Parliament Laudatio by the President of the Bundestag Bärbel Bas on the occasion of the presentation of the Nobel Prize to Benjamin List and Klaus Hasselmann
[check against delivery]
ladies and gentlemen,
and – of course – above all,
Professor List and Professor Hasselmann,
“Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand”. That is how Albert Einstein once put it. But the thought of receiving a Nobel Prize one day is rather likely to overstretch most people’s powers of imagination.
For you, Professor Hasselmann and Professor List, that dream has become reality. Allow me to offer you my warmest congratulations on that achievement. The Royal Swedish Academy has decided to crown your work with a Nobel Prize. And like Albert Einstein a hundred years ago, you are not in Stockholm to receive your award. Albert Einstein was presented with the Nobel Prize for Physics with a year’s delay. At the time of the award he was in Japan on a world tour.
Unfortunately, the scope for travel and large gatherings is very much restricted during the Covid pandemic. For the second successive year, the virus has prevented the presentation ceremony from taking place in its traditional format. As scientists, however, you are experts in transcending the familiar and exploring the new – particularly when it comes to the strategic challenges of our time.
For researchers like you, an event in the premises of the Max Planck Society is a home game. I myself am not a researcher, let alone a scientist. Please forgive me therefore if I do not go into great detail when lauding your scientific achievements. Nevertheless, as President of the Bundestag I have a lot to do with highly complex systems, including some that may sometimes appear chaotic from the outside.
In the year 2000, Stephen Hawking was asked about his expectations for the coming century. He predicted that it would be the century of complexity. There is much evidence to suggest that he will be proved right. That does not make our task any easier – either for you, as researchers and teachers, who seek to understand and explain the world, or for us, in parliaments and governments, who strive to shape our future politically.
Whether we consider artificial intelligence or the spreading of viruses or, of course, global climate change, complexity confronts us everywhere – not least in the world of politics. The complexity of the latter is different from that of science in many respects, and necessarily so. But both politicians and scientists face a common challenge, namely the need to predict and systematise, to distinguish between the important and the unimportant – in other words to deal with complexity – for the unsure and the uncertain are not only the opposite of knowledge; they are also a bad basis for political debates and decisions. The more complex the subject matter, the greater the scope for misconceptions and errors.
The world has always been complex. Systemic links, interactions, tipping points – these relationships were long invisible to us, until science sharpened our focus. We have learned to recognise order in the chaos. Mathematical and scientific models enable us to identify patterns in the disorder of the world. By learning to listen properly and filter out signals, we learn, as Klaus Hasselmann urges us, to decypher the ‘noise’ of the world.
Professor Hasselmann, Professor List, however different your disciplines, methods and research findings, both of you have helped to unravel complexity, to reduce scientific relationships to essentials – in the global context through the modelling of the global climate and at the molecular level through the development of more efficient catalysts.
Both of you have thus created new knowledge for humankind, knowledge that we urgently need, for time is of the essence. You have furnished us with tools to assess more accurately the dangers of anthropogenic climate change and to predict impending developments with greater certainty. You are delivering the scientific foundations for more efficient and greener chemical production processes. Therein lies a major contribution to the protection of our planetary ecosystems from further harm.
However, not even the most far-sighted models and the most innovative methods can help if the right conclusions are not drawn from them.
Professor Hasselmann, you know only too well that it often takes some time for scientific findings to be reflected in political decisions. Your trailblazing studies on climate change date from the 1970s. Back then you were already highlighting the problem of mankind’s contribution to that process. Shortly before then, the Club of Rome had warned humanity against transgressing the ‘limits to growth’. Too little has happened since then, and the fever chart of Planet Earth continues to show a rising curve. Yet you have never lost your optimism, your belief that we shall succeed in resolving the problems that confront us. You recently said in an interview that you drew some of this optimism from your own personal history, which was marked by your family’s flight from the National Socialists. And from your experience of the democratic reconstruction of Germany after returning in 1949. That left a deep impression on me, as does your trust in the positive force of technological progress.
Professor List, with your contributions on asymmetrical organocatalysis you have speeded up that progress. For scientific laypeople, the potential of this group of catalysts is breathtaking. Thanks to your research, certain synthesising processes can be made thousands of times more efficient. With your work you have initiated groundbreaking innovations that will help countless people – for example through the development of medicinal products to combat many life-threatening diseases. All of this truly sounds like only “a molecule away from magic”, as you once put it.
When preparing for this speech I came across an article in which catalysts were described as “substances that persuade intrinsically unwilling reagents to bond”. My mind immediately went to the way in which coalition agreements come about. But there, I presume, speaks my enthusiasm for my own profession.
Professor List, that enthusiasm, it is said, began with you as a child, when you leafed through an old chemistry book from a flea market. Now you have become the second Nobel laureate in your family, for 26 years ago your aunt was honoured with the Nobel Prize for Medicine. I am delighted to say that she is also with us this evening.
