Before heading to last evening’s rainy celebration of the Berlin Wall’s collapse at the city’s historical Brandenburg Gate–which featured a symbolic toppling of 1000 painted, wall-like dominoes, statements by various political dignitaries (Merkel, Clinton, Brown, Gorbachev, Sarkozy, Medvedev, etc), and performances by Placido Domingo and Jon Bon Jovi–I spent the day at a conference called Falling Walls, which was organized by the Einstein Foundation.
Taking place in a renovated water pumping station in the middle of the former so-called death strip, the no-mans land that abutted the Berlin Wall, a variety of top researchers from the sciences and humanities described the “walls” which were falling or which needed to fall in their area of research. The organizers had also managed to book German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is a scientist-turned-politician from the former GDR (more below). Although no late-breaking new discoveries were announced, the conference provided a fascinating overview of research in a real potpourri of great topics: vaccines for neglected diseases like malaria and TB, three-dimensional televisions, how to make concrete less polluting, and how researchers are cracking the secrets of ancient civilizations , the origin of Homo sapiens. We also heard from Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of CERN, about the Large Hadron Collider (which will hopefully start pumping out data one of these days) and from Norbert Holtkamp, who heads Iter, the fusion energy transnational research organization that originated during a 1985 conversation between Gorbachev and Reagan.
But the conference’s special guest was Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who knows a lot about falling walls. She’s Germany’s first female head of state, and also the first from the former Communist GDR, where she had worked at a physical chemistry research institute before the Berlin Wall came down. She said that the collapse of the Berlin Wall, “changed my life completely but it did not put a damper on my love of science.”
Merkel talked about the chasm many GDR scientists used to feel between their daily work–which required an open, inquisitive and challenging mind–and their daily lives–in which an unquestioning loyalty to the Communist Party was expected. But “you can’t tell people to start thinking in the morning and then to stop [after work],” she said.
Scientists could also “be a role model for politicians,” Merkel said. She explained that every day scientists aim for the seemingly impossible–and sometimes achieve it with breakthrough discoveries. This in itself should serve as inspiration for those faced by enormous challenges such as peace in the Middle East, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the impossible can sometimes be made possible, she added.
Then Merkel was whisked off by her handlers to walk across Berlin’s Bornholmer bridge, where she had joined the crowds 20 years ago that pushed border guards to allow passage to West Berlin, part of the sequence of events that led to the Berlin Wall’s collapse (Check out the footage I posted here). The rest of us learned about other new walls that need to come down…