A Researcher and His Heirs

Text: Kilian Kirchgeßner

Alexander von Humboldt laid the foundations for academic disciplines that are still highly topical today.

The enterprise was formidable: at the turn of the 19th century, scholar Alexander von Humboldt undertook a journey to the most remote parts of the world. From Venezuela he set out on an expedition into the Andes; he visited Caracas, travelled the Orinoco and the Rio Negro. What drove him was a single goal – he wanted to see the world and venture into regions that were as yet entirely unexplored.

He himself set the standard by which he would measure his work: “I shall (...) examine the warmth, the elasticity, the magnetic and electric charges of the atmosphere, analyse them, determine geographic latitudes and longitudes, measure mountains.” A credo that is indicative of his meticulousness and his obsession with the smallest details.

Today, a good 200 years later, Vahid Sandoghdar is continuing this quest for the smallest details. The experimental physicist is an expert in nano optics and now works as a Humboldt Professor at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. Using highly sophisticated technology, he conducts research into a minute world, far smaller than the human eye can see. He examines particles and molecules verging on the nanometre scale. Among his global specialist colleagues he is known for refining his experimental setups down to the tiniest details in order to control the weak interaction between light and nano particles. In this way he has been able to directly see and observe individual viruses, to increase the radiation of a molecule with a nano antenna, and to switch a laser beam on and off with a single molecule. Researchers conduct experiments like this to optimise the interaction between every light quantum and the atoms of a sample, providing them with extremely precise information about the atoms and at the same time allowing them to control the behaviour of light on the nanometre scale.

The result? Findings and images that are hugely important to physicists, engineers, material scientists, biologists and physicians as a basis for their further work. And that, most importantly, open up a view into a previously unknown world – just as in the days of Alexander von Humboldt.

Climate isn’t just there. It changes and, in turn, affects countless other factors. When Alexander von Humboldt committed this seemingly simple insight to paper, it was a groundbreaking moment for science. He himself climbed the highest mountains and observed plants and animals in order to investigate climatic contexts. His coloured sketch of the “Geography of Plants in the Tropics,” in which he outlined the climate and vegetation zones, has become famous.

Today, Marian Cruz is going one step further. The spatial planner’s work focuses on the consequences of climate change. Using her home town of Marikina in the Philippines as an example, she aims to demonstrate how large cities in developing countries can prepare for natural disasters – and how their inhabitants can protect themselves against the elemental force of extreme rainfalls. At the Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development in Dresden she is using an International Climate Protection Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to develop a sophisticated strategy for this purpose. “I’ve seen with my own eyes how devastating a catastrophe like that can be,” she says: in 2009, a tropical storm with heavy rainfalls hit the city with its population of 500,000; subsequent flooding left several areas of the city completely submerged. “As far back as I can remember, nothing like that had ever happened,” says Cruz. Particularly the images of evacuated schoolchildren and crying mothers in emergency shelters are seared into her mind. “One approach for my strategy will be to carefully examine the further development of the city and its resilience to the consequences of climate change,” she says. “In which direction should the city expand? How should it be built in order to offer its inhabitants optimal protection? And which schools and public institutions should be relocated to safer places?” Marian Cruz is basing her planning not only on topographical data and information on land use, but also on the findings of climate research – the very climate research that Alexander von Humboldt founded approximately 200 years ago.