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Ruperto Carola 1/2007: Computers Modelled on the Human Brain?

16 May 2007

In the title story of the University of Heidelberg’s research magazine Karlheinz Meier indicates how the functioning of the human brain can be imitated — Other topics: Arab autobiographies and the authors’ home towns — What coelenterates can tell us about human evolution — Canossa: a moral triumph? — Dragnet screening for suspicious molecules

The human brain is a compact miracle of about 1,000 billion nerve cells forming a network that some scientists believe to be the most complex system to be found anywhere in the universe. So far, very little is known about the way in which brain cells process information, how they learn, remember or organise themselves into neuronal ensembles to perform specific functions. Though the brain has certain similarities to the most powerful computers available at the moment, there are far more differences between them and it is those differences that make it difficult for scientists to understand the universe we all carry around in our heads. In the title story of the new issue of the University of Heidelberg’s research magazine Ruperto Carola, Karlheinz Meier indicates how the functioning of the human brain can be imitated. Meier is professor of experimental physics at the University of Heidelberg and founder of the Kirchhoff Institute of Physics and Heidelberg’s ASIC Microelectronics Laboratory. Other topics in the magazine: Arab autobiographies and the authors’ home towns — What coelenterates tell us about human evolution — Canossa: a moral triumph? — Dragnet screening for suspicious molecules

Vice-Rector Comba in the Editorial: "Supreme quality and professionalism is needed in communication between the University and society"

In the Editorial vice-Rector Professor Dr. Peter Comba tells us why the University of Heidelberg has opted for a new corporate design and accordingly the Ruperto Carola magazine now has a new look. Comba: "Supreme quality and professionalism is needed in communication between the University and society. The three crucial factors are (a) a cogent and efficient communication strategy, (b) understandably written texts and (c) professional and effective print and electronic media with an appealing and distinctive corporate design. The most important thing, of course, is still research and teaching quality. Relevance, topicality and creativity are important factors in this connection. And these attributes are supremely apposite for quite a number of the subjects taught here."

Another factor Comba considers essential, alongside top-flight research and the right media for informing the public, is corporate identity reflecting the strong links existing throughout the University. The University depends just as much on each and every one of its members as is the case the other way round. "It was thus a source of immense gratification for me in the last few months to see how corporate cohesion and pride in the University have been enhanced by the work done on the proposals for the Initiative for Excellence." In this connection above all the vice-Rector hopes that the new "outfit" for the University as a whole and the research magazine in particular will find favour with the public and the readers of Ruperto Carola.

"Me and my town" — Arab autobiographies and the authors’ home towns

Late 19th century Egypt saw the emergence of Nahda, a movement whose name can be translated as "renaissance". It emphasises "support from within", a concept that is also reflected in the literature from this area. This is notably the case in the development of the Egyptian novel, which derives much of its subject matter from the autobiographical experiences of the authors expressing themselves in this medium. Compared with western autobiographies, their Arab counterparts are especially notable for one characteristic: the identification of the authors with their home towns. The close connections between autobiography and the urban focus make Egyptian novels contemporary sources of inestimable value, writes Susanne Endewitz, professor of Arab studies at the Department of Near-Eastern Languages and Cultures.

Evolutionary springboard — What coelenterates tell us about human evolution

They consist largely of water and they are hollow on the inside. So at first glance coelenterates may not seem to be a very promising subject for molecular research. But scientists can learn a great deal from them, especially in connection with the regeneration capacity of these primitive beings. Even if they are split up into a hundred pieces they can almost always put themselves back together again. This astounding ability is by no means the only remarkable feature of these fascinating creatures. They can also tell us some astonishing things about the effect of evolution and its use of important groups of genes as a springboard, all the way up to homo sapiens. Author Thomas W. Holstein has been in charge of the Department of Molecular Evolution and Genomics since 2004 and is also the administrative director of Heidelberg University’s Institute of Zoology.

Canossa: a moral triumph?

Canossa is a big issue, not merely because of the major exhibitions repeatedly dedicated to the subject, but also because it has a firm place in our collective memory. Without Canossa our social system would be inconceivable, so in a sense Canossa is where we all come from. A number of academic projects at the University of Heidelberg’s Department of History have set out to make this clear and to describe the crucial forces released in the aftermath of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV’s legendary penance before Pope Gregory VII. In Ruperto Carola 1/2007 Stefan Weinfurter comes to the conclusion that the dis-enchantment of the world began with Henry IV’s spectacular pilgrimage of penitence. Weinfurter has been professor of medieval history at the Centre for European History and Cultural Studies since 1999.

Dragnet screening for suspicious molecules

The results of modern research in molecular biology are increasingly finding their way into cancer diagnosis and therapy. Detailed analysis of the molecular characteristics of tumour cells can help identify patients likely to suffer a relapse and require more intensive therapy or after-care, whereas conventional diagnostic criteria frequently fail to single out these patients. Precise diagnostic instruments pinpoint just how dangerous tumour cells are, as Heike Allgayer indicates in her article. Since October 2004 she has been in charge of the new Experimental Surgery Department at the University of Heidelberg’s Medical Faculty at Mannheim and the coordinated Molecular Oncology of Solid Tumours unit at the German Cancer Research Centre, Heidelberg.

A recipe for the university of the future

"How can one make one’s alma mater into an elite university? This is a difficult subject best avoided if one doesn’t want to get into trouble. So with a view to achieving scale and synergy effects in line with a cost-neutral, future-oriented, anti-elite initiative, my suggestion is to start thinking about what we can do to ensure that the achievement level of a university will continuously decline." Thus Peter Meusburger in a gloss for the magazine.

"Artificial Worlds" is the heading Susanne Krömker has given her article for the "Young Researchers Report" section. It centres around the way deceptively authentic images explain the world and how we interpret those images. Since 2004 the author has headed the Visualisation and Numerical Geometry research group at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Computing (IWR). The new issue of the research magazine closes with Paul Kirchhof’s round-up of the outstanding doctoral dissertations done at the University of Heidelberg in 2006.

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


Please address any inquiries to

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Public Information Officer
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317


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