(Re)connecting people at Jürgen Kurths’ 70th anniversary

Gorka Zamora-López

This is going to be a rather personal post but I thought it could be a good opener for a new section of the blog titled “Life in Academia.” I would like to write  (and I would like to invite others to write) about the daily experience of being a scientist and surviving (or struggling) through the academic system.

During the week of March 13 – 19, 2023, I returned to Berlin and Potsdam (where I lived for ten years and did my Ph.D.) for a visit with the occasion of the NDA23 conference to cellebrate Prof. Jürgen Kurths’ 70th birthday. The week turned into an emotional rollercoster for me. It was very touching to meet so many old colleagues and friends. And we certainly missed others who couldn’t be there.

I am aware Jürgen and his way of managing a large research group faced several detractors over the years. And surely he has been a tough person to negotiate with. Thankfully I rarely had to. But in the occasions he would reach to you and say “this or that needs to be done” you knew there was little margin. Those needs would range from basic things such as attending a talk or having a discussion with someone who was visiting the group, to help organising conferences.  As a student, I rarely felt those duties as an annoyance. Despite they would sometimes interrupt my flow, I could see the bigger picture behind. How that would help me become a better scientist and a better professional. Because, yes, science is not a hobby as many people tend to say. It is a profession and you need to learn to behave professionally. So, all in all, I am also convinced that many in academia simply didn’t grasp the human legacy that Jürgen was leaving and he still nurtures.

Beyond the science itself, the main contribution of Prof. Kurths to science has been all the people he has connected under the honest conviction that “science has no borders.” Jürgen was always travelling and it was rare to see him more than a week in the office. India, Russia, China, Japan, Europe, North America, Brazil … He was all over the place, making ties, looking for partnering opportunities, managing cross-national research projects and taking care of people. Making sure everyone had what we needed to do our job. Our group often looked more as an office of the United Nations than the physics department of a town in the former Eastern Germany, only fifteen years after the fall of the Wall. More than 300 scientists from four continents, joyfully coming to celebrate his 70th birthday together in the form of a conference, I think it says it all.

I remember sitting in my office years ago and receiving the occasional e-mail from Jürgen who was god knows where: “Gorka, I just saw a talk by xx and yy. They just published a paper on this and that. I thought it might be of interest for you. Jürgen.” Or being at a conference in which we had exchanged no words beyond the cordial “good morning.” Out of the blue, he could come to me and whisper “Gorka, I talked to those people yesterday. They are doing this and that. Go talk to them and see whether you could collaborate.

During the conference last week, he would still do his job with a big smile in his face. You could see him enjoying through the poster sessions, walking with a colleague by the arm, introducing him or her to someone else and then just dissapearing to let them do the talk. Two connected, job done. I really had to laugh: seventy and still kicking.

Because whenever two scientists share a common question or a common problem to solve, it doesn’t matter who they are, their academic rank or where they come from. What they have is the open opportunity to find a collaborator. And maybe also a friend. Not a competitor.

As I said in the beginning, the week had its ups and downs. I now know how lucky I was to do my Ph.D. in such a multicultural and cooperative environment. Yes, it was hard work and there was pressure to be productive. Of course. But I took those other simple human principles for granted, as part of the scientific culture and professionalism. Reality has thrown me into the cold many times since then. Sadly, science and academia are human activities for other sides as well. Greed, self-promotion, the narcissistic search for fame (which is often rewarded with power and funding), plagiarism, sheer competition, the Matthiew effect … are all also part of the scientific and academic world. I had to suffer some of those over the years.

Also, in the last days I could enjoy again the time with some good friends. I realised how many talented, hard-working and passionate people have been expelled from science by a rotten academic system, having to abandon their scientific dreams along with it.

It really breaks my heart 💔

And of course, it also makes me wonder whether I will be the next.

In any case, I am very, very grateful to Norbert Marwan, Aneta Koseska, Jobst Heitzig and everyone else who made the NDA23 conference and these wonderful days possible.

To all of you: Respekt !!