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Merkel Launches IYC In Berlin

Merkel at opening ceremony. Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron skipped the opening ceremonies for the International Year of Chemistry in Philly, Paris and London, but props go to Germany’s head of state, Angela Merkel–formerly a theoretical physicist/chemist herself–for showing up at the IYC shindig here in Berlin today.

She said some things we’ve heard before, such as how chemists could help solve energy problems (with, say, nanotechnology) and how they already had (by developing energy efficient materials for improved housing insulation, for example). She also talked about Marie Curie as a role model, the promise of young scientists and the irony of the public’s not entirely positive perception of chemicals given that we’re all composed of them.

Merkel hands out awards. Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

But instead of rushing in and out, Merkel stayed around long enough to award three teams of very cute elementary students awards for a competition called Formula One. Effectively, the teams had to build a chemical battery and then race a home-made car for 20 meters. And again, instead of shaking everybody’s hand and moving along, she grabbed the moderator’s mic and started interviewing the kids about their projects. Pretty classy.

Organizers chose the lovely Radialsystem as their IYC launching site. The red-brick water pumping station nestles the Spree River right at the border of the former East and West Berlin. It was renovated in 2006 into a space for the arts and renamed Radialsystem. There’s lots of dance and theater to be seen here, but the last time I stopped by was to listen to some guy’s brain (alpha) waves as he sat on stage with headphones, himself listening to a sequence of conversations which ranged from boring bureaucratic negotiations to presumably more interesting bedroom dialogues. This is also where Merkel spoke at the 2009 Falling Walls conference, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, where scientists gathered to discuss the ”walls” that needed to fall in science to improve the world.

Radialsystem. Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

After Merkel’s speech and the Formula One awards, there was another “let’s show off cute kids doing science to the audience” episode, which involved a bunch of eight-year-olds extracting dye from red cabbage–a doubly Deutsch activity given the country’s obsession with cooked red cabbage and their early dominance of synthetic dye chemistry.

Apparently, getting a ticket to the opening was something of a challenge (although riff-raff journalists were welcome in the press section), and not unsurprisingly, a healthy dose of the German academic and industrial chemistry community were in the audience or on stage.

It was actually all sometimes a bit surreal because the 350-strong audience was mostly middle-aged men in suits watching cute kids on stage while a Wellness Center musak soundtrack provided inspiration.

Well, as they say here, Es lebe der Unterschied (Vive la difference). So welcome, International Year of Chemistry, to Germany.

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