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20 April 2006

The Tell-Tale Gaze

In "Ruperto Carola" 1/2006, Joachim Funke tells us how he spies on the brain at work — Other topics in the Heidelberg research magazine are Indology, history, cancer research and physiology

Scientists interested in how the brain does its thinking really have their work cut out. They cannot directly observe the brain processing information and solving problems, so they have to devise indirect methods of eliciting its secrets. One such method is gaze direction measurement. Though little used as yet, it does in fact enable scientists to draw conclusions on processing activity in the brain. In the title story of the latest issue, Prof. Joachim Funke of the Institute of Psychology explains how we can accurately measure eye movements, what they tell us about the way the brain works and what eye movements have to do with the comprehensibility of texts. Other topics dealt with in the magazine are Indology, history, cancer research and physiology.

Vice-Rector Tröger in the editorial: "Not satisfied with this showing."

"We cannot be satisfied with this showing." Thus vice-Rector for research, Prof. Jochen Tröger, on the University of Heidelberg's performance in the first round of the Excellence Initiative. True, the University has been called upon to submit proposals for a Graduate School on "Fundamental Physics", a Cluster of Excellence on "Cellular Networks" and for the third line of funding "Top-Level Research: The Heidelberg Way". But other outline proposals have been turned down.

Tröger indicates the next stages in the process. The Rectorate and the University administration will be giving priority support to the research groups invited to submit proposals so that they can substantially step up their efforts. "To improve the proposals we have had a number of discussions with friends from outside the University. The Rectorate is grateful for the support they have so generously provided."

At the same time, the University has started with the selection procedure for the next round of the competition. "Perhaps I may be permitted a personal remark," says Tröger. "The months spent on the first round of the competition have been a period of immense strain and stress. The work has however been lightened by the pleasure of making the closer acquaintance of the scientists and scholars working at the University and appreciating their eminent academic qualities." One of the positive experiences was the plenary discussion of all the proposals, a meeting that took several hours and produced a number of new internal cooperation schemes on both sides of the Neckar river.

"Despite the many positive impulses, why is our showing unsatisfactory?" Tröger asks. "The causes are to be sought right here in our midst. We need to subject them to critical analysis and make the necessary changes. An initial scrutiny of the intermediate results in the first round indicates that traditional lines of inquiry in the humanities are sadly under-represented among the outlines selected for the submittal of a full-scale proposal. These are subjects for which Germany has a reputation for special excellence abroad. Something has to be done about this, both in connection with the wording of the competition itself, the presentation of the proposals (this is where we come in) and in the assessment by the referees."

"As representatives of one of Germany's traditional universities, we and other universities like us have a special political function to perform," Tröger insists. "We need to call this funding bias by name, both internally and externally, and do our bit to make sure it is dealt with. But we must also ensure that we do not end up as a university with only a few Clusters of Excellence and Graduate Schools. All the members of the University should feel committed to the task of preserving the University of Heidelberg as a full-scale university."

"And new life springs from every death"

For several years now, an architectural historian and an Indologist have been involved in an unusual interdisciplinary investigation of transitional life-cycle rituals in the ancient urban cultures of Nepal. Niels Gutschow and Axel Michaels of the South Asia Institute are both members of the German Research Foundation-funded long-term collaborative research project on "Ritual Dynamics". They first turned their attention to funeral rituals but now they have started dedicating their efforts to initiation rites marking a different kind of transition. This is the subject of their article in the new issue of the magazine.

The state as virgo intacta

Historians tend to take rather a dim view of images, regarding them as unreliable illustrations greatly inferior to the written word in their value as historical source material. In the new issue of "Ruperto Carola" history professor Thomas Maissen exhorts his fellow historians to cast aside their distrust of images. With reference to the pictorial idiom of the Middle Ages he draws upon some impressive examples to explain the analogies between the sovereignty of the state and the immaculacy of the Virgin.

Releasing the brakes of the immune system

Melanomas are among the most malignant of tumours. If identified early enough they can be cured, but once they have reached an advanced stage the prospects are poor indeed. Alexander Enk and Karsten Mahnke of the University Dermatological Hospital tell us about new strategies for enlisting the active support of the immune system in this connection. The special feature of their immune therapy is the way it releases cellular brakes so that the body's defence system can really marshal its troops in the campaign against cancer.

Clogged arteries and other killers

At first glance, clogged arteries, heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and rheumatism look like entirely different disorders. But the latest findings in basic medical research suggest that all these ailments have at least one thing in common: a genetic defect that stops the formation of important messenger substances. Markus Hecker and Marco Cattaruzza of the Institute of Physiology and Pathophysiology describe the exciting avenues explored by researchers in their quest for the root of many different evils and describe the medicinal agents that may enable them to deal with all these illnesses in "one go".

In "Young Scholars and Scientists Report", one of the topics this time centres around the tricks parasites resort to. Markus Meissner describes new attack points for medicinal agents of potential use against a killer that claims two million victims annually all over the world — the malaria bug. Also, Antje Thumat gives us a vivid outline of the aesthetic and dramaturgical principles informing Hans Werner Henze's Kleist-based opera "Prinz von Homburg" and its libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann. In the "News and Views" section vice-Rector Silke Leopold chimes in with a timely reminder: "Everyone's talking about the Excellence Initiative, and here excellence means research prowess. But it would be good for us to bear one thing mind in the scramble for the huge funding rewards: research excellence begins in the very first term."

The magazine closes with "News from the Stiftung Universität Heidelberg Foundation". Paul Kirchhof provides pen-pictures of the winners of the Ruprecht-Karl Prize, the Fritz Grunebaum Award and the Environment Award of the Viktor and Sigrid Dulger Foundation. He also outlines the significance of their research work.

"Ruperto Carola" is published by Universitätsverlag C. Winter Heidelberg GmbH. Single copies cost € 5 plus postage. Like the special subscription offer (€ 30 for four issues) they can be ordered from: Pressestelle der Universität Heidelberg, Postfach 10 57 60, D-69047 Heidelberg. Gratis copies of earlier issues are available in the entrance area of the Old University (Grabengasse 1).

For more information and the complete articles of earlier issues (in German) go to http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/presse/publikat.html

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317
michael.schwarz@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de
http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/presse/index.html

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax 542317
presse@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de


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