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Prof. Dr. Gerd Fußmann

Director, Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics

Prof. Gerd Fußmann studied Physics in Darmstadt and Bochum. He completed his doctorate in Physics at the Ruhr-Universität in 1974. Until 1992, he was a research assistant at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) where he worked on several fusion experiments. Apart from that, he was a lecturer at the University of Augsburg where he qualified as a university lecturer. Since 1993, Prof. Dr. Fußmann has been a full professor at the Department for Experimental Plasma Physics at the Humboldt-Universität Berlin. That same year he became head of the Department of Plasma Physics and was appointed director and scientific member of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics. Prof. Dr. Fußmann is co-editor of the journal “Contributions to Plasma Physics" and spokesman of the DFG Review Board “Optics, Quantum Optics and Physics of Atoms, Molecules and Plasmas”.

The automatic toilet flushing every 15 minutes caused me real trouble!

RUB Alumni: You started studying in Darmstadt and then moved to Bochum. What brought you here?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: Prof. von Butlar was appointed to a chair in Bochum and because I wanted to write my Diplom thesis with him I came here. At the time particle physics was in vogue. But later I decided to write my thesis in plasma physics with Prof. Schlüter.

RUB Alumni: Do you have an anecdote about your student days in Bochum?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: A little bit of history, maybe. In those days electronic calculators were just becoming popular. I remember sitting together with Dr. Himmel looking over an offer for a calculator and another offer for a mechanical calculator – a thing that looked like a pepper grinder. You would have to turn a handle and it would even churn out results to eight decimal places for multiplication and division. The Texas Instruments calculator only went to six decimal places. There was a big discussion in the Institute about whether or not we should buy the Texas calculator with all its advantages or the mill. Dr. Himmel voted for the mill because of the eight decimal places, but the majority were for the Texas calculator. In those days it was very expensive – DM 1300, I think. The electronic calculator was a sensation: for the first time one could easily calculate sin, cosin, and exponential functions. Today you can’t imagine how that changed things so quickly. You have to think of the advantages we have because of our quick and user-friendly computers.
I have another story. In those days everything was a bit more primitive and the turmoil of the postwar years could still be felt. One of the effects was that coal was mined all over the place creating subterranean cavities. One morning – near the university – a woman suddenly disappeared while hanging up the laundry. The ground simply opened up and she fell six meters into a old mine. It was then I realized I was in the Ruhr.

RUB Alumni: Could you describe your student days at the Ruhr-Universität in a few words?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: I came to Bochum in 1968 – the beginning of the “wild years”. You could feel this in Bochum as well. In fact, the student movement in Bochum was quite active. I took part a little as well, although not as intensively as those studying, say, sociology. I even remember joining the Bochum Association. Rudi Dutschke at the time was in the city and the workers of the Bochum Association were supposed to take part in our marches and to get to know how students see the world. The plan didn’t work out because the workers decided to work instead. These were truly wild years: there was some political event going on every day on the campus. The professors really had a difficult time – uproar and protest everywhere. In the Institute of Physics the situation was cordial between students and staff. There were also really enjoyable parties. We even had a music group. A small group of us used to meet once a week with guitars and we would sing. This is simply unimaginable today. I just don’t know who would do this in my institute now.

RUB Alumni: How long did it take you to find your way around the buildings?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: I can’t remember this so well because it was such a long time ago. But I do know that it was not very easy. Not all the buildings were completed and this made things more complicated. But the places one needed to know about could be found quite quickly. By the way, in the NB building there was a canteen so that I didn’t usually have to go the main canteen, in those days it was quite far (Ed: it was housed in the current library building).

RUB Alumni: Do you still have anything from your student days?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: My doctoral mortarboard and naturally some photos as well as some experimental reports. I even have some measurement reports that caused me real trouble. The problem was that there were strange oscillations in the building that had a period of 15 minutes. I could not explain where they originated. It finally turned out to be the automatic toilet flushing system. Every 15 minutes all toilets would flush with the result that the water pressure in the whole building dropped and the cooling was reduced.

RUB Alumni: You are still working in the university system. If you were a university chancellor or rector what would you initiate, particularly in view of the general financial situation?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: Due to the financial situation I think that we can’t avoid the introduction of student fees. Other countries introduced them a number of years ago and I see what it means to raise money for a university. We don’t have to be so radical, like in the USA. We also need to support gifted students. The generosity that we have at the moment we will not be able to afford in the future. The student fees should also be paid directly to the university. What I also find a shame at the Humboldt University is the rather poor send off for degree holders. In the USA this is much better and it creates a much closer sense of belonging. One of the results is that former students happily engage and support their former university in all different activities. In my opinion this has something to do with the graduation ceremonies. It is difficult, however, to introduce such things when there is no tradition to build on. I am really happy to know that former Bochum students are approached. I must also say that I had a really happy time in Bochum.

RUB Alumni: When you think back to your student day, what is it that you miss the most?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: The parties and the camaraderie which doesn’t exist anymore the way it did. We had really good relationship among ourselves and harmonious relations with our professors.

RUB Alumni: Is there anything that connects you with the Ruhr-Universität today?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: I have a host of colleagues who are in Bochum, even if most were appointed after my time. I also held the main speech during the emeritus celebrations for Prof. Wiesemann and I still have friendly contact with my former boss, Prof. Hans Schlüter. I sit together with Prof. Schlickeiser in a DFG committee and about every three years or so I come to Bochum for a conference or other business.

RUB Alumni: Would you still choose to study physics?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: I think so. I have been quite successful and it has always been enjoyable. Before I began my studies I was attracted to psychology but I have no regrets that I chose physics. One gets a deeper insight into nature and experience something about the world behind appearances. It is a really an interesting field, even if one can’t earn that much. As a lawyer or someone in business studies it is easier to get into top positions and earn more. I’m not unhappy about it, though. I am satisfied with what I earn.

RUB Alumni: Would you choose the Ruhr-Universität again?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: Yes I would. I was happy in Bochum and I learned a lot while I was there. I think the reputation of Bochum has really improved in the last ten years.

RUB Alumni: Although Bochum finds itself in the lower third of the rankings …

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: That is simply a matter of the criteria which are used to create these rankings. I’m not sure that some of these are meaningful. Bochum may not be the best at obtaining third-party funds but is that so important? I meet a lot of people, particularly in the Max Planck Society, and have always heard good things about Bochum. In the 1980s when I was still at the IPP in Garching I employed a lot of people – about 20 doctoral students. They all came from different universities and over the years one learned which universities only gave distinctions and which were tougher. Those who came from Bochum were good scientists and they had a good training.

RUB Alumni: What Tipps would Prof. Fußmann give to Bochum students today?

Prof. Dr. Fußmann: I would advise them, as Marc Aurel did to his nephew nearly 2000 years ago, to put your heart into things: “If you think something is really difficult, you shouldn’t believe that it is impossible for anyone. You should in fact think that if its possible for someone else then its possible for you!”. You have to use your opportunities and understanding. It was true then as it is true today.

RUB Alumni: Prof. Fußmann, thank you for your time!