A conversation with Prof. Dr. Günther Dissertori, rector at ETH Zurich

On the nature of our age

Lois Lammerhuber: There are more than a few who consider photography to be the most important discipline for discovering the essence of our time. For many years, you worked at the CMS experiment at CERN, were instrumental in the discovery of the Higgs particle and thus in the completion of the standard model of elementary particle physics. Research that produces enormous amounts of data that would not be „readable“ without the help of imaging techniques. What do images and photography mean to you?

Günther Dissertori: It is indeed interesting that images are vital in advanced research to be able to comprehend highly abstract things. They are not always sufficient to represent the whole content of some scientific fact or context, but they are often helpful to go from a certain level of abstraction to a different one, which the human brain seems to be able to handle better.

I assume that the enormous amounts of data produced at CERN can no longer be grasped with knowledge alone, can they?

Exactly. But the actual analyses, the actual results that are published – in the end, they are numbers in the most banal sense, meaning measured values – they are no longer obtained by looking at pictures. You would have to look at billions of pictures. The sixties and seventies were a time when you looked at these pictures and did the analysis that way. Nowadays, computer algorithms are employed. To develop such algorithms, pictures come in handy. Either first to define the idea of how the algorithm should proceed, or subsequently, when you have an algorithm, to check whether it does what it should do. Pictures help as a frame of reference for highly complex reasoning – in biology, in chemistry, in the representation of molecular structures, the depiction of proteins. There are many, many other examples. Pictures are still important for gaining a deeper or even intuitive understanding of scientific interrelationships.

So already an early or precursor form of what has now become popular under artificial intelligence (AI)?

AI is a huge topic. I don’t know if you can connect it that easily. AI is also trained on certain fixed data. Maybe you could put it this way: I train something through individual images, and then I run it algorithmically. Yes, I see the connection.

In other words, I anticipated correctly last night when I was putting my questions in order, because I wrote down „Goethe“ as a keyword, who asked himself: „Do I only see what I know?“ How do you experience this in contemporary science, which can hardly develop theses without computer simulations, and which has to work frequently and intensively, with graphics or rather images?

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of modern science, or simply let’s say the achievements of humanity and human intelligence, is that we have managed to establish laws for understanding nature in areas that are completely inaccessible to our senses. That is an incredible intellectual achievement. In other words, we do still need our senses to help us, but ultimately, we have gone far beyond that. I find it philosophically highly intriguing that this is possible. I think of quantum physics, for example. That it is a given to suddenly be able to describe a world that is arbitrarily far away from our everyday experience, and we have managed to develop a language for it that then in turn can be applied to nature because it makes extremely good predictions and prognoses. This is part of the idea that is most fascinating and preoccupying for me at the moment: humans have begun to study the universe. As a particle physicist, I am a reductionist. Meaning, one tries to reduce the whole thing to simple principles. For me, the universe is a system of particles and interactions. And man is a part of this system. That means further: through us, that is, through a part of the system, the universe recognises itself, so to speak. The fact that this system has developed into a state so advanced that it is beginning to examine itself is for me the greatest concept of all. And then I ask myself: is this perhaps the most profound law, that nature – and we humans as part of it – are perhaps even forced to recognise and examine ourselves? After all, we humans are the proof that this possibility at least exists. These are my private, philosophical ravings.

This thought has an extremely high insight demand. Probably only a few people are capable of thinking like this. I once witnessed a Russian mathematician at the Institute for Quantum Physics with Professor Zeilinger in Vienna analysing discarded mathematical theorems for their usefulness for the statements being studied there. That morning was a personal intellectual abyss for me. Because I didn’t understand a word, while the young scientists listening were slapping their thighs and thinking it was funny and challenging, or applauding. This memory somehow fits quite well with something that has always interested me: the human factor. You were present in July of the summer of 2012 when the whole world looked to Geneva for the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs particle. A little over a year later, Peter Higgs and François Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics because this discovery was made possible by their theories. And other participants, such as the scientists at CERN, walked away empty-handed. Including you. How did you feel about it?

