Interview with Professor Klaus von Klitzing by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 54th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, 2004.
Professor Klitzing talks about his studies and research, the reception of his first paper (4:49), receiving the Nobel Prize at an early age (6:13), the development of scientific research in Europe in the future (8:04), and how the Prize affected his personal life (11:58).
Welcome, very nice to see you, professor Klitzing. It was back in 1985 you received the Nobel Prize. I just would like to start off by asking you how did you go about it, when you had this hypothesis and you wanted to prove it? How long time did it take and how did you go about it?
Klaus von Klitzing: Ok, then we have to really to go back how I selected physics to study and how did I go into the semi-conductor physics. At the time when I started at university in 1962, semi-conductor physics, lasers, just very modern topics, and I decided into go into this modern area. I was fascinated by the scientific topic and I studied in Braunschweig and you should know that Braunschweig, there is a National Bureau of Standards in Germany, the metrology institute, called Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt and as a young student, I always worked between the terms at this Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt. This was very important also for my discovery because I identified that it is very important for this Institute for metrology because my discovery has something to do with fundamental constant, these very precise measurements. I was already sensitive as a young student with these questions. Then I have done research and then you are doing the diploma work, in Germany the PhD and then the habitation, if you want to go into the professor direction, but then I suddenly discovered, ok, do we have enough positions at universities to find a job? There were no positions and then I tried to get jobs in the industry and they said oh no, you are over educated, you will be unhappy in industry. Fortunately there was this so called Heisenberg programme that a scientist had the possibility to do what he wants to do, can select the institute, the research centre, he will get every month his salary and then he has to give some lectures but he is absolutely free to do research and I decided to go to the best laboratories to do my experiments. I was working the semi-conductors and have used high magnetic fields and there was one centre in Grenoble in France and I decided to go to this laboratory and to continue my research.
But you knew then already what you wanted to study? You had this idea?
Klaus von Klitzing: Yes, I had always semi-conductor physics, I wanted to understand modern micro electronics, how can I improve devices. I had contacts also in the industry but from the fundamental physics, I wanted to know how can I make faster switches, how can the electron move in the semi-conductors. It was really more or less by accident that I went into this direction because during my research I discovered if I clean a sample, that change the properties, so if you clean the surface, the electrical behaviour was different. Then you see, ok, the surface is very important and then I focused on the very thin layer of the surface and this is connected to modern micro electronics. All electronic properties are in a very, very thin layer and in this way, I went in a direction where I never expected that I would discover something fundamental. I was just interested to understand how I can improve something, how can I understand something and I had experience for about 10 years in this field. I collected a lot of information in my head and anyone who reads literature had the chance to discover the quantized Hall effect for which I got the Nobel Prize, because it was published, the data, but if you have not the experience. I worked with different companies, Siemens company in Germany, /- – -/ company in England and I saw that if I used different samples, I saw the same phenomena. Then I concluded, ok, there’s something fundamental in the pen of the source of the material and then I can fix it really. In the night of 5th of February at two o’clock in the morning, I decided to look at some special feature which I have seen for many, many years and then I developed a very simple theory which was so simple that couldn’t believe that this is working. It was too simple because in a semi-conductor you have impurities, you have dirty effects and it’s very complicated normally. I used low approximation to understand or to analyse something and I found that the very simple equation works, that there are no corrections, no deviations, so within five minutes I knew there is something interesting. This was not the main road, this was just one type of experiment which was used to characterise our system.
When you had this knowledge and you could prove it and you wrote an article I have read and it was refused first, how did you feel then? You knew you had something and …
Klaus von Klitzing: Perhaps most of my students don’t understand this because today you are always fighting to publish something. For me, it was not very important because when I had written down this result, I sent this to all my colleagues, a news community, a news Japanese group – it’s nearly on the same level – and it was distributed to everyone in the world, everyone who was working in this field, and I was happy with this, that they knew that I have done this. It was not very important, when I got the letter that this was not useful for publication in Physical Review Letters, but then I was invited to a conference as a post deadline speaker and I met one of the referees of my paper and he called the editor of the journal. Then it was immediately accepted because then I could discuss and could demonstrate that this was really an important new result and this was a reliable experiment, because it was something new. For a referee it’s always difficult if something really new may be published because you never know if it’s true or not. There is also a lot of wrong publication papers, so they are careful, the referees, but then they saw the results and I discussed this, then they immediately knew that this was an interesting topic.
What did it mean to you professionally, that you got the prize a few years later? You were quite a young man still, at that age, one of the youngest to receive a prize.
