Ruperto Carola 2/08: The Melody Is the Music

19 09 2008
To understand the concert of life, scientific thinking has to change, says bioinformatics expert Urusula Kummer in the title story of the new issue (2/08) of the University of Heidelberg’s research magazine Ruperto Carola — Other topics relate to sensory physiology, European art history, molecular alcohol research, environmental physics and the Marsilius Centre for Advanced Studies
Teaching manuals usually describe biochemical processes in the cell as simple, linear chains of events. While this hardly does justice to the complexity of these processes, it has so far been the only way of getting anywhere near what actually goes on in the cell. In the title story of the latest issue (2/08) of the research magazine Ruperto Carola, bioinformatics expert Ursula Kummer of the Institute of Zoology, University of Heidelberg, tells us how new methods enable scientists to look inside the living cell and how computers help to handle the vast abundance of data pouring in from the various disciplines involved. This makes it possible to devise models that are based on sound data foundations and can be systematically altered for experimental purposes and analysed in detail. The results give reason to hope that some time in the future it will be feasible to understand not only sequences of tones but the complete score of life. The new issue also contains articles on sensory physiology, European art history, molecular alcohol research, environmental physics and the University of Heidelberg’s Marsilius Centre for Advanced Studies.

Vice-Rector Kurt Roth’s editorial: Are there ultimate boundaries to knowledge?

The main concern of a university is knowledge about the world in general and humanity in particular. We spend most of our time hunched over one tiny aspect of this grand design, rarely pausing to raise our eyes for a moment or two. The editorial by vice-Rector Prof. Dr. Kurt Roth is just such a pause to reflect on the question: Are there ultimate boundaries to this knowledge? Readers are invited to read the editorial in the same way as Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus.

Detecting thousands of odours

In the first article in the new issue, Stephan Frings describes how the olfactory system processes information. In the course of human development, evolution has given precedence to vision over olfaction. Nonetheless, the human nose can detect and distinguish thousands of odours and is capable of perceiving highly complex mixtures of scents. What actually happens when we use our sense of smell is still a mystery. Olfactory receptors appear to play a crucial role. They are located in the membranes of fine sensory hairs that protrude in tufts from the olfactory epithelium. These delicate tufts establish contact with the outside world, receive chemical olfactory messages — and change them into electric signals with the aid of countless proteins.

Just bare walls?

Monuments of outstanding significance are included by UNESCO in its World Heritage List. Since 1993 the former Cistercian abbey in Maulbronn/Kraichgau has figured on this list. Qualified restoration and scientific investigation of the relevant objects are essential criteria for inclusion. Since 2001 Heidelberg scholars and scientists have also been involved in the research taking place in Maulbronn. In the new issue, Matthias Untermann explains how they investigate the building stone by stone and rafter by rafter without jeopardising its historical substance. Many intriguing finds have cast new light on the building accomplishments of the Cistercian order above and beyond Maulbronn itself.

Signals of doom

A molecular switch guards over the well-being — or otherwise — of liver cells, as Nadja Meindl-Beinker and Steven Dooley make clear in the next article. The list of potential health risks incurred by people indulging in chronic excessive alcohol consumption is long. Chief among them is damage to the liver, the body’s most important metabolic organ. Under the constant influence of alcohol liver cells change from top-flight specialists performing various vital jobs into mere connective tissue entirely devoid of functions. One messenger substance is crucially involved in this fateful process. Normally essential for the continuing health of the liver, it changes into a “bad guy” when the liver is damaged and ultimately engineers its demise. Detailed knowledge of the function of this messenger substance and the molecular signalling paths it triggers promises improvements in diagnosis and therapy.

Diversity in unity

The Marsilius Centre for Advanced Studies is one of the central projects of the Initiative for Excellence. It is named after the first rector of Heidelberg University, Marsilius von Inghen. The Centre sets out to provide outstanding scholars and scientists with the opportunity to address interdisciplinary issues not merely sporadically but in a concentrated and systematic way. Wolfgang Schluchter outlines the basic ideas behind the Centre. Two Marsilius projects are already under way, entitled “Views of Man and Human Dignity” and “Perspectives of Ageing”. In the next five years, 12 to 15 scholars and scientists from a wide range of disciplines will be working together at the Centre every year. The aim is to institute a dialogue between different academic cultures, thus replacing mere diversity without unity into diversity in unity and living up to the principles underlying a modern-day comprehensive university.

Water thousands of years old

What ground water has to tell us about the past and the future is the subject of the next article, by Werner Aeschbach-Hertig. Ground water is an important resource, but its renewability is limited. Intensive agricultural activity in the densely populated lowlands of northern China rests largely on use of the ground water for irrigation purposes. Thousands of years old, this water is hardly renewed at all. Accordingly the water level is dropping to a sometimes dramatic degree. But the old ground water is not only a coveted resource but also an interesting archive of the environmental conditions obtaining in the past. Inert gases and isotopes contained in the water tell us when the water seeped away into the soil and what the climate was like at the time.

Where language shapes our thinking

Telling someone how to get somewhere, retailing one’s experiences, describing the causes of an accident, a person’s appearance or what something looks like are all everyday things we do with words. Some people may be better at it than others, but basically we’re all up to the task. But on close inspection, such skills are astonishingly complex. In order to accomplish such tasks a speaker has to retrieve information of different kinds from the memory, arrange it into a coherent conceptual representation, select suitable vocabulary and grammatical constructions, attune these to the addressee and our assessment of what he/she already knows and finally produce an ordered sequence of well-formed sentences constituting a spoken or written text. This is the subject of Barbara Schmiedtová’s article in the Brief Reports section.

Though Germany is a hi-tech location, there are at present about 100,000 vacant posts in engineering and the sciences that cannot be filled. This means that it is time to think again about the employment or deployment of scientists and engineers as “human capital”. Why not take the term “re-tirement” literally and at age 65 just “put new tyres on”. Research and teaching after retirement age — this is the topic Jürgen Wolfrum addresses in the News and Views section of the new issue of Ruperto Carola.

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

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University of Heidelberg

Irene Thewalt
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