I had no problem with that at all. Especially because it was clear to me that I was far from being the most important person in this discovery, but that the most important element was the entire body of researchers. However, I would not have thought it a bad idea if the Nobel Prize Committee had considered changing the rules and said that an institution could also be awarded the prize. Then CERN should have received the prize. That would have made me happy. But there is also a problematic component to it, because at the Nobel Prize ceremony, one person would then represent that institution. That would have bothered me again, because the person would then become the focus of public attention, and then that would be equated, and that would be wrong again. It is a fundamental dilemma in the context of this kind of research. I was happy that this discovery led so quickly to the Nobel Prize. I was happy for the scientists who got it and that I was able to see that the prize had relation to the research I was involved in. In that sense, it was all positive. If I had been Director General of CERN at the time, I might have thought differently. The institution certainly deserved it. Because it is remarkable that a group of European countries has managed to set up an institution that generates such extraordinary results. That should actually be honoured, as happens from time to time with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Having already talked about imaging techniques, I would now finally like to show you an image. It shows in a very graphic way the North Atlantic suffering from an unprecedented water surface heat wave. At least it is the worst since 1850, that is, since there have been recordings. As an experienced „image reader“, what can you see in this picture?

A presumably statistically significant deviation, to put it scientifically cautiously. The blue lines indicate the years 1982 to 2011. Why are 2012 to 2022 not shown? That would be interesting to know. But scientists always have new questions in response to questions. The graph is worrying. When I see something like this, I immediately think: what else do you need? What further evidence do you need to convince everyone that man-made climate change exists? And that it is an enormous problem. Evidently, humans only learn from disruption – in other words, destruction.

I naturally wondered why this graphic does not appear on the front page of every daily newspaper. I do mean, every. Now, not only have we landed in the middle of the North Atlantic with this question, but also, strictly speaking, in the middle of several Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 13: Action on climate change, SDG 14: Life under water and probably also SDG 2: No hunger. Let me take this opportunity to remind you that in 2021, during a surface water heat wave off Canada’s west coast that was not nearly as severe, an estimated one billion seafood items were downright cooked to death. How is it that a physicist as enthusiastic as you are, is nearly more passionate about the SDGs?

I would like to clarify this, because future historians would hardly find any evidence that I have contributed particularly much to supporting the SDGs so far. Therefore, it would be wrong to portray me as an ardent public SDG propagator.

The fact is, the world is moving in a dangerous direction in many aspects. Most people are aware that there are now very big challenges to overcome. I deliberately don’t say all – because that would probably have to be scientifically proven again … Well, I’m improvising now, okay? I’m talking to hear what I think.

Many of these challenges can only be managed by changing human behaviour. Now we have a problem: human behaviour seems to be very difficult to change, perhaps only through disruption or over long time periods. But we are running out of time. So what can be done then? One can focus on technologies. Then educational and research institutions come into play, which on the one hand have the task of creating awareness, producing factual knowledge and perhaps even bringing solutions to the table, or at least suggesting them. And that’s where our responsibility comes in. We have to make sure that as much knowledge and awareness as possible is generated for this issue, and that this is anchored above all in the minds of our young people. By now, this has perhaps become a little easier because the problems are so prevalent and present. Creating new knowledge, producing facts and interpreting them – I think we are doing that quite successfully. How to bring these facts to society is another discussion. Finally, research must also propose solutions. We are working on that.

Perhaps I can put it this way: if educational institutions like ours don’t do anything, who will? And that is why our responsibility, my responsibility, is great. But that should not be misinterpreted as a responsibility that is crushing. I don’t see it as a crushing responsibility, but rather as a positive one. But it is a great responsibility.

The problem lies in human behaviour. I have been thinking about this a lot lately – also during the pandemic. I have come to the conclusion that we have a fundamental problem with the fact that the human intellect is apparently not „wired“ to understand the exponential function, to really understand it intuitively. We simply can’t.

We intuitively understand linear changes. This has to do with our senses, probably with evolution. Evolution has so far led to a human being whose brain does not need to intuitively understand the exponential function. And that is the big crux. The fact that we don’t intuitively grasp the exponential function and think rather linearly means that we systematically lag behind many developments. Whatever you do, it won’t change. It will just stay that way. Most people will not be able to overcome this systematic problem. During the pandemic, that became clear.

