Interview with Hartmut Schröder
Hartmut Schröder (77) has known the Max Planck Institute since childhood. He became a research assistant a good 44 years ago. Shortly afterwards, the MPQ was founded. Schröder helped set up the first working groups at the MPQ. Today he is still active at the institute. Here he recalls how it all began and tells how times have changed.
You have always had a connection to the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. Can you tell us about your beginnings?
I studied at the TUM and did my doctorate. In January 1978, I became a research associate in the project group for laser research with Karl Ludwig Kompa. At that time, the team was still part of the Institute for Plasma Physics. For us, that meant a few extra days off, a free work bus and our own image station for making slides. At that time, manuscripts were still typed in the secretary's office and diagrams were made on a drawing machine. Each laboratory had a technician, an experiment and a target.
And what about the beginnings of the MPQ?
After positive reviews of our work at IPP, the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics was spun off. In the beginning, we were about 30 scientists and one female scientist who built up the institute. I was very lucky to get one of the two permanent scientist positions that were still vacant. Essential building blocks for the foundation of the MPQ at that time were the research of Prof. Karl Ludwig Kompa on iodine laser technology, as well as the laser fusion research of Prof. Siegbert Witkowski. Research was also carried out on intensive CO2 lasers. Ernst Fill, who is still active in our group, was also involved in this.
What was your development in research like? Have your scientific interests changed over the years?
I have worked in a wide variety of disciplines. I have worked on surface physics, laser analytics and many basic experiments. But my motivation has always been the same: The perfect experiment. I was more interested in the methodology from which clear insights into nature can be gained than in gaining knowledge with different methods.
Can you give us an example of the working methods of that time?
At the beginning of the 1980s, we were also concerned with high-power lasers. For this, a capacitor bank had to be charged first. One managed a few shots per day. Pulse duration in the range of microseconds, energy in the 100 joule range. This was used to shoot at X-ray paper and produced wonderful, impressive burn pattern.
A lot has happened in 44 years. In your opinion, what were the greatest scientific insights gained at the MPQ?
The MPQ has contributed a great deal to gain knowledge in the quantum world. However, I don't want to presume any judgement on the weighting of the findings. There are also some other important achievements: a lot of new textbook knowledge was generated, there were outstanding contributions to the development of laser technology and, above all, to the intellectual infrastructure through the extensive training work.
How has the research landscape changed from then to now?
Working with chemical substances, with lasers and other hazards was a bit more carefree. In many laboratories, people even still smoked. The topic of my doctoral thesis was the fast detection of small absorption changes. We were still moving in different dimensions than today. Nanoseconds were extremely short periods of time and sensitivity was measured in the percentage range. Today, we move in attoseconds and in the 1/1010 range. Since there was no internet, we spent a lot of time in the library. People read journals to find out what others were doing. One's scientific value was usually determined by whether other scientists requested offprints of one's own work. I also have the impression that today research has become much more scholarly, but also much more international.
You are an old hand in the business. What would you advise today's physics students to do if they want to pursue an academic career?
When you have finished your physics studies, you have at best a rough overview of the discipline. Physics is simply far too diverse to be fully grasped in a few years of study. But this is a good opportunity for the next generation. You can approach problems in a very unbiased way. If you then enjoy discovering new things and keep asking questions of nature, then you should consider a life as a researcher. For a scientific career, however, you need passion and the ability to suffer, plus a bit of luck. And finally, one should join a group known as the Professors' Forge.