“People are driven by physics much more than they think”

A Lab Visit to Prof. Carsten Fallnich / interview series by the Cells in Motion Cluster of Excellence
Prof. Carsten Fallnich, Managing Director of the Institute of Applied Physics at Münster University and member of the Cells in Motion Cluster of Excellence

Prof. Fallnich, what scientific topic are you working on right now?

We’re developing optical technologies, constructing for example new lasers or microscopes from several hundred components such as lenses, mirrors or crystals – to be used in applications for biologists, among others. Our microscopes are mostly based on the Raman effect. In the process, we measure how the colour – in other words, the wavelength – of the radiated light changes after it strikes a molecule. These changes can be measured and turned into images. No markers are needed for this kind of microscopy. In fact, sometimes they’re a drawback because molecules with markers attached to them do not always behave naturally. In our laboratories we’re working on several different set-ups. With one of them, for example, the aim is to investigate how great the destruction of DNA in sperms is. With another one we want to visualize the growth of arteries in the eye. And in one CiM project, together with Volker Gerke’s group, we are looking at the assembly behaviour of lipids in artificial and cellular membranes. Lipids are so small that markers would change their original behaviour, so that the Raman microscopes should be helpful for the investigations carried out by biologists, biochemists and physicians.

What characterizes you personally as a scientist?

Sometimes I still feel like a student – until I realize how much experience I have in fact gathered over the years. But at the same time I’ve been able to keep my childlike drive to do research and I try to pass it on to young people. That’s why I came to work at the University. This project, however, is sometimes like beating a path through a jungle. As soon as you’ve cleared it you have to start again at the beginning. It’s laborious, but it’s worth it. What I personally also really like about scientific work is that it doesn’t ask any questions about where a researcher comes from. Success doesn’t depend on rank, position or your parents’ bank account, but only on your ability to think, on good ideas and hard work.

What is your great aim as a scientist?

I concentrate on small aims and steps which may, one day, lead to something bigger. But when you reach such an aim it’s never due to just one person – it’s always a group achievement. I’m convinced that collectively we achieve far better things than individuals alone do, even if in most cases the ideas have to come from an individual.

Can you remember your happiest moment as a scientist?

The moment that left the deepest mark on me in my career was certainly getting my PhD. After that, every step was comparatively simple. From a personal point of view, my greatest happiness is that I have my family, and that my wife and our children are healthy.

And what was your biggest frustration?

I once wrote a research application together with a group of other scientists. It was rejected with the comment that applicants should first win a certain prestigious award with their research, like a certain scientist who was mentioned by name, before such an application could be approved. I found that very frustrating, because actually it should just be the good ideas that count in such an application.

Which scientific phenomenon still regularly fascinates you today?

I find astronomy fascinating. Like most people, I wonder about questions like: Where do we come from? Where do we go to? Until 2005 I worked with colleagues from the Albert Einstein Institute in Hanover, where in fact I was able to make a small contribution to astronomical research with gravitational waves. I still think they’re great – these large-scale projects with their huge measuring instruments and the requisite precision.

What big scientific question would you like to have an answer to?

How much of our human behaviour can be explained by physics? People are driven by physics much more than they think. The laws of physics can be found in many areas of our lives. For example, if politicians were to take a look at a diffusion equation they would actually have to admit that large imbalances in a permeable system will have to be balanced out in the long run so that the mood in the population, for example, remains positive and stable.

How much artistry, creativity and craftsmanship is there in your scientific work?

For me, the basis of artistry is craftsmanship – and craftsmanship is what we have to possess for our scientific work, for example when we construct and calibrate our lasers or connect glass fibres with one another. But building up and developing technology involves not only pure craftsmanship. You also need a shot of courage to do things which at first sight may lead to nothing but which you’re nevertheless convinced of.