And almost all of these phenomena that are causing us these problems are exponential in nature. How are we going to manage this? I don’t know, because it may even be a matter of evolution. But of course, we will do everything we can to find solutions and not enter into an attitude of frustration and say, well, in the end there’s not much we can do. My vision is always that we can at least sow the seeds in the hope that at some point some of those seeds will sprout. If we stop producing seeds now and scattering them into the world, then all is lost. That is my understanding.

We now live in an extremely dynamic world, there are almost nine billion people on earth. On your desk lies the book Einstein Forever. You went to a Gymnasium with the name Albert Einstein and today you are the rector of the university that still has a wardrobe in honour of Albert Einstein – which is wonderful. On this occasion, may I briefly quote Einstein. „The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the basic feeling that stands at the cradle of true art and science. He who does not know it and can no longer wonder is, so to speak, dead and his eyes extinguished.“ In my opinion, this claim no longer fits in any way with the complexity of a world that, with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, has devised something like a new world order or a new roadmap for the peaceful further development of our world. For me personally, and I am happy to say this, even if it may sound haughty to one ear or the other, the SDGs are like a new Ten Commandments 2.0, a code of how we can get along with each other.

The keywords for me are „complexity“ and „the rapidly evolving world“. And the pace of development has reached a speed with which we – when I say „we“ I mean society – cannot keep up in any way, either intellectually or in terms of regulation or resources. That is the problem. The SDGs can therefore also be understood as a perhaps panic-stricken attempt to slow down this acceleration or to reduce this complexity. That’s how it feels. At the time, the Ten Commandments were probably also an attempt to give order to a complex social structure. That was likely the reason for the Ten Commandments. So there are parallels between the two.

The fact is that the UN – that is, the global community – only rarely succeeds in making such big moves as the SDGs. I consider the formulation of the SDGs to be extremely visionary and possibly the lifeline for all of us. Because they are oriented towards reality, because they take into account the current state of affairs, how we want to deal with the dynamics of economic growth and the quest for prosperity today. Also with the necessity, and everyone is aware of this, that there has to be a balance. Between genders, between ethnic groups, north and south, rich and poor and so on. There is an incredible number of things embedded in the SDGs. May I assume that you also see the SDGs as a call for a new momentum, or rather a new era, which must now develop. And it needs to develop very quickly. Does science therefore need a new approach to knowledge to meet the challenges? Do we need a new science?

No, I wouldn’t say we need a new science or a new way of gaining knowledge. But in education and training, there has to be a developmental step towards systemic thinking. I believe that a large part of the problems is characterised by great interdependencies and a large part of the possible solutions have to do with systemic thinking that reflects these interdependencies. If you look at the history of the last two or three hundred years of science, you see the tendency to investigate any detailed questions to the hilt. I do believe that we still need depth, because all the problems mentioned above cannot be solved by some superficial blah blah. But to recognise the connection of the systems to a big whole and to think it through from the beginning – that will be crucial. I am convinced that we must now also implement this in teaching, and that is something I would like to encourage.

But doesn’t that change the role of science completely? Towards almost political leadership – beyond national, continental and even global political claims? Obviously, the political sphere can no longer solve these problems. We saw that very well during the pandemic; it won’t work.

We are now on another, very interesting and highly topical path in the discussion, namely: what is the role of science in solving societal problems? I think the role of science is to bring evidence-based scenarios to the table and say these are the facts. And under such and such a condition, something develops – either this way or that way. Those are the scenarios, those are the consequences. And then it is the role of politics and/or society to select from these scenarios. The world is more complex than from the perspective of science alone. We should be very careful about that, otherwise we are heading towards a dictatorship of the intellectuals. Yet we have to make sure that the dialogue works. That means we must be allowed to expect that we will be heard when we come up with new scenarios. That we can talk to each other. That we can provide support in the selection of possible solutions. But the decision is then made by society as a whole. Science is only one part of society.

With this in mind, I remember a conversation I had a very long time ago with Wolf D. Prix of the architectural group Coop Himmelblau, in which he said: „Architecture is there to choose one out of an infinity of possibilities – and to represent it.“ Because in fact, science must also claim this privilege. Especially when I recall the claims that the 17 SDGs carry within them. Just the core messages are already a „Mont Blanc“ of aspiration: human dignity, protect the planet, prosperity for all, promote peace, expand global partnerships. All of this now also rests on the shoulders of science. This is a call for knowledge-driven leadership that politics, at least in my opinion, cannot – or does not want to – deliver. At least that is my impression.

