"Science helps foster public awareness of the responsibility we all share"

Speech by the Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister of Education and Research, Michael Meister (MdB), at the dinner on the occasion of the ESO Committee of Council Meeting on 8 October 2019 at Schloss Ringberg, Tegernsee.

Esteemed Delegates on the ESO Council,
Directors of ESO,
Members of ESO staff,
Professor Stratmann,

I have the pleasure of welcoming you to this October meeting of the ESO Committee of Council on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

I would like to thank the Max Planck Society, and in particular its President, Professor Stratmann, for the opportunity to hold this meeting here at Schloss Ringberg.

I received the invitation to this dinner a few weeks after a discovery made headlines: The first picture of a black hole published by the global "Event Horizon Telescope" project caused a media sensation that could hardly have been any greater.

EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas held a press conference in Brussels. The National Science Foundation informed the public in the United States.
The news met with great public interest not only in South America but also in China and Japan.

There was general agreement in the scientific community that this picture was as important for research as the discovery of the Higgs-Boson in 2012 and the detection of gravitational waves in 2016.

It was ESO, together with the astronomical Max Planck institutes, which contributed substantially to this scientific breakthrough.

But what is the actual benefit of this enormous amount of work performed for so many years? Just a few blurred images of an irregular orange-yellow ring around a dark core?

That is what some people say, often complaining that this is not worth spending hundreds of millions of euros.

In my view, they fail to realize what science actually means. You, the delegates of the ESO member states, stand for a significance of astronomy, which goes far beyond the direct benefit of a specific research project.

Benefit can never be used as a yardstick for measuring fundamental research, as this research often breaks new ground, is highly innovative and carried out on a long-term basis. ESO impressively shows how important it is to provide lasting support for this kind of research.

Sixteen European member states are working together with other partners to provide the international astronomical community with the best possible conditions for carrying out research.

As any basic research today, astronomy is international in character and depends on cooperation across borders between countries, political systems and ideologies.

Indeed, it already embraces cooperation with other scientific disciplines – because answers to the fundamental questions concerning matter and the universe cannot be found using a monocausal approach.

Researchers can make progress if they share knowledge and work together to obtain new findings. In the face of future challenges, it is reassuring for me, and also for many others, to see how the ESO member states keep working to ensure support for gaining new knowledge in a joint effort.

A project such as the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) that is currently being built in Chile not only needs the visionary power of those who devise, design and plan such a telescope of unmatched dimensions.

It also needs the enduring commitment of the ESO staff and management, the researchers and the member states which ensure its funding.

Transborder technological links and a smooth exchange of engineering and technical know-how between all the participating countries are just as important.

And finally, it requires internal agreement on an overall strategy which covers not only topical issues but also the organization's long-term development and the definition of joint objectives for the more distant future.

The world, or the universe, is our common living space. This is why we are working together to better understand what makes it tick.

It goes without saying that fundamental research is not art for art's sake. Its findings provide the basis for solving urgent challenges.

Basic research involves exchanges of highly innovative knowledge and technology and the development of common international strategies and long-term collaborations – a fact which is often neglected.

It is exactly this aspect, which we must keep in mind when responding to critical comments on government funding for basic research, which does not seem to contribute to solving environmental problems, securing a sustainable economy or fighting disease.

But still another question arises in the context of the media hype about Event Horizon: Why are such discoveries so fascinating to the general public? Why do so many people download these pictures? What makes thousands of people watch a solar eclipse?

When I worked at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt as a mathematician, I experienced this fascination of the endless expanses of the universe myself, and I remember these years with great pleasure.

I am convinced that this fascination still prevails in the community of all those working with the large telescopes in Chile and elsewhere. But the professional commitment of researchers to their subject cannot be the only reason why people around the globe are so enthusiastic about astronomical achievements.

In the conclusion of his "Critique of Practical Reason", Immanuel Kant mentions the "starry heavens" (beside "moral law") as one of the two things that "fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe".

He provides the following explanation for this impact:

"The former begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense, and enlarges my connection therein to an unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into limitless times of their periodic motion, its beginning and continuance."

I think Kant here directs our attention to a crucial point:
If we take a deliberate look at the starry heavens, we realize that we are part of a larger, unimaginable context even though we may be mere specks of dust in the universe.

Pictures like those produced by Event Horizon really do widen human horizons in the true sense of the word: They make people aware of the fact that virtually all things in the world are interrelated.

Whether it be the Higgs-Boson as the smallest particle or the black hole as the largest structure in space – both are beyond our imagination. Nevertheless, both must be considered together in our efforts to explore the origins and future of our world.

Teaching and explaining this insight is one of science's major challenges. Science helps foster public awareness of the responsibility we all share in preserving the future of this world.

ESO delivers exemplary performance in this respect:

Its numerous activities to explain the issues and findings of astronomy to a broader public, in schools and universities contribute substantially to ensuring that events such as the publication of the Event Horizon pictures are not merely sensational news but also have a lasting impact.

The completion and operation of the Supernova in Garching helps us foster this fascination for the universe and ensure a lasting public interest in astronomy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted that, as a member of ESO, Germany can contribute to the success of the organization and to successful astronomical research.

It is gratifying to see that you, as representatives of the member states and of the scientific community, are working together so constructively to support and ensure the positive development of the institution.

Germany will continue to contribute its share in future so that ESO will remain a major international organization in the field of astronomy.

Thank you.