Exhibition Topics

Why are the laws of nature the way they are?

Why did the world not disperse as light during the Big Bang, instead of forming stable matter? How did the Universe expand to its current size? What determined its speed? How constant are natural constants? And why do elementary particles have the mass that they do? Such are the questions at the core of modern physics – and at the essence of creation. Human life may never have emerged in a world with just slightly different natural constants.

In the search for answers, physicists are examining the elementary components of the material world and their interactions, the four fundamental forces: the strong interaction that binds quarks and atoms; the weak interaction important in radioactive decay; electromagnetic interaction and gravitation. The latter can still not be described by a closed theory. Physicists are thus developing a model of ›physics beyond the standard model‹ and searching for associated fields – such as the Higgs field, as the key to gravitation. They are doing this with the worlds largest accelerators: the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the future International Linear Collider and the accelerator in Brookhaven. In smaller experiments, they are determining natural constants more precisely than ever.

To this end, particle physicists, astrophysicists and cosmologists of the Max Planck Society are cooperating across the boundaries of their disciplines and internationally: with biologists at the molecular level, IT specialists in the field of quantum information, and with mathematicians on string theory.

How can we systematically influence materials?

The nanocosmos is providing the physical, chemical and materialscience-related foundations for better, more compact and less-expensive future products. Technical applications are born – from the micro milling machine and ideal catalytic converter through to semiconducting polymers for optics and electronics. The targeted development of specific catalysts allows molecular designing of custom polymers.

New phenomena present challenges for scientists – the giganticmagnetoresistance (GMR) for new storage media, modern high-temperature superconductors or quantum states of matter, like Bose-Einstein condensate. The study of materials and their fabrication has long since reached the atomic level. Researchers at the Max Planck Society are breaking down chemical processes and the fundamental interactions between individual atoms chronologically. They are studying their magnetic, electrical andoptical properties with new microscopy procedures and with synchrotron light. Their view of the anatomy, formation and transformation of matter has never been sharper.

Progress has also been made in material production with entirely new properties: away from the random creation of internal structures and towards targeted manipulation, even of individualatoms. Materials can now be customized, atomic layer by atomic layer, and nature has thus far assisted researchers in thisthrough its own ordering processes. In the “ExtreMat” project, scientists from the Max Planck Society are coordinating research Europe-wide into new high-strength materials for extreme stress applications.

What is life?

The structures of living beings are complex and come in various shapes and forms. This holds true for the macroscopic organization of their tissues and organs as well as for microscopic interaction of their molecules, which interact with practically inconceivable dynamics. Among the highly complex macromolecules are information carriers that can be copied any number of times, tracks and engines that transport molecular loads, carriers that determine not only the statics of the cells, but also their mobility, and finally, membranes that seal the cells off from outside, while still allowing material exchange and communication with the surroundings. Thanks to new analysis and detection methods, research into the three-dimensional structures of these giant molecules and their functions in the cell is progressing rapidly. This depends on the refinement of existing methods and the development of new ones for imaging – for examinations in living cells – and on computer simulation.

To understand the processes in living cells, it is necessary to know more than the structure of macromolecules; knowledge of their interaction in groups, and temporal changes to which they are subject is also necessary. But how do enzymes ensure that chemical reactions, which are crucial for the way the cells function, take place in time and space? Can cells repair themselves? Which imbalances lead to diseases, whether developmental disturbances in childhood or signs of aging? An under-standing of these processes is the potential for developing new medical agents or materials based on nature’s example.

Which programs control the development of life?

Like many organisms, a human being develops from a single cell. Today, the human genome has been completely decoded. Surprising discovery: our blueprint contains many molecular similarities to other living beings. But how does a organism develop from such a plan? How can completely different cells develop from one set of genetic information? Cells react with their surroundings, making use of different nutritional sources, repairing defects, and coordinating their activities in the growth and development cycle. How does the cell use the information encoded in the genome to fulfil its function? We know that an organism is not defined only by its genes. In addition to protein-encoded areas, DNA also contains regions that control the gene expression.

This explains why the number of genes does not continue to rise as the organism becomes more complex, or consequently why the same number of genes can produce a mouse or a per-son. But how do genes interact in networks, and what influence do external factors exert? Many afflictions, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, result from the interactions of numerous genes and environmental factors. What is the difference between a sick and a healthy organism?

How can the natural control system be used for new therapy forms? Can we reprogram body cells? Today, researchers have the chance to study and understand life as a complex “system”. Together with new technologies, this could lead to new medicines that treat illnesses according to the individual genetic disposition.

How does the brain work?

