In memoriam Reimar Lüst (1923 – 2020)

MPE founding director Reimar Lüst would celebrate his 100th birthday this year.

March 24, 2023

In the 1960s, the theoretician Reimar Lüst was asked to start an experimental group within the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics working on space research. With the advent of rockets, a new research field had opened up and the Max Planck Society decided to join in. The MPE’s name originates from the objects and methods of its research, which in the beginning were both exclusively extra-terrestrial.

One of the first experiments in space involved artificial plasma clouds. In the early 1950s, Ludwig Biermann had discovered that comets have tails of ionized particles that are affected by corpuscular solar radiation (the solar wind). A group of scientists including Ludwig Biermann, Reimar Lüst, and his wife Rhea Lüst thought about how they could create an artificial comet.

On the very day that the MPG senate approved the creation of MPE, on 15 May 1963, the institute’s first successful experiment flew from a French Launchpad near Hammaguir in the Algerian desert. A load of barium was evaporated to forma a cloud at a height of 155 kilometres.

While in the early years, the scientific work at the Institute concentrated on the investigation of extra-terrestrial plasmas and the magnetosphere of the Earth, soon other fields were added: astrophysical observations of electromagnetic radiation, which could not be observed from the surface of the Earth because the wavelengths are absorbed by the atmosphere. These observations today range from radio and infrared astronomy all the way to X-ray- and gamma-ray-astronomy. Since the 1990s, satellites have become the preferred observation platforms because of their favourable observation-time/cost ratio. In addition, a part of the work is done on Earth, either in laboratories or with ground-based telescopes.

Lüst always kept in close touch with “his institute” and paid regular visits to Garching even though he was busy as a science manager. In 1972, he became President of the Max Planck Society, where he established the Senate Planning Committee with a mandate to decide on the closure of institutes and the opening of new ones. After his second term of office as MPG President ended in 1984, a new challenge was just around the corner: he became Director General of the European Space Agency ESA in Paris, a post he held for six years. In 1989, he was appointed President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, one of Germany's most important institutions for the advancement of excellent postdoctoral researchers from abroad. His next challenge was to establish a private university, the International University Bremen (IUB, now Jacobs University), which was officially founded in February 1999.

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