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1 October 2005

Focus Ranking: Heidelberg Leads the Field in Mathematics

Third place for physics — Focus: "In Germany young people wanting to study physics at world-class level have the choice between Munich and Heidelberg" — Mathematics in Heidelberg extends its lead in the acquisition of external funding

In the ranking published by Focus news magazine today, mathematics at Heidelberg lies well ahead of the other German universities and has once again extended its lead in the acquisition of external research funding. The ranking puts Heidelberg in third place for physics. The magazine comments thus: "In Germany young people wanting to study physics at world-class level have the choice between Munich and Heidelberg."

"Getting a Kick out of Knowledge" is the headline for the article, which also features a portrait of Heidelberg mathematics professor Matthias Kreck. For Kreck "the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics," as Galileo once put it. The magazine goes on to suggest that, while physicists have to live with a mixture of recognition and suspicion, mathematicians are generally held to be especially creative. Kreck, who sets out to "teach students creativity", agrees fully: "After all, we don't just solve problems, we actually invent them ourselves."

Mathematicians' skills in analysis and strategic planning make them an all-purpose weapon in business and industry, says Focus, quoting Heidelberg professor Hans Georg Bock: "There are no unemployed mathematicians I know of."

Heidelberg, with its equally strong emphasis on the humanities, had a surprise in store for the magazine, which reports on maths students from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Computing (IWR) "flying to Kampuchea this year to survey the ancient and impressive temple in Angkor Wat and bring it to new, virtual life", while another group has reconstructed a globe from 1751 belonging to Palatine elector Karl Theodor, both on the computer and as a cardboard replica, including the sea-route of a pirate's ship indicated on it.

"The front runners from last year have maintained their position," Focus sums up. While Heidelberg's reputation has established itself at the highest level, both in research and teaching, the University has now increased its external funding quota (the amount of externally provided research resources per professor) to almost 220 (corresponding to thousands of euros annually). External funding is evaluated as an indication of top-class research and it puts Heidelberg way ahead of its competitors. The University of Bonn, in second place, has only 81, Kaiserslautern (third) 97, while the fourth-placed University of Tübingen can only point to 12,000 euros per professor and year.

The fascination of physics

In his Focus article, author Bernd Müller conveys a very sensitive impression of the fascination of physics in Heidelberg. First he accompanies a group of students toiling their way up the steep hill to an old mansion "with a fantastic view of the Castle" where they meet to reflect on the most important question of all: How did our universe begin and what holds it together? Then he provides a pen-portrait of the theoretical physics professor Christof Wetterich, who has just been awarded the Max Planck Research Prize for his research into dark energy: "In times when the yardstick for successful research appears to be the number of products you can distil from it, physics professors like Wetterich uphold their allegiance to the pleasure to be derived from extending our knowledge."

Observing the students, Müller finds that this kind of enthusiasm is catching. After a decline in the 1990s, the number of new physics students is now back to the level it had reached 15 years ago. "Word has got around," says Müller, "that the tricky mathematics involved makes physics anything but an easy course of study. Only the best of these young people will ever make head or tail of the jungle of symbols chalked up on Wetterich's board." Interviewing the newcomers, he finds that what surprises them most is the school-like organisation of the course. "Ten years ago, written tests were thin on the ground," Heidelberg physics professor Karlheinz Meier tells him. "Today things are very different." Now there are graded written tests in all the courses and not only that: the students are classified in an ongoing ranking list, which can help them when it comes to applying for jobs. "In the business world this emphasis on performance is greatly welcomed," the magazine reports. "There are hardly any unemployed physicists and the 'all-round genius' image they enjoy unlocks the door to careers with consultancy firms and software companies."

"Students can develop their interests best in Munich and Heidelberg," says Karlheinz Meier, "because the range of courses is so extensive." Bernd Müller observes that imminent exams (Diplom or doctorate) separates the wheat from the chaff: "In some years, Heidelberg University attracts so many students from elsewhere after the first-part finals that this more than offsets the high dropout rate in the first few terms. Wetterich calls this 'positive loss'."

The physics departments in Heidelberg have also increased their external funding quota to 263 (thousands of euros per professor and year). With 100 citations Heidelberg easily tops the list in Germany. The reference here is to the ISI index in which Thomson Scientific Inc. has registered the number of times scientific publications have been quoted internationally between 2000 and 2004. Inquiries about the reputation of universities for research and teaching addressed to 3,000 academics and 2,200 personnel officers have put physics at Heidelberg University in the highest category. The evaluation takes no account of the number of students. Here again, Heidelberg was way out in front of its German competitors last winter term, with 1,337 physics students enrolled. "This year the big winners are all in Southern Germany," Focus adds.

Faculty "highly gratified" by the ranking

"The Faculty is highly gratified to find itself in third place among the 58 German universities included in the wide-ranging Focus ranking," comments Karlheinz Meier, dean of the Faculty as of today. He sees the magazine's overall rating ("world-class") as a distinction for the University of Heidelberg and believes that prospective students will share his view. This is borne out by the drastic leap in the number of applicants. "The unchallenged top ratings for the citation index and the number of doctorates clearly indicate the strong research emphasis in Heidelberg's physics departments."

Meier also points out that both Focus and the German Physics Society (DPG) agree that Heidelberg has the largest physics faculty anywhere in the country. "This applies both to the number of students and to the number of graduates."

In one essential category Heidelberg is well ahead of its competitors: the number of doctorates. "At present there's a slight drop in this figure," says dean Meier, "but that is bound up with the low numbers of new students in the mid 1990s. In future we can expect the figures to soar again."

One thing that causes the Faculty serious concern is the poor ratio of students to teachers. On this point Heidelberg is down among the worst five of the 58 universities investigated. "We can assume that the loss of one place in the ranking is the result of a further deterioration over and against 2004, from 5.7 to 6.1," says Meier, adding that Heidelberg's two biggest competitors (in Munich) are in almost twice as good a position in this respect. Obviously the Faculty is greatly concerned to improve things on this score. Meier sees excellence programmes and additional resources for the University as possible ways out of this dilemma in the medium term.

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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