The human brain is the most complex structure in the universe. It contains roughly 100 billion nerve cells, each of which has thousands of connections to other neurons. Their interaction controls each of the body’s functions, allows thoughts, perceptions, memories, feelings, and also movement and communication. Understanding just how the brain works, in health or in sickness, is one of the greatest challenges of our time. What is determined by genes, what is formed by experience? Neuro-scientists are investigating all aspects of the nervous system.

Great progress can be expected in visualizing and modelling brain functions, as well as in research into their biological basis. Today, it is assumed that 30 to 50 percent of human genes exercise their function chiefly in the brain. This gives an indication of the complexity of the genetic control and development. The cause of many neurological diseases lies in defects in genes that play a role in development. Half of all genetic diseases affect the nervous system. The brain can only reach its full capability through interaction with its surroundings. Researchers are examining the interaction of genes and experiences with regard to the expression and fine–tuning of neuronal circuits in the brain. How do nerve cell processes find their goal? How do different brain areas develop? How do cognitive functions mature? Thanks to research, the prevention and cure of many brain diseases seems possible for the first time. Better knowledge of the way the brain processes information could, moreover, make new computers possible.

What is consciousness?

The ability to communicate using complex language and to think actively about one’s own history and future make us as humans unique. How did our brain? What is the origin of language and that of cognitive and cultural human skills? Researchers want to throw light on important aspects of human evolution. Properties of individual nerve cells are already well researched today. However, when we think, smell, feel, make plans or learn, extremely complex processes are at work in our brain; they require the interaction of many neurons in different areas of the brain. New imaging methods make it possible to observe the brain as it produces cognitive results, and to trace at which times areas of the brain are activated. But how does the brain use the different information to produce an image of the world?

Research is focusing on more and more complex cognitive processes and structures: how do we recognize and distinguish faces, and how is language processed in the brain? Furthermore, what is the connection between individual differences in learning and intelligence with variations in the brain? How far can these differences be traced to a different genetic background? Additional progress should result in new integrative methods, which researchers are currently developing, to allow observation of the extensively branched neural networks and the development of functional organization in the brain. The goal is for smart agents and functional MRIs to make it possible to see changesin ion and molecular concentration, both of which are involved in signalling processes.

Can complex systems be measured?

Extremely sensitive measuring instruments are required in order to understand what actually holds the world together and how processes occur in space or in living cells. They extend the human sensory organs that render the invisible visible. They provide the data for new theories. The technology involved is currently undergoing radical change: sensors are now of molecular proportions and can be made of polymers, coated ionic conductors or proteins. They function on the basis of atomic and quantum phenomena, and are becoming increasingly accurate at the same time. It is now already possible to measure the frequency of a hydrogen line to 14 decimal places. Consequently, the mountain of data continues to grow. Mainframe computers and distributed computing via grid computing form the basis for data handling. This results in a need for increasingly sophisticated selection strategies and new algorithms for data compression. Mathematical methods are the only way of understanding those organizational principles of nature that form the basis for the measured data, as well as the complex networks into which man is integrated – ranging from the food chain, social behaviour and chaotic irregularities during heart attacks, through to the fault susceptibility of the mains supply or mobile networks. How can this chaos be controlled? How can computers be used to recognize patterns as effectively as the brain? Or to what extent is it possible to employ computers in verifying and testing software? Such questions will have an increasing influence on research and on our lives.

How does complexity arise?

In research, questions as to “how” and “why” are gaining in complexity. The gap between the theoretical description of nature and current experimental questions continues to widen. Through modelling and simulation, computers aid in closing this gap. Models serve as the basis, reflecting aspects of reality. They are the foundation for simulations with which scientists imitate specific changes in individual parameters. Visual images play an important role in both cases, making the results far more comprehensible. Today, scientists can, for example, describe the behaviour of atoms and molecules on the computer and calculate not only basic chemical reactions, but – by adjusting the scale – also the macroscopic properties of solids by integrating quantum mechanics in computer models. Knowledge of biological processes has also grown enormously over the past few years. The life sciences have at their disposal an ever-increasing number of parameters to include in their models, leading to evermore detailed results. In the future, the behaviour of entire cellular signal chains and complex bioprocesses will be examined. This will require processing and analyzing greater data volumes. Researchers strive to understand networks and emergent phenomena, which result from the interaction of many individual phenomena. Data mining and computational biology will thus continue to gain in importance. Today’s genetic analysts and system biologists work together with statisticians and computerscientists, and with astrophysicists to analyze astronomical data, and physicists to conduct acceleration experiments.

What constitutes sustainable development?

