How are astronomical discoveries changing our picture of the world? And what does it mean for applied science? We talk with Professor Dieter Breitschwerdt, director of the Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Berlin's Technical University.
DW: Professor Dieter Breitschwerdt, actually you're dealing with objects you will never be able to reach, with which you will never be able to do any experiments and which you will never be able to - well maybe understand - but never get there to the objects of your interest....What's driving you?
Dieter Breitschwerdt: Well that's true. But I can look at these objects. I can try to understand what they are and how they work, how they function, how they evolve. I can try to understand how our cosmic environment works, and that's a fascination for me.
But you can only look at it. Isn't that frustrating?
No, for a scientist it's always important to sort of have information from objects. It doesn't matter which way. You don't have to see them by eye. You can just make an experiment, measure something, take a telescope, look at it and get information.
And the objects are actually very, very far away. Light years, billions of light years. has that already changed the perspective on your everyday life?
Well yes, I would say so. I think you see things in a more distant way. Everyday problems become very, very small. Trifles, if you look at it from Alpha Centauri.
And how did you actually become an astronomer? You just kept on dreaming away, looking at the stars like many children do?
Not really. I was trained as a physicist and I like physics very much, especially particle physics was my favorite. But then I couldn't really decide what I would do as a masters thesis so I just thought going into astrophysics gives me the opportunity to do all the different physical fields into one field - in astrophysics. It's the physics of extremes that fascinates me.
But maybe you even thought of the astronomers of older ages, like Galileo, Copernicus, who had a chance to change our ways of looking at the universe. Does astronomy still hold these chances?
I would say so. I think astronomy is still a fundamental science in the sense that it really tells us what are the urgent, the nagging questions in physics. For example, dark matter, dark energy. These are things that we don't understand at all and I am sure that the answer will come from astronomy.
And could they really change our perspective on life, like Copernicus really changed our look onto life and the universe?
It could change our perspective. I don't think it will do away with our physics fundaments. But it will really change our view on things.
And are you sure dark matter actually exists?
Yes. I know that it exists because we can see it - not with the eyes, but we have information on it - with our observations.
But maybe that's actually an indication that our laws that apply here on earth maybe do not apply on these gigantic scales of the universe.
Some people do think that. Some people think that we have to change the law of gravity. But there are now observations, for example the collision of galaxy clusters - really the largest bound structures in the universe, which show really a difference between the gravitating matter, which is dark matter, and the baryonic matter, which is not dark matter, which is radiating matter.
So you actually say man is smart enough to understand the universe - or how much do we actually know about the universe so far?
That's hard to say because there so much to know yet, and we don't know how much there is. But we know a little bit.
(Interview: Ingolf Baur)