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12 December 2003

Heidelberg Research Magazine "Ruperto Carola 3/2003": Dark Powers

Title story describes the quest for the force that rules the universe—Also: Zafar, a city and its secrets—Molecular news editors in the cell—Does the Earth have relatives?—"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"—Water dimers in the atmosphere

Titel Ruperto Carola 3/2003

Dark energy dominates the universe. But what exactly that dark energy is, no one can say. The new Heidelberg research magazine "Ruperto Carola 3/2003" devotes its title story to this mysterious subject. All that scientists know for certain is that this dark energy is distributed absolutely equally all over the universe and that its pressure is negative. Some say it is Einstein's "cosmological constant", others prefer to think of its as a dynamic quantum field, the "quintessence". Then a "fifth power" would be responsible for the dark energy. In the new issue, Christoph Wetterich of the Institute of Theoretical Physics, University of Heidelberg explains the issues involved in the identification of these mysterious dark powers. Other topics: Zafar, a city and its secrets—Molecular news editors in the cell—Does the Earth have relatives?—"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth", a biblical saying and the malevolent distortion of its true meaning—Water dimers in the atmosphere.

Editorial: Trenchant comment by vice-Rector Silke Leopold on the current discussion about "small departments" in higher education

In the Editorial, vice-Rector Prof. Dr. Silke Leopold takes a belligerent view of the current discussion about "small departments" in higher education. According to the definition in currency up to now, they were departments with relatively few students and a minimum of teaching staff making important contributions to research and teaching with scant resources: "Exotic plants, which like orchids produce superb blossoms despite the arid soil they grow on." In the discussion so far, this definition has been upheld, notably since the research advisory council of Baden-Württemberg issued recommendations aiming at interdepartmental networks, the pooling of resources and specialisation by location. Acting on the conviction that together "lots of small things can add up to something big", these departments at the University of Heidelberg have started checking out the potential for cooperation, and have indeed established a long-term collaborative research project in the humanities.

"But," says Prof. Leopold, "parvus, the Latin word for 'small' also means 'insignificant', 'unimportant', 'secondary', and it looks very much as if this definition is gradually gaining ground in the discussion about small departments." Quoting a letter from the Ministry of Higher Education, she goes on to say that the suggestion implicit in the remarks made there is that the "group of small departments is defined not only by their size but also by the subjects these departments are concerned with." This is puzzling, to say the least. So far, the allocation to the group of small departments was based on a measurable, entirely quantitative standard, however problematic that standard in itself may be. Now, however, the quality of the subject matter itself appears to be the yardstick.

"But what kind of subject is 'small'?" Prof. Leopold asks. "Quarks? Mozart? Dürer? And if there is no objective standard for deciding this, who says which subjects are 'small'?" On the basis of this definition, no subject can be sure of not being dismissed as small, in other words as insignificant, whether it is art history with its almost one thousand students or any other "big" subject. Accordingly, the term now used in international parlance is "endangered subjects"—and, as the example of Cambridge indicates, this can be chemistry. Elsewhere it might be law.

"I freely admit that I am alarmed at this new understanding of 'small'," says Professor Leopold. "And I fear those who believe that they know which subjects are viable and which are not." The universities themselves should be the ones to decide which subjects, big or small, they want to define their specific profile with. No one in Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley or Stanford—the universities held up as shining examples by politicians and the media—would ever dream of denying the humanities their raison d'être. On the contrary, the vice-Rector asserts. Those universities are rightly proud of their arts subjects.

Zafar: A City and its Secrets

Zafar was the centre of the ancient empire of Himyar, which at the height of its development in the 4th and 5th centuries dominated Arabia. Research on Arabia is one of the most recent sectors of Near Eastern archaeology. Of the 150-year history of research on the Near East, Yemen has only been the subject of investigation for the last 24. In the new magazine, Paul Yule of the Institute of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures outlines the fascinating history of Zafar and the archaeological discoveries that testify to an age and a culture that still presents a whole range of unsolved mysteries.

News Editors in the Cell

Metaphorically speaking, information processing in the cell resembles a news agency in which editors write, edit, correct and release texts. The care taken in assuring that information is passed on correctly is immense. But errors still creep in. The fallibility of the "cell editors" is the subject of the article by Gabriele Neu-Yilik and Andreas Kuzolik of the Department of Paediatric Oncology, Haematology and Immunology at the University Children's Hospital.

Planet Nurseries

Since the mid 1990s scientists have been observing discs of dust and gas in the vicinity of newborn stars—the "nurseries" of extrasolar planets. Early this year, the number of planets discovered outside our solar system passed the 100 mark. Heidelberg scientists use asteroid fragments to reconstruct the way in which the planets of our own solar system formed. Mario Trieloff of the Institute of Mineralogy describes the exciting findings and explains why scientists are confident that in a few years they will be able to prove the existence of extrasolar planets that have similarities with the Earth.

An Eye for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth

Whenever reference is made to ruthless retaliation and reprisals, the biblical phrase "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is almost invariably pressed into service. But the present-day proverbial usage of the quote in no way does justice its meaning. Manfred Oemig, professor of Old Testament theology and vice-Rector of the College of Jewish Studies, marshals undeniable evidence that the usual interpretation of this biblical idea is a misrepresentation—indeed a malevolent distortion—of its true meaning.

Water Dimers Identified in the Atmosphere

Recently, environmental physicists of the University of Heidelberg reported in the journal Science on their sensational success in identifying the presence of so-called water dimers in the atmosphere. "Ruperto Carola" asked one of the authors of the article, Klaus Pfeilsticker, to explain what water dimers are and how they affect the climate and the environment.

The magazine rounds off with the permanent columns, beginning with a list of the best-endowed new externally funded projects. "Beauty and Heroism" is the subject of Michael Wenzel's doctoral dissertation, outlined here after receiving the Ruprecht Karl Prize of the University of Heidelberg. In the "News and Views" section, Prof. Eike Martin, chairman of the board of directors of the University hospital complex, writes on the legislation about working hours in theory and practice from the viewpoint of a hospital physician.

"Ruperto Carola" is published by Universitätsverlag C. Winter Heidelberg GmbH. Single copies cost EUR 5 plus postage. Like the special support subscription (EUR 30 for four issues) it 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


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