“My brain is in town”

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum
Paul Erdös at a seminar in Budapest in 1992. Image credit: User Kmhkmh via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Paul Erdős was in many ways a mathematician’s mathematician – the most prolific researcher in mathematics in terms of article number, and legendary for the number of his collaborations. There is a reason why the best-known measure of collaborative distance is the Erdős number (someone who co-authored a research paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 1; if the minimum Erdős number of those with whom you yourself have co-authored research papers is n, then your own Erdős number is n+1).

It is said that, whenever Erdős was visiting a city, some mathematician or other would receive a phone call by the great man stating “My brain is in town”. More often than not, this would lead to another fruitful collaboration.

I’ve been a blogger for two of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings (2010 and 2012), and, not surprisingly, I’ve spent some time thinking about similarities and differences with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. My tentative conclusion is that a key difference is encapsulated in the Erdős quote. When you invite mathematicians and, to a certain extent, computer scientists, what you get is what has been doing all that exciting work: Their minds.

Of course top physicists, chemists, biologists and medical researchers need to have first-rate minds as well, but for most of them (some theoreticians excepted) their (or somebody else’s) data, laboratory, equipment played a key role in the advances of human knowledge on which their reputation is built. Invite them, and you will only get part of the picture.

With the mathematicians and computer scientists, chances are good that you will get pretty much the whole package. And that, for me, is one of the most exciting aspects of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. Starting September 22, many interesting brains will be in town.


Markus Pössel hatte bereits während des Physikstudiums an der Universität Hamburg gemerkt: Die Herausforderung, physikalische Themen so aufzuarbeiten und darzustellen, dass sie auch für Nichtphysiker verständlich werden, war für ihn mindestens ebenso interessant wie die eigentliche Forschungsarbeit. Nach seiner Promotion am Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institut) in Potsdam blieb er dem Institut als "Outreach scientist" erhalten, war während des Einsteinjahres 2005 an verschiedenen Ausstellungsprojekten beteiligt und schuf das Webportal Einstein Online. Ende 2007 wechselte er für ein Jahr zum World Science Festival in New York. Seit Anfang 2009 ist er wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, wo er das Haus der Astronomie leitet, ein Zentrum für astronomische Öffentlichkeits- und Bildungsarbeit. Pössel bloggt, ist Autor/Koautor mehrerer Bücher, und schreibt regelmäßig für die Zeitschrift Sterne und Weltraum.

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