Transcript from an interview with Ferenc Krausz

Interview with the 2023 Nobel Prize laureate in physics Ferenc Krausz on 6 December 2023 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Where does your passion for science come from?

Ferenc Krausz: It always fascinated me to enter into a world which is not known to humans, and where we have the chance to discover new things. In general and in particular I have always been fascinated by the microcosm, by the very small things where we can look into and can get access to only by some very special tools like microscopes in space, and like very short pulses in time. I wouldn’t say there was a very decisive moment, a special moment, it was more due to a really excellent teacher in primary school who taught physics and who actually managed to present not just formulas, but also the whole concept of physics, how it works, and how it strives for explaining a whole range of phenomena with a theory as simply as possible. Kind of reduce everything down to the simplest level and try to develop concepts and theories with which we can explain and understand the broadest range of phenomena. This very concept was very fascinating to me, and probably that’s why eventually I decided to devote my life to this area.

Do you think you would be where you are without that teacher?

Ferenc Krausz: Probably not. I think he really made a very decisive influence on my path. He directed my attention to a field where I had the feeling that I have the chance to just have joy when doing work and where I can go day by day to my workplace and do things which I don’t feel like work, but which feel like passion. That’s, I think to a large extent I have to thank to him.

How did you find out that you had been awarded the prize?

Ferenc Krausz: I was indeed working at home just doing the last touches on some slides. We had this kind of open-door day at our institute. This was a bank holiday in Germany, the third of October, and we opened our institute to the public. I offered to volunteer a few lab tours for interested people, and just thought that, well, just to introduce this lab tour it’s always nice to say a few words about what we are doing and what those complicated instruments are being used for. I was just about to do the final touches on these slides. It was very interesting because then I was just done, and I thought, oh, okay, I still have a few more minutes, and I can maybe take a look at the interview of Katalin Karikó, who was announced just the day before to be one of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. She comes from the same country as myself, so I just started watching that very brief video when the call came in.

What was your response to the prize?

Ferenc Krausz: Wow, it was overwhelming. I arrived there a couple of minutes after the prize was announced, and it was amazing how quickly people figured out and when I was arriving in the institute, obviously, they just knew about it and just got to learn about this. They were already smiling and were taking photographs; it was a very special feeling. It was an overwhelming feeling to celebrate these first moments together with people interested in science, not necessarily my own colleagues. Some colleagues came in shortly thereafter as well, which was also very special, of course, to celebrate with them. But it was also beautiful to celebrate just with the public, and then they see how excited they are and wanted to take pictures together with me. It was really a great feeling.

Why is collaboration so important in science?

Ferenc Krausz: I think these days technology altogether becomes so complicated, so sophisticated that to make complicated experiments work, we have to bring together a lot of bits and pieces from different areas, of not only physics, but also electrical engineering, information technologies, sometimes also life sciences. This of course relies on knowledge from many different fields which cannot possibly be brought in by just one or two persons. That’s why it was very important also in our field, also in our projects, to bring together scientists, often from different laboratories, to contribute basically their knowledge and their know-how to the project. This was also the case when we managed to generate and measure the first and the second pulse in Vienna. This was also the result of a truly international collaboration where scientists from Germany, from Hungary, Austria, of course, because this was in Austria, and Canada, were participating and were making contributions.

Why is it important that science is an international discipline?

Ferenc Krausz: I think science is just inherently international. There is, at least in natural sciences, there is certainly no national science. I mean, the laws of nature are not restricted to a country, not even to a continent, but they are inherently international. I think that’s one of the truly beautiful things about science. That’s also what I think makes science so special and so valuable. Not just for spawning new knowledge, but also to connect people, connect people from different areas coming from different cultures, have them talk to each other, get to learn each other, get to learn each other’s culture and different habits. I think science can actually contribute a lot to a peaceful world.

What inspired you to support scientists displaced by the war in Ukraine?

Ferenc Krausz: I have been spending significant fraction of my time in Hungary over the past few years, thanks to a new project which we started there about four years ago. This was also the case, I was also regularly in Budapest at that time when the war broke out. Hungary is a direct neighbour of Ukraine, we have a common border. In the first weeks, month of the war 10-15,000 people crossed the border day by day. I’ve seen the pictures of it, it was televised of course, there were daily reports about what’s going on there. I felt very, very sorry for these people, and I wanted to do something, and I thought, wow, I should go there and volunteer kind of some help there, but I quickly figured out that my countrymen do a great job there, so probably I could do just an infinitesimal contribution. What else could I possibly do, which could be more than just an infinitesimal contribution? That’s how the idea about founding an organisation named Science for People came about and utilise basically my worldwide network and connections to other organisations and colleagues working at other research institutions to sensitise them for what’s happening here. Because I found that the farther away one is from a conflict the less is one affected somehow emotionally because the farther one is away the less news can be heard about even a serious conflict.

I just wanted to set up this network to sensitise people and collect donations for allowing us to help not the refugees that left the country, because they were taking care of really very generously in different European countries, but those very many who stayed in Ukraine, and particularly the children who stayed there, who have been suffering ever since the beginning of this war. Many of them are deprived of their schools, meanwhile, either because the school is destroyed or because they due to continuous shelling – it’s very dangerous to just go even out and go to school. Many have the only chance to learn by online schooling. We thought we should try to provide some help, and that’s why we teamed up with an organisation in Western Ukraine, and together with them we provide support to children and young people in their education and also for their free time activities.

