Reimar Lüst - Pioneer of the MPIA passes away

April 06, 2020

Professor Reimar Lüst died on 31 March 2020 at the age of 97. He played a decisive role in the founding of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) 50 years ago

At that time, observational astronomy in Germany had fallen far behind comparable countries due to the consequences of the war. A memorandum (“Denkschrift”) of the German Research Foundation in 1962 called for larger telescopes in the favourable climate of the south, which should be accessible to all universities. In order to avoid the expected difficulties in financing, the choice of the site and responsibilities between the federal states and the federal government, Lüst proposed that the planned Southern Observatory be incorporated into a newly established Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. Together with Hans Elsässer, one of the authors of the memorandum, Lüst succeeded in 1964 in obtaining the approval of the President of the Max Planck Society for the project. Lüst's voice had great influence: at the time he was director of the new Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics at the MPI for Physics and Astrophysics, and he was a member of the influential Science Council. Because of the expected high costs for a large observatory, special funding from the federal government became necessary. An international working group of prominent astronomers under Lüst's leadership developed the guidelines for the creation of the new institute. It was a great success: Two observatories for the northern and southern hemisphere were to be built, and in addition a home institute in Germany. In the summer of 1967, Lüst was able to convince the last reluctants, and in autumn the Senate of the Max Planck Society decided to found the institute. In 1969 the new MPIA began its research as a subtenant in the Landessternwarte (LSW, State Observatory) on the Königstuhl in Heidelberg, and its director Hans Elsässer became the founding director of the new institute. The new MPIA building in the immediate vicinity of the LSW was ceremonially opened in 1976. Among the prominent guests at the ceremony was Reimar Lüst, now President of the Max Planck Society.

In this position, Lüst once again provided the MPIA with decisive assistance. Since the completed 2.2 m telescope for the southern hemisphere could not be set up on Gamsberg in Namibia at the time for political reasons, Lüst was able to obtain a place in the European Southern Observatory on La Silla in Chile in 1981. According to the negotiated formula "A Quarter Telescope for a Quarter of a Century", astronomers from MPIA and other German institutes were given the excellent observing opportunities in the southern sky, which are still being used intensively.

Lüst had already given an early stimulus for research at MPIA in lectures at the 1962 meeting of the Astronomical Society in Freiburg. There he convinced the astronomers of the advantages of observations from space. Balloons, rockets and satellites would make all spectral ranges accessible. Hans Elsässer accepted this suggestion enthusiastically at the time. From the very beginning, his new MPIA aimed at observations both from the ground and with extraterrestrial instruments.

Three years before the MPI for Astronomy, the MPI for Radio Astronomy had also been established with Lüst's help. So Reimar Lüst had achieved his goal: researchers at the Max Planck Institutes should be able to explore the universe in all spectral ranges - from high-energy gamma rays to radio waves several meters long.

Lüst's versatile scientific achievements and his outstanding abilities and results as a science organizer are recognized in simultaneous obituaries of the Max Planck Society and the MPI for Extraterrestrial Physics. At MPIA we want to remember him as one of our founding fathers and his charisma for science.
(Text: Dietrich Lemke)

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