More Falling Walls
Nov10

More Falling Walls

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...

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20 Years After The Berlin Wall Fell
Nov08

20 Years After The Berlin Wall Fell

C&EN Berlin's office is about a block-and-a-half from where the Berlin Wall used to stand, on the former Communist, East side (known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR). When I get out the wrong subway stop exit, I have to retrace my steps across the infamous death strip--a no-man's land just before the wall to the West--where people were shot dead trying to escape. Just down the road, one of the few remaining stretches the Wall has been left standing. Where the Wall has been torn down, a double brick strip in the pavement demarcates its former path. Even after two years in the neighborhood, I am amazed and sobered by how easy it is for me to pop over to the West, to buy some printer toner or to pick up lunch supplies at a nearby supermarket. In this week's issue, I've got an article about what it was like for GDR chemists who worked behind the wall. I talk to researchers who describe what it was like to be surveilled by the Stasi, the East German spy service, or what life was like after their supervisor escaped to the West. One chemist I spoke to named Christoph Naumann escaped by foot from Hungary to the former Yugoslavia and then to West Germany. On Monday's 20th anniversary, the city of Berlin will be buzzing with political dignitaries (such Hilary Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nicolas Sarkozy) who will congregate near the Brandenburg Gate where Jon Bon Jovi will sing (yes, exceptionally weird, I know) before Berlin's mayor knocks over a sequence of large, painted dominoes that look like chunks of the former Wall. When the Wall finally came down, it was due to a bureaucratic mistake--kind of. After months of civil unrest, and many East Germans escaping like Naumann did, the GDR was planning to loosen travel restrictions. But, while most Communist Party officials were in the throes of a conference, a poorly-briefed East German bureaucrat mistakenly announced, at an evening televised press conference, that travel restrictions were immediately removed. Shocked but excited Germans slowly began to congregate on both sides of the Berlin Wall, much to the dismay of border guards who had no idea what to do... Here's some awesome raw footage from that night, with some decent subtitles, from the East side, at the Bornholmer checkpoint. The video culminates in a wonderful rush of people through the wall at about minute six. West Germans also gathered on their side of the wall near Berlin's Brandenburg gate. See some raw footage from that night here: A more detailed history of why the wall fell and other...

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