More than 6 billion people inhabit the earth today. Feeding them, keeping them healthy and providing them with energy are true global challenges. Fundamental research is performing ground-work for solving these challenges. In health, one aspect of the work here involves chronic diseases, which kill many millions of people each year. But work is also concentrating on the no less dangerous infectious diseases, such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Research is focusing on finding the molecular causes of diseases and developing targeted therapies and tailored medicines. Yet in the long run, particularly in societies with aging populations and falling birth rates, preventive measures play a leading role in avoiding illness. The foreseeable dwindling of fossil fuels and the consequences of unrestrained carbon emissions on the climate are encouraging new ideas for generating energy. This includes research into nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium, development of new technologies for generating, transporting and storing hydrogen, through to artificial photosynthesis, as well as the development of innovative materials for robust and powerful fuel and solar cells. Given the limited resources, humanity must take a new path of sustainable development. If research can understand the expression of characteristics in plants, this could provide new raw materials for the production of synthetic materials, dyes and fibres that are no longer based on limited petrochemicals. Or grains, whose cultivation require fewer pesticides and less irrigation.

How can we preserve the earth’s protective systems?

Life on earth is only possible because of the complex coexistence among land ecosystems, oceans, atmosphere and the substances that circulate among them. Small changes can have far reaching effects. This is why scientists are looking for a unified understanding of the earth. To this purpose, they take measurements on the ground and air, and develop computer models. Micro-organisms are ubiquitous and, like plants, animals and people, sustain the biosphere. They control the circulation of life’s most important raw materials – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, sulphur, iron, manganese and water. Research into micro-organisms is necessary for reliable earth models. Moreover, they often contain interesting enzymes and metabolic products. The earth itself is also very active, as revealed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This is why researchers are looking at the earth’s interior, where a gigantic dynamo generates an invisible shield that protects us on earth from deadly radiation from space. Scientists also want to explore earth’s surroundings in space, as solar weather can have serious consequences for our daily life. Only when we understand the complex interaction of all of these components can we achieve sustainable use of the earth’s resources. There are many open questions. Which regions and components are particularly sensitive to changes? What are the thresholds that, if exceeded, can result in abrupt changes on earth? And just how much influence does mankind have? Are there possibilities for long-term control of the earth’s behaviour?

How do stars and planets originate?

Beyond the Earth’s magnetosphere lies interplanetary space. This is filled with solar wind: electromagnetic wave fields and particle showers, radiating from the Sun. This is the central star of the planetary system and thus at the centre of attention of solar system researchers. These scientists want to know how the sun works: what does its magnetic activities look like? How are the highly-charged particles heated and dispersed in powerful pulses? Which energy transformations result in the heating of the sun’s corona and emission of the solar wind? The researchers are also keeping an eye on the sun’s influence on the Earth: they are investigating the ways in which the sun affects communication and navigation systems here on earth, as well as its long-term impact on climate changes. Exploration of the sun, however, also entails studying the planets, their atmospheres and moons, as well as uncovering how they were formed and how they have developed. This early history of the solar system and the planets can also be gleaned from comets and meteorites.
A prerequisite to clearing up such questions is not only powerful earth-based telescopes, but also space missions. Max Planck researchers are involved internationally with these projects, including such successful missions as the Mars Express and the ESO’s large telescopes.


How and when did the universe come into existence?

Where do we come from? This question has fascinated mankind throughout history. But today we want to know more. How did the universe come to be? Why does it have its present shape and structure? We want to understand cosmic processes. To find answers to these questions, astronomers and astro-physicists study the birth and death of stars, and the creation of galaxies and black holes. They also try to determine how “dark matter” and “dark energy” is dispersed throughout the universe. We know a great deal about the four percent of visible matter – however, about the 96 percent of invisible stuff in between, we know next to nothing. To improve their chances of shedding some light on these matters, astronomers are now, more than ever before, teaming up with nuclear physicists, particle physicists, cosmologists and mathematicians to model and simulate structures and processes, bringing together quantum mechanics and the Theory of Relativity. Their hope is to answer the burning question of how the universe originated and evolved. How did it come to have the order and structure we know today, given its apparent initial chaos? In their quest for answers, scientists rely on increasingly powerful and complex instruments. This includes telescopes set up on earth and in space designed to cover the entire radiation spectrum. Astronomy, today, has already entered a “golden era”, with instruments more accurate than ever before, enabling scientists to look far off into the universe. We are the first human beings to study extrasolar planets and solar systems.

BASF KIDS’ LAB (World of Chemistry)

Packed with engaging hands-on experiments, the BASF Kids’ Lab introduces young minds to the fascinating world of chemistry. BASF also shows how chemicals touch our lives daily from sunrise to moonrise and the career paths in chemistry through a series of short films and displays.

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Experiments done in Kids’ Lab:

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