Read aloud He's great! Elizabeth Thompson shines all over her face. The press secretary of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is in raptures when she talks about her "Wuulfgang". Alone with his work, she could easily fill the press releases of the scientific highlights certainly not poor elite university. "Wuulfgäng" is actually Wolfgang Ketterle, is German and a star. When you leaf through the prestigious science magazines Science and Nature every week, you almost automatically ask, "What's in there by Ketterle this time?" Stars have airs, you think. Since fits the man who sweaty his bicycle helmet on the hook and "sorry for the delay" pants, so not in the picture. In a typical American city like Boston, where people almost drive to pee in the bathroom by car, cyclists just stand out. Otherwise, Ketterle is somehow different: the gentle, boyish voice does not quite fit the tall, lean stature of the 42-year-old, and yet it captivates you. It gets quiet in the room and you listen.

For example, the history of his scientific career. In 1986, Ketterle earned his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Munich and later dealt with laser spectroscopy. In 1990 he was at a crossroads: he wanted to do basic research, that was clear to him - but which one? "I chose the area where most of the music was in, something with lasers and atoms. That's how I came up with cryogenic physics. "

In the same year he moved to Cambridge with his wife and two children and worked at MIT as a guest researcher. In 1993 he became assistant professor - comparable to the German habilitant - with a temporary position. In five to seven years a permanent position, in ten years professor in office and dignity - that was the perspective, if Ketterle should prove itself. He proved himself - which is a smooth understatement. Almost embarrassed, Ketterle says that after just four years he was promoted to John D. MacArthur's professor of physics and thus a "full professor" - an absolute sensation even at performance-oriented MIT.

In 1995 Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman produced the first Bose-Einstein condensate in Boulder, Colorado. Everyone wanted to do the trick, but only a few did. Ketterle was the first to succeed, and he set an ambitious goal immediately: he wanted to build an atomic laser. display

In 1997 it was time. The news of Ketterle's success was one of the science sensations of the year. Anyone who thought the young researcher was just lucky was soon taught otherwise. Ketterle lit a firework of scientific highlights. He succeeded in visualizing sound waves in a Bose-Einstein condensate. And last year, the 12-man team, small by German standards, managed to measure the energy that the Bose-Einstein condensate has at absolute zero. That is not zero - a last icy trembling is always left.

The latest coup Ketterle is the self-reinforcing atomic laser, which quasi itself aufschaukelt. This makes a true laser for atoms close at hand. "It's amazing how science has changed in the last four years, " Ketterle wonders - without mentioning that he himself has made much of these changes.

The meteoric rise of the MIT professor was not hidden in Germany. The Max Planck Society therefore tried to retrieve the prodigal son as director of a Max Planck Institute. "A fantastic offer, " enthuses Ketterle, taking a break, as if to think again for himself, why he actually rejected the offer. The Max Planck Society is a paradise for researchers, the Federal Republic a country with an excellent research infrastructure, says Ketterle politely. Actually, he was already determined to leave. "But is not it presumptuous to want a change when you're feeling as good as me?"

But money and other status symbols or even a Nobel Prize are not the ones that drive Ketterle to ever new heights - because he thinks as modest as most other basic researchers. Pure desire to gain knowledge comes from the desire to contribute to society. "Quantum mechanics is as culturally important as Goethe or Beethoven, " says Ketterle. "Not understanding that is a real knowledge gap."

Bernd Müller


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