-deception

Professionally, both daughters have gone down the same path: they are neuroscientists. In retrospect, the physicist openly admits that he heard a daughter criticize the frequent absence of her parents.

In general, he would like more honesty on this sensitive subject. He views the universally invoked compatibility of much of the family’s time and career as just self-deception. “You can’t have everything” is Genzel’s belief.

He insults with such frank words. “I’ve already had a shitstorm for it,” he says. No, he couldn’t take it very well. Because he feels he has been treated unfairly. He sees himself as a convinced feminist, explains the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching near Munich. He refers to the proportion of women in his house: “We now have 40 percent women. When I started, it was zero.”

Incidentally, the Nobel Prize winner is also critical of the trend towards softer education in schools. Only praising children and handing out “stars and candy” doesn’t really help the students, he says. At university too, a teacher or mentor must have the courage to be openly critical.

Genzel’s major concern is that the idea of ​​achievement could fade into the background even at top German universities. He points to excesses of so-called political correctness and the promotion of diversity in the US. “The most important thing is no longer research performance, but only diversity activities,” he criticizes. He has “insane fears” that this trend will be much stronger in this country as well.

Astrophysics on the edge of the financial “death zone”

Despite some sacrifices, he does not regret his scientific career. But whether he would get back into astrophysics today, the Nobel laureate isn’t so sure. Neuroscience would also appeal to him, for example. This may sound astonishing, especially since so many breakthroughs have been made in astrophysics in recent years.

For example, the first images of the black hole that Genzel had proven long before. “It was like in Cockaigne,” Genzel says about the great progress. But he now sees his science on the border of what is financially feasible.

The physicist recalls the work of his mentor, Nobel laureate and laser inventor Charles Townes, in the 1960s. “Back then we were building devices that cost $50,000. Today the cheapest is ten million euros and the most expensive, which I was responsible for as Max Planck director, was 100 million euros.”

The famous James Webb telescope, built in the US, cost more than ten billion dollars. “That,” says the Nobel laureate, “is what I call the death zone.”

Lecture at KIT as a livestream

This Wednesday, October 5, 2022 at 4:30 PM, Nobel Prize winner Reinhard Genzel will give a public lecture on “Galaxies and Black Holes” at the KIT Audimax.

If you were unable to reserve a place during the registration period last week, you can watch via livestream:

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