Publications: Science Omega Review Europe Issue 2

Physical impact: the DPG and Germany’s physics past and future

Red laser
The major roles of national societies, such as the DPG in Germany and the Institute of Physics (IOP) in the United Kingdom, is to support networking, to get young people involved in science, and to encourage research institutions to participate at a national level in their respective countries...
Dr Karlheinz Meier
DPG Board Member for External Relations Professor Dr Karlheinz Meier tells Editor Lauren Smith about the role of national societies in promoting physics…

As the oldest and largest society of physicists in the world, the German Physical Society (Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft, DPG) represents over 62,000 members and has a principal role to play in shaping the global physics community. Under the guidance of Professor Johanna Stachel, who was appointed to the office of president last year, the DPG is looking to build upon its strong history of networking, to support young researchers, and to further develop the vital technologies that lie at the centre of society.

Karlheinz Meier, Professor of Experimental Physics at Heidelberg University, is the DPG board member with responsibility for international relations. Here, he discusses with Editor Lauren Smith the roles of national physical societies, and considers the ways in which physics impacts Germany, both scientifically and socially.

"The major roles of national societies, such as the DPG in Germany and the Institute of Physics (IOP) in the United Kingdom, is to support networking, to get young people involved in science, and to encourage research institutions to participate at a national level in their respective countries," he says. "They have performed these functions very successfully, in some cases, for more than 100 years. In most European countries, physics students are extremely involved in the community from the beginning: there are conferences organised, laboratory visits, and trips to industrial companies. This is a well-established path, and it is something that physicists can be very proud of."

Changing roles of national societies

As the European research landscape has shifted, the roles played by national societies have also changed. Now more than ever, it is important for these bodies to make their work widely visible and to promote collaboration with international partners. The DPG already works closely with the European Physical Society (EPS), which Meier describes as a "society of societies" – organisations rather than individuals comprise the lion’s share of its membership.

"Individual membership is not a key consideration for the EPS," he comments. "The important thing is that it joins together with Europe’s national societies. It is crucial to give smaller societies the opportunity to get involved with European research policy. Larger societies such as the IOP and the DPG have no problems in this regard because they already work closely together, with good relations and joint prizes. From their perspective, change isn’t urgent.

Support for smaller societies

"However, the physical societies of other countries – particularly the smaller Eastern European and Balkan states – are not well integrated into the European scheme. They are still somewhat isolated, so it is important for the EPS to provide explicit help and support via larger societies such as the IOP and the DPG. For example, the budget of the EPS is mostly carried by contributions from these two larger societies, and this can be used to develop even stronger support for pan-European integration within physics."

Even beyond continental borders, international partnerships are fundamental to physics research.

"In this sense, the physical sciences are very different from other disciplines," Meier explains. "For example, humanities research is often fairly local. The only way to do physics, on the other hand, is on an international scale. There is hardly any area of physics that does not require international cooperation, especially when it comes to financing projects. In order to develop the tools typically used within physics, such as light sources, accelerators, telescopes and reactors, you have to think globally."

A number of organisations exist to ensure that this global scale is taken into account. The establishment of structures dedicated to specific areas of physics, such as particle physics, fusion research and laser physics, have contributed to the fulfilment of this goal.

'A global family of physicists'

"There is no need for an additional level of international administration when it comes to supporting the development of research and research infrastructures," says Meier. "However, such an organisation could benefit young physical scientists, especially students. This would help to build an appreciation among young scientists already working in laboratories as PhD students or postdoctoral researchers that they are part of a global family of physicists.

"For students, this is not always obvious," he continues. "I think that national societies have an important role to play in this respect. We need to develop the means for students to look outside of our continent: to communicate across and beyond European borders. This is an area in which there is still much work to be done."

As a world leader within the field of physics, Germany has had a tremendous impact on the research landscape of the discipline. However, this relationship is far from one directional; physics has also significantly influenced Germany’s economy and society.

"The DPG is an old society with connections to many individuals – even non-physicists – who are household names within Germany," says Meier. "Figures such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Heinrich Hertz, for example, all have links to the DPG. German citizens understand that the society has contributed greatly to the position in which the country now finds itself. For example, German industry is strong, and it is understood that physics is one of the main reasons behind the success of this sector."

Physics enjoys an excellent reputation in Germany, and Meier emphasises the importance of maintaining this positive image within the national education system. To this end, German pupils who are particularly gifted in this area receive one year’s free membership to the DPG before they leave school.

Improving integration

"Experience has demonstrated that many of the young people who go on to study physics, and even some of those who do not, remain members of the society after they leave school," he comments. "This helps us to drive home the message that physics is important and that integration is beneficial.

"On the subject of integration, there is still room for improvement when it comes to teaching," concludes Meier. "Physics teachers need to be much closer to research than they are at present. It’s essential that the physics being taught within our schools is not only that of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. We need to make room for modern discoveries; to incorporate the fundamental principles involved in particles and the universe. It is also important to include practical elements within our children’s education, such as solid-state physics, environmental physics, biophysics, etc. Teachers need to receive good training so that they can stay informed about contemporary physics research. This is an area in which the DPG and other physical societies have to do more. It is vital for us to ensure that physics remains attractive to future generations."

Professor Dr Karlheinz Meier
Board Member for External Relations
German Physical Society (Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft, DPG)

[This article was originally published on 1st July 2013 as part of Science Omega Review Europe 02]


Previous: EPS President calls for physicists to communicate their passion
EPS President Professor John Dudley discusses the value of curiosity-driven research and the importance of communication...

Next: This ultracold world
Our next challenge...


Once again the crystal skull and magic beans tendency has cast it's dead hand over this website. This is a terrible shame, and lends me to believe that it's editors won't be satisfied until they've featured a geneticist working to create a centaur. Or at least an elf.

Commented Roger Breeze on
Zombies offer fresh insights into crowd behaviour Ltd, Ebenezer House, Ryecroft, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire ST5 2UB
Tel: +44 (0)1782 741785, Fax: +44 (0)1782 631856,
Registered in England and Wales  Co. Reg No. 4521155   Vat Reg No. 902 1814 62