Basic Scientific Research
We live in the 21st century: The Earth is a sphere and has long shifted out of the centre of our solar system. Our solar system is also just one among many. It seems the big questions of the origin of the world and of mankind have been answered. However, new questions arise behind each answer: Why does the universe expand increasingly rapidly? What are the smallest parts which constitute everything? Basic research in the natural sciences investigates these and other questions.
Due to Germany's federal structure, supporting basic research is, first and foremost, a task of the Länder. However, institutions and projects of basic scientific research which are of national importance are co-financed by the Federal Government.
A particular priority of the BMBF in the area of basic scientific research is collaborative research (or Verbundforschung). Here, excellent research groups, primarily at universities, collaborate with the outstanding experimental facilities at national and international research centres.
The content of collaborative research is focused on physical studies for which use of expensive large-scale equipment is indispensable: astrophysicists overcome dimensions of space and time in outer space by means of large-scale telescopes, and particle physicists study the smallest elements of matter in large-scale accelerator facilities.
One important priority is the study of matter surrounding us in all its many forms. In the past, such investigations at large-scale research facilities made possible unique, trail-blazing progress in the fields of biosciences or materials research. Further results and impacts on many areas of our everyday life, with implications which can hardly be estimated today, can be expected from the new large-scale research equipment supported by the BMBF.
Collaborative research and the BMBF's funding activities in basic research in the natural sciences have strong interdisciplinary features. The current areas of funding in collaborative research are presented in the following chapters:
- Astro-particle physics
- Hadron and nuclear physics
- Structure and interaction of fundamental particles
- Physics of condensed matter
An overview of the research results obtained in these fields is presented on the Internet portal www.weltderphysik.de. It provides information about the field of physics and some related disciplines, as well as numerous articles on various topics.
Four fundamental forces keep the smallest known particles "on the move." How they do this and which interactions exist between elementary components is the focus of particle physics. Researchers use multiple accelerator facilities where particles are accelerated to very high energy levels. Highly sensitive measuring devices are built by physicists at the particle accelerators - and with several million individual sensors each, these "detectors" often have huge dimensions.
A new particle accelerator facility is being built next to the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt. It will enable some of the most unique experiments in the world. Physicists hope that the FAIR international research centre (Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research) will provide new insight into the structure of matter and the development of the universe.
The European XFEL X-ray laser will open up new applications for research. Its very high-energy, short-wave X-ray light will provide previously unknown insights. The facility will make it possible to film molecules during chemical reactions or to depict molecules which in the past were too small for imaging techniques or which could not be fixed. In the field of physics, it will enable the study of the material state of a gas plasma.
Over 99.9 per cent of the mass of matter is concentrated in atomic nuclei. As far as we know today, there are less than 300 atomic nuclei which are stable - that is, which are not subject to decay processes. This makes them crucial elements for the structure of our world. These stable elements are created in reactions between cores of atoms within stars which provide the energy that enables our life in the first place. They cause the development of chemical elements.
If we want to see what Aristotle saw, we need only look to the stars. Since Aristotle's work on astronomy, milestones like Galileo's telescope, Kepler's laws and Newton's theory of gravitation have helped us increasingly understand the universe. Discoveries in recent years in particular have broadened our understanding of the cosmos to an unexpected extent. The list of current questions is long and diverse. How, for example, did the universe come to be? Or, which processes underlie the formation of planets?
In recent years, astronomy and particle physics have become increasingly close. The exciting question of the evolution of our universe leads back to its origins - the Big Bang. Studying the generation and structure of matter with methods and findings from elementary particle physics means providing insight into how the very big is related to the very small. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, "If the whole is ever to gladden thee, that whole in the smallest thing thou must see."
With our eyes we can observe the outer aspect of objects. In the past, objects had to be destroyed or taken apart in order to look inside them. Since Wilhelm Röntgen's discovery of the X-ray, not only can we look inside matter, but we can also see through living organisms. Today, we are able to penetrate into the inside of many states of matter; and soon we will even be able to observe atoms during chemical reactions.