Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle
Physicist, Nobel Prize for Physics 2001
DAAD Scholarship 1990
Even while studying physics, he was already one of the best; his professional development reads like a dream career. Wolfgang Ketterle was the youngest German ever to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001, together with his American colleagues E. A. Cornell and C. E. Wieman. In 1995, the scientist was one of the first to succeed in generating what is known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. Under the most extreme of low temperatures, this condensate – that does not occur naturally – proves Einstein's theories of quantum mechanics. Wolfgang Ketterle is convinced: "Quantum mechanics is already just as fundamental for science today as Goethe's works or Beethoven's symphonies have been for cultural education."
A combination of good fortune, excellent staff, selfless mentors, a sixth sense and my own abilities enabled me to be right at the front in important developments.
After gaining his school-leaving certificate, Ketterle, who was born in Heidelberg in 1957, began to study physics in his home town. But he soon moved to the TU Munich. Undecided over whether to go for pure or applied research, he chose a topic in theoretical physics for his Diplom thesis. "However, I had some doubt as to whether this might end up taking me too deeply into the ivory towers of science." In 1982, he began working at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching and completed a doctorate on an applied experimental research subject. Another change followed: back home at the University of Heidelberg, Wolfgang Ketterle now focused on combustion research with lasers. "The time I spent in combustion research was decisive for me. I had long wanted to go into applied research and in so doing found out where I really belonged – namely in pure basic research." In 1990, he received a DAAD Scholarship that enabled him to work as a visiting researcher at a leading US university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he worked in Dave Pritchard's group on problems of laser cooling. "The scholarship enabled me to plan my move into a new research area and to gain a position in the research field of cold atoms even without any relevant experience. After one year, my position was fully funded by MIT. Without this DAAD Scholarship, this change would have been much more difficult to complete."
Once at MIT, a meteoric career began for the German physicist. Within a short time – and overtaking all his American colleagues – he became an assistant professor in 1993, and five years later he received a highly sought-after endowed chair, the John D. MacArthur Professorship for Physics. "The move to the United States at the age of 32 was a step without a safety net, because I exchanged a longer-term position for a two-year appointment with uncertain prospects," he says. Attempts to get the successful researcher to return to Germany have failed. "The question of my return came up in 1997 when I decided by a whisker to turn down an outstanding offer from the Max Planck Society. But I've firmly established myself in America now."