Ruperto Carola 2/96
Research Magazine of the University of Heidelberg

Beaming in on Fire

There are very few things that would qualify as being absolutely indispensable for human life. Fire is certainly one of them. In Greek mythology Prometheus' gift of fire to the human race sparked off immediate retaliation from the gods in the form of P andora and her box. The consequences are becoming more and more evident. The present annual consumption of fossil fuel represents a depletion of resources that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to build up. The emissions given off in the process (s ulfur and nitrogen oxides etc.) are the culprits responsible for alarming changes to the atmosphere ("summer smog") and to the Earth's biosphere ("forest death"). The emission of CO2 influences the thermal bal ance of the Earth and is slow to disperse. Despite all the efforts being undertaken to tap alternative sources of energy, about 90 percent of the world's energy supply stems at present from combustion in one form or another. Immediate action towards optim izing the technology of combustion processes would at least mitigate the long-term consequences involved. But there is little hope that in future the trial-and-error method will be effective enough in developing new environment-friendly and efficient comb ustion methods. A radically new approach is imperative. In the title feature of the latest edition of "Ruperto Carola", the research magazine of the University of Heidelberg, Jürgen Wolfrum of the Institute of Physical Chemistry describes t he new light cast on fire by the use of laser technology.

Other subjects dealt with in the latest issue are: heart muscle cells on the rampage in myocardiac infarction, the United States as the birthplace of Europe, the use of dummies in road safety research, the Black Sea as a safe place to deposit solid wa ste containing heavy metals, and an interview with the head of the Department of Tropical Hygiene, Hans Jochen Diesfeld.

With available financial resources at a low ebb, the rivalry between universities for research funding and students is hotting up. In the Editorial, research officer Dr. Christoph Kronabel reports on how the University of Heidelberg is shaping up t o this challenge. One of the indicators of a university's standing is the number of post-graduate integrated research programs allotted to it by the German Research Association. At present the University of Heidelberg heads the list of all German universi ties in this respect with 13 such programs to its name receiving total funding to the tune of 4.5 million marks annually. The interdisciplinary nature of these programs and the opportunity for cooperation with the uniquely favorable scientific environment in Heidelberg mean that the best professors display an active commitment to the encouragement of the upcoming scientific generation and that this in its turn attracts the best candidates for the programs.

After the title feature, Ruth Strasser reports on heart muscle cells that "run amok". Every year more than 130,000 people in Germany suffer myocardiac infarct, with fatal consequences for 35 percent of them. An infarct occurs when there i s an obstruction of one of the arteries supplying blood to the heart. The resulting shortage of oxygen to the heart muscle cells sets off a chain of disastrous upsets in their communication system. The cells start to run amok and finally die. Why this is the case and what can be done about it is the object of research being undertaken in the cardiology department of Heidelberg's University Hospital.

"The Birth of Europe from the Spirit of Sociology" is the title of the next article, by Uta Gerhardt of the Institute of Sociology. The Idea of Europe, she argues, stems in fact from the United States. Recent research has identified a group o f young economists and political scientists in the American State Department who in 1946 were the first to suggest including Germany in the European Recovery Program and making the 16-country redevelopment aid scheme known as the Marshall Plan dependent o n economic - and later political - cooperation. How could these young government-service academics be so certain that the best way of ensuring a peaceful development in Europe would be to engineer the integration of a newly defeated and not yet fully demi litarized Germany into the system of European economic relations? The credit for this goes to Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, who "invented" the Idea of Europe.

The use of dummies to simulate crash situations in car and road safety research is widespread. To be any good, they have to "react" the way humans do, which makes designing them a sophisticated science in itself, a tricky blend of medicin e and mechanics. Back in the old days researchers made do with a sandbag to stand in for the driver. Today it's a dummy with the anatomical proportions of a human being, near-identical simulation of motility, joint structure and the physiological characte ristics of various kinds of body tissue. At the Institute of Forensic Medicine, Rainer Mattern, Dimitrios Kallieris and Florian Schüler are studying the best use of "pain-free test persons" in making reliable forecasts about human injury ri sk in collisions.

"The Black Sea - the Ultimate Disposal Site?" Taking a look back to prehistoric times can help solve present-day environmental problems, as German Müller of the Institute of Environmental Geochemistry shows in his article. The ocean floor of the Black Sea could be used as a final disposal site for solid waste contaminated by heavy metals. And it wouldn't do the ecosystem any harm at all. Müller's initially incredible-sounding conclusion has even taken Greenpeace aback. The condi tions 6,000 feet below sealevel are such that contaminated material permastored there would release next to no metals whatsoever. With the progress that has been made in transport technology, getting the waste there "safe and sound" represents n o major problem. If response from authorities and ecological associations has been relatively muted, this is not because they question the validity of the scientists' proposals but rather because they fear that prospects of such a cheap disposal method mi ght prompt industry to slacken off in its efforts to produce as little waste as possible.

The final article deals with medicine in developing countries. Probably no other institute of hygiene in Germany has such an active and vocal department of tropical hygiene and community health care as Heidelberg does. "Health care people tend to say: 'I know what's wrong with you, show me your tongue.' And often enough that gets the whole thing off on the wrong foot. We ask people where they think the problem lies. That's our trademark," says Hans Jochen Diesfeld in an interview on his b rain-child, the post-graduate course in Community Health and Health Management in Developing Countries.

The magazine closes with the permanent columns "News from the Stiftung Universität Heidelberg Foundation", "External Funding" and "News and Views". In the latter column, the Acting Director of the Institute of Ger man and European Corporate and Economic Law, Peter Hommelhoff, reviews the attempts being made at Heidelberg University to integrate the real requirements of practicing lawyers into the courses on offer to law students.

"Ruperto Carola" is published in German and costs 10 DM plus postage per issue, 5 DM for students. Like the special Support Subscription (60 DM for four issues) it can be ordered from: Pressestelle der Universität Heidelberg, Postfach 10 57 60, D-69047 Heidelberg, Germany. e-mail:

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