Under the slogan “Lichtspiele” (Light Shows), the science festival co-organised by the German Physical Society (DPG) and the Federal Ministry of Research in Jena (Germany), attracted more than 53,000 visitors. That made it by far the most successful in the history of the Highlights.
Rapturous screams and squeals burst out of the marquee. Maria Breuer’s Children’s Theatre knows how to arouse children’s interest in physics. The little ones put on glasses with red and green lenses and help the actors find hidden tomato ketchup bottles, or they learn something about the primary colours of light and that you cannot simply keep it in boxes. They stare at the stage, spellbound. Now and then teachers tell their pupils who have leapt up with enthusiasm to sit down again. Amid all this is Arnulf Quadt. The only place the professor in physics and DPG Director of PR was able to find was on the steps of the middle stairway: “The children’s reaction shows that physics is fun if only it is conveyed properly and in an exciting way.”
In a large neighbouring marquee the atmosphere is more serious but just as thrilling. Here children, adolescents and adults marvel at all the things researchers can do these days with light. As if on a paper chase, schoolchildren thirsty for knowledge go from one of the 30-plus experiments to another; they hold a booklet with questions they have to try and answer – about how solar cells work, about laser for precision measurements, about heat-imaging cameras and optical fibres used, for instance, in endoscopes in medicine. “Many of the exhibits come from Jena”, says Gerhard Paulus from the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena’s Institute of Optics and Quantum Electronics. He is the local organiser of the “Lichtspiele”, as the event is styled.Paulus attributes the success of the Jena Lichtspiele primarily to two factors: firstly, the good folk of the city traditionally have a great affinity with topics related to natural sciences. After all, the German physicist Ernst Abbe lived here a long time, and he along with Carl Zeiss and Otto Schott created the bases for modern optics and developed many optical instruments. The long-established firms Carl Zeiss AG, Jenoptik and Schott are still based here. Secondly, generous support from the Carl Zeiss Foundation has enabled over 2,000 schoolchildren from all over Germany to come to Jena to take part.
The exhibition at Eichplatz was not the only visitor magnet – so were the Einstein Slam and the big Highlights Show in the Sparkassen-Arena, presented by science journalist und TV presenter Ranga Yogeshwar. Every seat in the hall was sold out. “Science is all around us”, says Yogeshwar: “Science and technology are the mainstay of our prosperity.” Yet the subject of Physics calls for a little help, according to Yogeshwar, to enable passion to be kindled for it. More than anything it needs motivating teachers to spawn good scientists. “In most cases young people’s passion for Physics is aroused by inspiring Physics teachers”, says DPG President Edward G. Krubasik. “Our aim must be to attract the best talents to teaching. Otherwise there is a risk of a shortage of Physics teachers in many a federal state.”
Parliamentary Secretary of State Stefan Müller from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research takes the same line: “We have to inspire young people who may not even know yet that Physics is the subject they want to study at some stage in the future.”
Along with the DPG President he praised examples of outstandingly committed young people, including the Thuringian Jugend-forscht prize-winners, who all attend school in Jena. They devised an experiment for increasing the transmission of information by fibre optic cable by affecting the polarisation of light. “The Incredible Light Machine” school competition, which was organised by the DPG in conjunction with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in celebration of the International Year of Light, was approached by the winners in a somewhat more playful manner. They built a Rube Goldberg Machine, in which the components were arranged in such a way that a chain reaction was set off: in it, light was to play a major part, in keeping with the Year of the Light. The youngsters had to start up and readjust their Incredible Machine more than 50 times until the chain reaction was completed. “Creativity and perseverance are the best qualities that set a researcher apart”, says DPG President Krubasik in praise of these team performances. Secretary of State Müller is most impressed by the young people. He says he is no longer anxious about future Nobel Price candidates from Germany.
Gerhard Samulat is a physicist and since a year Press officer of the German Physical Society. Before that he was several years freelance science journalist working for numerous magazines and newspapers. Furthermore he was seminar teacher at the National Institute for Science Communication NaWik giving lectures for scientists to write for the public.