Letter of protest from Prof. Volkert, Göttingen

An: ‚praesident@tuhh.de‘ <praesident@tuhh.de>

Betreff: Talk on Self-Orgnaization in Physics


Dear President Brinksma,

I believe we met at the beginning of this year, on or about your first day as President of TUHH. The occasion was a dinner of the advisory board of the Zentrum für Hochleistungsmaterialien (ZHM). Your presence gave a strong message of commitment to ZHM and to the TUHH colleagues who initiated it. It was seen very positively by the board members, who are also very committed to ZHM and to providing excellent education.

An excellent education offers students knowledge about their chosen field of study, but also provides tools to think critically and see many sides and the wide-ranging implications of a given issue. In a time when there are escalating demands on our natural resources and growing threats to the environment and climate, I believe it is urgent that our students learn to think and discuss critically and anticipate the impact of science and technology on the world and society in general. 

I am writing to you because of the TUHH’s decision to ban an announcement of a talk by my Göttingen Physics colleague Prof. Christian Jooss. The talk will be held on 17.11.18 at HAW near the main train station in Hamburg and is based on his book “Selbstorganisation der Materie: Dialektische Entwicklungstheorie von Mikro- und Makrokosmos”. It is a fascinating book: it applies the Nobel Prize winning concept of emergence (properties derive from dynamic interaction and self-organization of the components) to fields that have been resistant to learning from this paradigm-changing world view. He pits the idea of emergence against what I like to call the static “building block” view of the world and universe. For physics students, he offers an excitingly different way of looking at and questioning the science they learn in their introductory courses. For established scientists, he offers the opportunity to look at a well-known topic from an entirely new angle. For the general public, he shows how science and philosophy are not as far apart as perhaps expected.

I have heard that the reasons given for not allowing the talk announcement on the TUHH campus are to protect political neutrality and to limit the extent of advertisement. I comprehend the ideas that lie behind such guidelines even if I do not necessarily agree with both. It is not always easy to apply these guidelines in a sensible and constructive way. And perhaps the complicated times we live in require a more differentiated process than is currently being used. In this case, I do not understand why Christian Jooss’s talk is viewed as political: the talk is about science. How we perform science is certainly affected by our society and political surroundings.  And in reverse, deeply critical and open-minded discussion of any kind are conducive to good political discourse. So, if such a presentation has its desired outcome – to assist the broad education of our society – it will surely also have a positive impact on the level of political discourse and on our understanding of the role politics in how we see and do things.

Furthermore, I do not view the talk announcement as “advertisement” (Werbemaßnahme) but rather as an announcement of an educational opportunity. I continue to be optimistic that German citizens – who fund universities through their taxes – want student to learn to think openly and critically. In this sense, universities have a responsibility to actively guide students towards learning experiences, even if these are in a different context than a university lecture.

It is indeed my experience through teaching in Göttingen that the students need and want (!) to learn to think critically. They desperately ask how to think about the many messages they get each today: to distinguish between salesmanship and help, between manipulation and an honest attempt to educate, between green-washing and careful analysis. The lecture that my colleague is offering will help the participants to see the many sides of the many issues that bombard them each day. I believe that the TUHH (and any public University) has the responsibility to foster and promote such events. I hope very much that you will reconsider your decision, and not only allow the announcement but also stand behind the event.

Best regards,

Cynthia Volkert

Kategorie: Aktuelles, Proteste TU Hamburg

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