Year of Science 2023: the greatest story of all time

19 Apr 2023

“Our Universe” is the theme of the Year of Science 2023, organized by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. LMU is contributing with a wide-ranging program of events.

Professor Harald Lesch | © Stephan Höck

You’ve undertaken to tell “the greatest story of all time” during the Year of Science. What do you mean by that?

Professor Harald Lesch: We want to tell the story of the universe – from its origin and the formation of the first structures to the emergence of stars and planets and ultimately to life on our planet all the way through to the Anthropocene. In other words, we want to look at the creature that mastered the use of fire and has changed this planet like no other, with all the consequences this has entailed: humans.

How do you tell a story like that in all its complexity?

Harald Lesch: We want to show that we ourselves are part of the universe. One way of telling the story is like this: From the age of around 12, students are introduced to the chemical elements. We might ask: Where do they come from if the universe produced only the light elements of helium and hydrogen? Where do the elements we’re made of come from: the iron in our blood, the fluoride in our teeth, etcetera? The answer is: from the explosion of massive stars, from supernovae!

You could tell this story in the form of a court case. So, you have the dead body of a star, as it were: Who killed it? What happened? We need forensics – in this case, some mass spectroscopy does the job. It’s like in a Sherlock Holmes story: What do we know? What evidence have we got? What can we deduce from it? You have to tell this story so that it’s genuinely exciting and always come back to the question: How is it all connected with me?

The organizers of the Year of Science at the LMU.

Dr. Cecilia Scorza-Lesch | © Stephan Höck

Do members of the public really ask themselves this question when they attend an event about the universe?

Harald Lesch: When it comes to the universe, it’s true that people mostly want to hear about black holes, dark matter, life on distant planets – the more exotic, the more mysterious, the better. And yet the same laws of nature are in operation out in the cosmos as on Earth. And you can see how they work if you turn around 180 degrees and look at our planet – without mysteries and puzzling phenomena: It’s getting warmer; snow and ice are melting at the poles … these are facts! And if we believe we can somehow dodge the laws of nature, then we’re in for a rude awakening. The Court of the Laws of Nature knows no “in dubio pro reo,” it has no jurors and no attorneys, and the judgments are harsh and the guillotine blade falls swiftly …

What we want to do is inspire people and make it clear to them that we are part of the universe and make them understand how unique our planet is and that we should cherish and look after it.

What events are planned at LMU for the Year of Science 2023?

Dr. Cecilia Scorza-Lesch: Thanks to the funding that has been approved for our projects, we have the opportunity to address various aspects of the topic “Our Universe.” In April, “The Greatest Story of All Time ” will begin – a lecture series that explains how our existence is connected to the universe. The series will kick off on 25 April with a lecture by Harald Lesch, introduced by Christoph Süß. Further lectures by professors in astrophysics at LMU and from the ORIGINS Excellence Cluster will follow in the summer and winter semester. In addition, there are various projects designed for secondary and primary school students.

Dr. Arno Riffeser | © Stephan Höck

Yes, the schools program for the Year of Science is quite extensive. How can you tell this story to schoolchildren?

Dr. Arno Riffeser: We’re currently creating a documentary film about our work at the Wendelstein Observatory and how knowledge is produced there. Tied in with this documentary, we’re running a competition for schoolchildren about the search for exoplanets – that is to say, planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. There is a project at the observatory devoted to searching for these exoplanets. We can’t see these planets, but it’s possible to find them and determine their mass, for example. The principle is actually straightforward: Each star that is orbited by planets wobbles a bit. We can measure this wobble with a spectrograph. Based on these movements, we can calculate the size of a planet that is pulling on a star. After the competition, we will show the students how we measure this. And then we will get them to calculate things like the mass of a planet and its distance from its star, using a computer program we developed .

The three best student groups will take part in an astronomy academy for schoolchildren here and visit the Wendelstein Observatory. This will give them an insight into research practice and show them that the laws of nature are behind everything. It’s important, of course, to ditch the technical jargon and present the material in a way that young people can understand – and also to show the practical side of things.

Cecilia Scorza: We’re bringing research to schools. And not just for students in senior grades either. For primary school children, we developed the “Blue Pearl Program,” which allows them not only to actively explore our solar system using models and pictures, but most of all shows them why our Earth is so unique. First of all, the children choose a favorite planet – say, Mars, Saturn, or Jupiter. Then we explain why life cannot exist on this planet, because it’s too hot or too cold or whatever it is.

At the end of this exercise, the kids generally pick Earth as their favorite planet. In this way, we can make children aware of the need to care for our planet. In September, a booklet I’m co-writing with Harald Lesch about the Pale Blue Dot will be published. We tell the story behind this iconic image of the Earth, which was taken in 1990 by the Voyager I space probe from a distance of over six billion kilometers.

Christine Freitag | © Stephan Höck

Christine Freitag: We’ve already tried this with a primary school class, where we showed them the picture and got them to search for the Earth with a magnifying glass. That made a huge impression on the kids, and they were also impressed when we explained how the Earth formed from dust particles and where its water came from.

Harald Lesch: The astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who originated the idea of producing this image in the 1970s, issued a touching statement when the image was released: “Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” It’s a very emotional image.

How do the parents respond to these lessons?

Dr. Cecilia Scorza: The response is usually positive, although we have received some complaints. For example, that their children started asking awkward questions about their next vacation flights or asked why they needed a plastic bag to go shopping. We just answer: “You’ve got a great kid!” Older children often ask what they should do to protect the environment. We recommend that they set up groups to tackle specific climate action projects, so that they can experience self-efficacy.

How do you respond to skeptics of science, of which there are more since the pandemic?

Arno Riffeser: Yes, there is a certain skepticism toward science out there – fostered in part by online media. Our goal must be to teach schoolchildren what science is. That there are laws of nature, that there are measurements, that we can make certain predictions, but that they must not necessarily turn out to be accurate. If a predicted event does not occur, this is not the fault of science, which was operating with certain probabilities. When making scientific statements, it’s always emphasized that there is a certain scope for error. This was also the case for the coronavirus models in relation to mortality.

Harald Lesch: It’s important to always make clear that as scientists we work with facts. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. All we can do is present options: If we do this, then this or that happens. But research cannot be a self-service store for opinions, where people grab what takes their fancy. It’s precisely this which makes an event like the Year of Science such a great opportunity to present to the public what we do. As scientists we also have the responsibility of reporting on and pointing out the practical consequences of our work.

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