Interview Professor Steinmetz
Short Interview: Five questions for Professor Steinmetz
Professor Matthias Steinmetz is a German astrophysicist. He is Scientific Director of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam and Professor at the University of Potsdam. Professor Steinmetz is an internationally recognized expert in cosmology, the origins of galaxies and computational astrophysics. In Potsdam he is head of the department “Extragalactic Astrophysics and Cosmology.
What fascinates you about astronomy as a field of research?
I believe that Einstein summed up the fascination correctly with his bon mot that the really unfathomable thing about the universe was the fact that it is fathomable. The fact that we – with the very limited time horizons and length scales which are empirically at our disposal here on Earth – can not only fathom the universe in all the dimensions accessible to us, but also recognise the basic mechanisms through which the cosmos functions, is breathtaking. In addition to that, of course, we have the unbelievable aesthetics, the images, that we can capture with modern large-scale telescopes.
What is the first question that people ask you when you say that you're an astronomer?
There's a nice anecdote on this subject. What do you say on a long-haul flight when the person sitting next to you asks you what you do for a living? If you want to sleep, you say you're a physicist, and if you want to talk for the next eight hours you say you're an astronomer. Even though the first question asked is often about black holes, dark matter and life on other planets, there's no standard question. But there's certainly an immense amount of interest in the topics, and the airborne discussion referred to above often ends as a broad-based astronomical synopsis.
Does one look at everyday life in a different way if one is used to dealing with things that developed billions of years ago, such as the big bang, or with galaxies that are unimaginable distances away from us?
I do think that we as astronomers (personally and in terms of humankind as a whole, or rather what happens on Earth) are tending to take ourselves less seriously. The blue oasis in the middle of black nothingness, the picture of Earth that the Apollo missions conveyed to us, was of course one of the factors when mankind began its rethink, its move towards a more reconcilable, sustainable coexistence with nature. But this different way of looking at things has strict limitations. For an astronomer couple who've just fallen in love with each other, however, the night sky is just as romantic as it is for non-astronomers.
Will Einstein's theory of relativity still be valid in 20 years' time?
It certainly will, just as Newton's theory is still valid today. We might have to make a few additions because of certain extreme situations, or maybe its successful unification with the quantum theory will result in new aspects. But the basic core will continue to be valid, either under its own steam or at least as very good, mathematically manageable approach.
What findings 'for humankind' do you expect astronomy to reveal over the next 25 years?
Basically I can see two aspects. One is the answer to the question of what the cosmos consists of – the foundation of our scientific global model. The current status, namely that 95% consists of ominous dark matter and dark energy, is sheer impertinence when measured against the aspirations of natural scientists. The other major question is whether life – even in its simplest form – exists on other, extrasolar, planets as well. Any proof that we are not alone in the cosmos would have radical consequences for the way humans see themselves in social, cultural and religious-philosophical terms.
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For thousands of years, astronomy has been revolutionising the way mankind thinks about itself.