Probably „doesn’t want to“ because there is a human aspect to it. Or can’t any more. Because the problems have become too complex. I think most or many of the politicians are simply overwhelmed, just as almost all of us are overwhelmed. Politicians are forced to set up regulations. And yes, this responsibility also lies on the shoulders of science. I would like to reiterate that the facts and the scenarios must be presented. But I would be careful! Science can’t do more than that as long as it really only calls itself science, can it? Or we develop new hierarchies that are given the power to make big decisions. That would really be a new social structure.

I believe that we will have no other choice really, because otherwise this vacuum will be filled by „Silicon Valley“ and sooner or later it will be able to dominate entire countries with the power of money. And of course, from my point of view, it is also related to the prevailing information policy, which in the end did not work in the pandemic because it was top down. Maybe all this is also part of the reason why we came together for this festival. Because it is exactly the opposite, namely bottom up. As noted at the beginning of our conversation, two parties find each other that at first don’t seem to fit together. Science and photography. And begin to do something that did not exist before, to describe the world in a particular way. Great photography is able to create images whose narrative power is full of empathy, which is transferred to the viewer in the shortest possible way and across all language barriers from the eye to the heart. However, these narratives only describe the world – and offer no approach to improving the conditions shown. So, someone has to set things right. A solution is needed. Through politics or religion or even science. Even though the open your eyes festival is only a small format in the public space of the centre of Zurich, for the first time photography’s ability to describe the world meets science’s proof that solutions exist. The collaboration with ETH Zurich means no more and no less: “ People, there’s a lot out there that’s not quite right. But we know how to fix it.“ World-class science meets world-class photography. And that is something radically new.

To tie in with that: when I took the city train into town this morning, I was thinking about how I would describe it. And the following image came to mind: the photographs that will then be on display in the city are actually like an empathic lasso with which I catch people who would otherwise just walk past. I catch them with an empathic lasso, suddenly have them in my grasp, even if maybe only for seconds. But otherwise, I wouldn’t have them at all, and then I manage to trigger awareness of the problems in some of the viewers through empathy. And maybe something of this feeling will stick – until the next vote, where it’s also about a climate law or a vote on some SDG-relevant topic. That is the vision for me. And something else is important to me because you said that two people have come together who, at first glance, have nothing to do with each other. I actually see it differently. For a while I gave lectures on particle physics for the general public. When explaining particle physics, people always ask what it’s all for. Okay, that’s the typical question. I then answer that I see myself as a cultural worker. People are always a bit surprised that a particle physicist says he is a cultural worker. That doesn’t fit. We have a very fixed image of a cultural worker. It’s someone who is a sculptor or paints or makes music. And I say that’s not true. I am just as much a cultural worker as you are a photographer or someone who makes music. Why? Because all these scientific and artistic activities are ultimately about the creative work and thinking of human beings. And the creative work and thinking of human beings is a pillar of human culture. That’s why cultural workers. And that’s why we don’t bring different worlds together here, but simply perform together.

I am convinced that excellence in creative work always grows from one and the same root, whether it is expressed in scientific theses or in art. Because there is a circumstance that plays into our hands, because suddenly there is a medium that the whole world has agreed on, and that is the image – photography. It is the first time in the history of mankind that there is a second pillar of communication besides the word, which is growing right now, which can not only transport empathy and does not need language. It is incredibly fast: through the eye into the heart – in a fraction of a second.

Through these statements, you have just induced an image in my mind, namely: what brought down the Tower of Babel? Suddenly everyone was speaking in different languages – and the whole thing collapsed. They say photography is the only universal language. It helps us, so to speak, to perhaps bring the Tower of Babel, in which we find ourselves, a little bit under control.