How have the countries in which you have lived influenced your life?

Ferenc Krausz: I do feel myself in the very first place as Hungarian, for sure. I was born there and I got my education there, so I owe a lot to my teachers in Hungary who directed my attention to this field, which I have been devoting my life to, and therefore for sure Hungary has a very big importance in my life. On the other hand, I have to say that I owe a lot also to Austria, where I had the chance to work with a great deal of degrees of freedom on problems and on challenges that I personally found extremely exciting, and where I had the chance to actually decide, yes, this is the direction I want to go. Particularly thanks to one person, to my mentor, Arnold Schmidt, who allowed me to really build a great team at the technical University of Vienna. Eventually, I have to thank a lot to Germany, where I had the chance to bring the kind of tools that we developed in Vienna to fruition and really utilise these tools for tackling a number of problems and demonstrate the kind of power of these tools and technologies of attosecond science. In this way also a bit fertilises other groups and “infect” other people in the world with this passion for this field.

What advice would you give to young researchers?

Ferenc Krausz: I think what is very important for everyone is to find his or her right questions to find those questions where the search for the answer makes someone feel passionate about what he or she’s doing. It may be often quite difficult to find the right question. I think this is something that everyone, particularly those who decide to become a researcher, become a scientist, should spend sufficient time on to find their right questions, because that’s from which one can actually derive the goals and that’s what defines the tasks to be tackled on a short run – next few weeks, month, years, and beyond.

How do you deal with failure?

Ferenc Krausz: Science, indeed research, particularly research at the forefront consists to a large extent of failures, probably more failures than successful steps forward. Of course, in the first moment, a failure never feels nice, but in the second moment, we do realise that there is a lot to learn from those failures. In quite a few cases, we can learn more from failures than from successive steps forward. I think we always have to see how we can extract the maximum amount of new information we can possibly get from that failure and equipped with that new information think what is the right step to be taken next? It is not a particular advice to be given in the case of a failure, I think it’s more how to deal with a failure. I think that’s what is most important: to make a failure feel not being a failure, but an experience from which we can gain new knowledge, and with this new knowledge, we have a better chance to succeed now, in the next step.

What qualities are necessary to be a successful scientist?

Ferenc Krausz: Curiosity in the first place, almost equally importantly, perseverance, and almost equally importantly interest in finding something which no one else has found before. I think these three things together probably can make anyone a good scientist and can give anyone the feeling that work is not really work but joy and passion.

What role does hard work play in research?

Ferenc Krausz: I think science is not special in that respect, probably in most other areas of life if you meet a challenge, a serious challenge, and want to achieve something by overcoming that challenge, by overcoming all the hurdles, then there is no alternative to working hard. That’s not special to science, I think, that’s an absolutely necessary ingredient. But just as I mentioned before, if the other three qualities are in place, then this so-called hard work doesn’t feel like work. That’s how I think about this.

Is creativity necessary to be a scientist?

Ferenc Krausz: I would say it’s probably very helpful. It’s very helpful. But this is of course something that cannot really be learned at school, that has to come together in a problem or has to develop in a more sophisticated way by being interested in new things and being curious and being eager to figure out things which other do not know yet.

What environments best encourage creativity?

Ferenc Krausz: There are environments, I could mention as an example our environment in Munich. It’s a truly fantastic environment where many scientific fields are around, really on a world class level. I think it is a great privilege to be allowed to work in an environment where no matter what kind of question is coming up there is an expert almost next door to be asked. Definitely, there are places where many disciplines are present and are being represented at a world class level. These are, I think, the best environments for creating new knowledge.

Why is diversity in science important?

Ferenc Krausz: I think science is the inherent platform which provides space for diversity and not just provide space but actually inherently encourages, because science doesn’t select, wow, this new knowledge that we need here, or new idea that will bring us forward, whether it comes from women or men or a person from one area of the world or the other area, it doesn’t make any difference, right? The main thing is that this idea, this new thought, is coming in and makes things move forward. I think science just inherently encourages people of any kind, irrespective of religion of culture – just come in and make a contribution.

How do you like to spend your free time outside of science?

Ferenc Krausz: What is that? [Laughs] No, this was a joke. I try to use my free time to switch off because I feel that switching off what one is doing most of the time is important to be eager to return next day and do it with full power and full motivation. Switching off can happen by being together with my children previously since a while with my grandchildren meanwhile. It can also be by sports. I do run a lot, I feel that is not only important for maintaining physical fitness, but also for mental fitness is very useful. I very much like reading, not necessarily scientific literature. I do read scientific literature as well, but in my free time I like reading completely different things.

Do you think these hobbies make you a better scientist?

Ferenc Krausz: I think we shouldn’t have hobbies to make us a better scientist, but probably if we can afford to have some hobbies and in this way we can recreate our creativity and our passion for science and our eagerness to create new knowledge, then probably this does help to make us a better scientist as well.

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