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The molecular biologist and the shepherd


Duties to society
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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Of course, you have to make decisions, whether you want to be a statesman, politician, or scientist, an artist.  You can't do everything and you have to do what you do, you have to do carefully and as well as possible. So there were often the questions whether I take over a presidency of a larger organisation... including the Max Planck Society and others... and I said, 'No, this is not my goal in my life, and I'm not a born president of a larger organisation'. I realise that Einstein thought along the same way. After the war they asked him to become the President of Israel and he said, 'No that's not my business. I'm a scientist and I will go on and do...' And that's a little bit my credo. But, of course, you have duties towards society. So I thought I looked for certain positions which I ought to do, where I think I have to pay something to society, and one was the Studienstiftung. The Studienstiftung is an organisation in Germany which furthers gifted young people in both arts and sciences. In the arts, in music, in painting, in sculpture and in all the sciences including humanities. So, they must really be top people, they must be real talents. And then they are funded and one helps them also to produce a thesis and so on. And I thought this was some task for me, that I had to do something in that. The money we spend is about thirty, forty million per year, it might now have increased. I retired from that post when I retired from my scientific career. But I thought here I can do something to society, furthering young talents, furthering young people, and I must say it was a very satisfactory arrangement. I had to talk to ministers and make sure that the support was given, but so far it worked out. This is one of the... of course I did also some obligations in science organisation. I mentioned already that I took over the presidency of the European Molecular Biology Organisation.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: Studienstiftung, Max Planck Society, European Molecular Biology Organisation, Albert Einstein

Duration: 3 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010