We have lost sight of the fact that our most important sense is the sense of vision. Grasping, recognising the world happens first and foremost through the eye. The Hungarian photographic artist László Moholy-Nagy put it in a precise way: „Photography is there to make the visible visible.“ An endless sequence of knowledge that we are so unaware of. Just like science does, which also makes the visible visible. We have introduced two terms into our conceptual approach. These are the „concerned scientist“ and the „concerned photographer“, people who, let’s say simply, just like everyone else, make a living in order to finance their lives. But beyond that, to a certain extent, they are also something like one-person NGOs. Who are on a „mission“, who want to contribute to making the world a better place. Because we have no choice: as we all know, Planet B does not exist. David Doubilet, an American underwater photographer, recently put it very concisely in a speech: „The world has the wrong name, it’s called Earth. But it should be called water. And when water is in bad shape, we are simply no longer here.“ In this light, what do the 17 SDGs mean for you personally, for Günther Dissertori privately, as a person, as a personality, as a human being?

Answering from the gut, for me they are 17 reminders. For me they are warnings. That’s it. If I’m travelling in a car and there’s a road sign saying „Caution crossing“ or there’s a wall of a house or an abyss coming towards me, then I can react to it – or not. If I don’t react to it, then I will drive into the abyss. That is my deep feeling of these SDGs. Yes, perhaps with a negative connotation, but that is my personal feeling.

You are at the wheel of this car; you are the rector of one of the most important universities in the world …

I am not the master of Earth or the master of water.

But you are the driver of a very good, very fast, very modern car …

No, I’m one of those who sits in a big bus and holds a map in his hand and says: Watch out! So now you should turn right here and now you should turn left there. That, I think, is us!

Then who is at the wheel?

Yes, that is the question. There are people at the wheel who have gotten there for all kinds of reasons and not necessarily for SDG-driven reasons. But they are not scientists.

Wouldn’t it be time to consider, as we do with flying, whether we still need a pilot at all, whether perhaps technology, in other words science, is not better suited to steering such a vehicle?

Yes, I understand what you mean. I think, possibly, in the end, the calculation is simply made without the human factor? Perhaps humans, as biological beings, are simply not capable of taking this enormous evolutionary step from linear to exponential. Or perhaps they would need much more time for this development. But we don’t have that. It would be my wish, but I am very sceptical about it, because part of the whole complexity is the fact that the community of humans is a highly complex system, with all the associated social aspects. And yes, actually you have to look at the bigger picture. However, society tends to be rather polarising. There is science. And there is society. Now science would „only“ have to take responsibility. But science itself is part of society. I find it difficult to separate the two. But yes, one can ask oneself what would happen if science were to suddenly take over in some way? What would happen then? We’re still only human. Or we take the next evolutionary step and say AI should take over. But I see a problem with that: AI is trained on data. But the data that is currently available is generated by humans …

This all sounds very dystopian. I said at the very beginning of our conversation that human behaviour unfortunately only changes through disruption. But perhaps it simply needs this brutal disruption. Part of evolution is that there have always been brutal disruptions. Well, sooner or later there will be a disruption anyway, namely when the sun expands and destroys everything on the earth’s surface. Then it’s the end of the road here anyway. I hope you can still sleep tonight.

But there is still time left until that happens.

Yes, there is still quite some time left.

Now I have to return to the beginning of our conversation. You did research on the CMS experiment on the picosecond after the Big Bang, so very, very shortly after the creation of the universe. Now you have outlined the end of the world, not the end of the universe, but the end of our world. What happens to Homo sapiens?

I have an idea about that. I think we hopelessly overestimate ourselves. In the sense of what you see in the universe: everything comes into being and passes away, even stars. Everything comes into being and passes away, but Homo sapiens has developed – maybe this is part of sapiens – the attitude: „I’m above it, I shouldn’t, I can’t pass away at all.“ And that is this utmost overestimation. I think Homo sapiens is certainly an incredibly fascinating, very complex development, here locally in the universe out of the laws of nature. But who is telling us that this is the ultimate. There are so many possibilities in the universe for similar developments. Why do we think we are the ultimate? Whole stars pass away and then we will pass away here sometime. Maybe something similar or even more fascinating will arise somewhere else. That is why I am serene. This serenity is characterised by the feeling: after all, I have witnessed this second in the history of the universe for a few years. I see that as a privilege – and I am content with that.

The interview with Prof. Dr Günther Dissertori took place on 23 June 2023 in the Rector’s Office of ETH Zurich. It was conducted by Lois Lammerhuber.

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