Professor Nüsslein-Volhard, your presence gives me the opportunity to refer to something that is very important to me, namely the fact that, in the field of science too, women are achieving great things. Too little of that reaches the public eye. This makes role models like you all the more important as a source of encouragement for today‘s and tomorrow’s female researchers.
It is not only in your family that an abundance of scientific talent is to be found. Such talent is evidently at home in the city of Mülheim too, where you, Professor List, have been a director of the Max Planck Institute for more than 15 years. After Karl Ziegler, you are the second leading researcher there to be honoured with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. As a child of that region I am proud to have so much scientific excellence on my own doorstep.
The history of the region resonates in the name of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, where you perform your work. The region’s history has shown that a successful structural transition is possible, not least on the basis of scientific support. The Ruhr Valley, or Ruhrpott, was once synonymous with coal and steel, but now it has outgrown its industrial past and acts as a breeding ground for sunrise technology. Your institute has played a key role in this transition. You have moved with your department to the ninth floor, not least because of the view. I hope that the sight of my home city of Duisburg in particular will continue to inspire you.
Inspiration, far-sightedness and receptiveness to new horizons are virtues that we need in politics too, and I find that very appealing. And here I see another point that you and Professor Hasselmann have in common, for both of you have repeatedly stressed how important creativity and freedom are for research.
Perhaps this is due in part to the impressions you brought with you from your stays in the United States. Both of you, of course, were in La Jolla, San Diego, albeit at different times and at different institutes. A little more of the Californian attitude to creativity and freedom surely does us good – not only in the realm of science.
In you we see passion for a profession that is also a vocation for you. I see your successes as a major source of encouragement for young people to follow their own paths, not least as researchers. This stimulus is important, particularly when there is a need to overcome internal and external opposition and self-doubt. We should strive to make it easy for people to recognise their talents, to test themselves and to develop their capabilities. We must help them to unleash their imagination and to expand the boundaries of their knowledge – in the true spirit of Albert Einstein.
Politicians can provide the right framework by investing in education and training, research and teaching, and international scientific cooperation. By promoting inclusion and tearing down social barriers. By helping to inspire enthusiasm among young people for science and technology. By ensuring that our schools and universities are open and attractive seats of teaching and learning.
And, last but not least, by protecting the academic freedom that is enshrined in our Basic Law. In 2017 the chair of the German Research Society, Professor Peter Strohschneider, warned that “Delusion and lies, vulgar cynicism, raw calculus of power and irresponsible simplification are once again proving their historical force – also towards science and its freedom”.
Even back then he was alarmed at how the battle for public opinion was threatening to leave the field of rationality and scientific thought. During the Covid pandemic the conflict has lost none of its acrimony – rather the opposite.
Sections of the population distrust scientists, politicians and the media in equal measure. Uncertainty, information overload and even incited anger are driving many people into an illusory world of fake news and perceived truths. YouTube videos may be easier to consume than specialised studies, but they cannot replace science as a source of methodologically reliable knowledge. We must not abandon the achievements of the Enlightenment!
Precisely because we live in a century of complexity, we must defend the status of reason and the quest for objective knowledge with all our might. That is the responsibility of politicians.
Political parties, parliaments, governments and administrative bodies must be conscious of this responsibility – and find a language in which they can convey the complexity of our world comprehensibly, especially the multidimensional nature of the decisions we have to take. We need scientific expertise and knowledge as a basis for our decisions. But we must not hide behind specialised terminology. And we must play our part in improving scientific communication so as to obtain more fruitful dialogue between experts and the general public.
I referred earlier to Albert Einstein. Apparently, he once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Therein lies a warning to politicians too: we must not yield readily to the pressure to simplify, otherwise we shall be playing into the hands of the enemies of democracy.
What is needed is truthfulness – as well as the courage to focus even more sharply on substantive differences. Political issues are often ambiguous and contradictory. By contrast with science, in politics precise paths leading to a single correct outcome are the exception. Compromises are the rule. This makes it all the more important to keep explaining what has been decided – even if that is inconvenient and laborious.
What science and democracy have in common is that both are essentially onerous and challenging. Both thrive on internal diversity, high-quality discussion and even dispute. And both need clear rules. We have to impart those rules; we must explain how, and on the basis of what criteria, science and politics work. This is the only way to ensure that their outcomes meet with understanding and approval.
Professor Hasselmann, Professor List, as researchers you have done groundbreaking work and come up with excellent innovative answers to great questions of our age. You have made outstanding contributions to the global scientific network. Without the knowledge that comes from science we would be unable to meet the global challenges that face us. We need it!
For that reason too, I am delighted that you are receiving this special distinction. Warmest congratulations!