Klaus von Klitzing: This is a problem. A lot of scientists told me, oh be careful, this is danger if you get this prize because the Nobel Prize really is the highest prize you will get in science and it can go down only or you can keep the level. I decided now I have this position to generate an atmosphere for young students to develop, to have creativity. Immediately I decided you cannot go still up to a higher level so just transfer it to the young students because I could develop because my professor gave me the freedom and always supported me. I never worried about my future because I knew as long as I’m doing good research, somebody will help me. I will have this atmosphere also for my students, so this was my decision.
So, it’s important to have the funding to do the basic researches. Is that something that you are convinced of?
Klaus von Klitzing: Yes, this is very important because there’s obviously discussion about basic research and at the Max Planck Society we have not a problem because Max Planck Society, they favour basic research and the most important thing is that you have some new knowledge that just developed during your research. Only the very first one is a success. You have never second prize or third prize in basic research. You should be at the very front and you should work for 100% as a scientist, so there is no compromise between science and then some other things, you have to work 120%.
Max Planck Institute is mainly funded by the German state. You have already said you think it’s very important that independent research institutes are there. How do you see the development in the future for scientific research in Europe specifically or maybe even directly in Germany?
Klaus von Klitzing: I think the Max Planck Society is internationally known for excellent science and is accepted doing good science and if I’m asked what’s the reason for this I always say the independence. We are financed by the government. In Germany half of the central government and half by the different states but they have no direct influence on the research in the institute, so we decide, we select our directors and highest quality is always the most important thing. As a Max Planck director, I’m absolutely free to select my topic, so I can do brain research if I believe that I can contribute to this. We have some variation every six years, compare them between different Max Planck Institutes and so on but to give them the freedom is very important but you need money and the politicians always try to get some influence on the scientific topics in the institute. Even at present we are fighting against this influence. They will say ok, perhaps for political reason you have to select more female directors or something. If the quality is there, there is no problem but for outside to have some special boundary conditions, it becomes difficult so if you have to co-operate with industry or with universities, we will do this. It’s there on the same level. For both sides, we have some profit out of this but if somebody says, ok now because universities should be supported with basic research, you should combine Max Planck Institute with universities. If we decide this is ok, we’ll do it, but to have decision from outside, this will be always dangerous and we are trying to avoid this. You spoke about Europe – I’m trying to generate also in Europe some European research currency. There’s some discussion because basic research is not in the frameworks of the European programme, these programmes are for industry. There are a lot of boundary conditions, you need partners from different countries, you cannot optimise from the quality of your research, you have to optimise this by other parameters and I’m trying to generate something like Max Planck Institute, on the European level, to have something where the highest quality is the first criteria for supporting some research and I hope that in next years we will generate a European research council where only the quality of research counts.
That makes me wonder, having seen the bigger Europe now over the last couple of months, what will that mean to scientific research because there must be excellent research in what used to be the East European block.
Klaus von Klitzing: There were always good connections. This is nice in science, we act with Poland, these different countries, so many connections already for 20, 30 years ago, we have no problems to have these co-operations. They have very special areas, sides where they are really at the top level and there are no problems to organise some co-operations and so this is the nice thing in science. We had already before been a Europe, all these connections, only in Germany before the unification we had problems with East Germany. This was the right place in Europe, but I am happy that we have now the possibility really to have even better connection to these countries.
I would like to ask you a more personal question. In which way did the prize affect your personal life and your family’s life? Was it to good or bad? Did it put much more pressure on you maybe, work wise?
Klaus von Klitzing: There are different influences. First of all my children or my wife, they don’t believe what’s in the newspaper they can read because they have the experience that the newspaper … Because I decided the family is one side and my business is the other side and I didn’t want to have my family included in all the discussions. Then the press generates some information which are not true, this was very bad side effect. It’s also some education, that you should not believe everything what is printed, you have to read different source to get the true information. Now for me, I decided to behave in the same way as before. Even today, I never accept some invitation where only the fact that I’m a Nobel Prize winner is the reason that I’m invited for some exhibition or something like that or after dinner speech also; even if they give money, I decide no. If this is the reason, I will not accept this. I decided to be as normal as possible and therefore I like to have these discussions also with students, these Lindau meetings. The Nobel Prize winners and the students meet in order to demonstrate that even Nobel Prize winners are normal persons. I remember when I first time I saw a Nobel Prize winner at a distance of 20 metres as a student, there was something, a different person, and I never tried to contact him. I think I will encourage people that we are normal persons, we know something in special areas but we also don’t know everything because this is one of our problems, that a lot of people expect that we should know everything and that we should problems which we are not able to solve or everyone else is able to solve, this is the same way. In this way I can survive.
Great, thank you so much professor, I really enjoyed speaking to you, thank you.
Klaus von Klitzing: Thank you.
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