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Professor Dr. Wolfgang M. Heckl

Dr. Wolfgang M. Heckl

Creating Chemistry: Professor Heckl, as Director General of the Deutsches Museum (German Museum) in Munich, you established a nano department there. But this technology is still very new – did it not have to prove its importance to society before being given such an honor?
Professor Dr. Wolfgang M. Heckl:
In almost every field, nanotechnology can make important contributions to solving society’s problems – everything from global nutrition to recycling scarce raw materials like the rare earth metals. And nanotechnology is already found in many products. You can be quite sure that all of the components of a smartphone are ultimately based on an understanding of material at a nano-scale; in other words, matter with a size of between 1 and 100 nanometers. Or consider affordable sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 50+. This breakthrough was made possible by nano-scale titanium dioxide.

What is your motivation for trying to help people gain a better understanding of nanotechnology?
A new technology that is so complex and challenging always needs someone to act as an intermediary with society. In particular, we have to get young people excited about it so that the scientific and technological illiteracy in our country does not continue to grow! This is why we have set up open research laboratories in our Center for New Technologies in Munich. They are a place where young people can watch my students at work and ask them: ‘Hey, what are you doing there? What are the opportunities? What are the risks?’ The idea behind this is they don’t just get to know the science, they also get to know the scientists.

Supporters of nanotechnology often like to describe it as some sort of magic formula for the future. Is it really?
I would be very cautious using such terms. Throughout history, people have always tried to present new technologies as something magical. But nature is complicated and every little advance requires great effort. There is no road map that shows where discoveries will lead some day. But if we don’t take part in innovations, we will miss out on an enormous opportunity.

You have described nanotechnology as a cross-sectional technology. What does that mean?
Understanding the composition of matter is the foundation of every type of materials science. And nanomaterials science, in turn, is the foundation for a number of research areas – from nanoelectronics to nanomedicine.

Which nanotechnology applications do you believe have the greatest potential?
Real innovations are always targeted at where the demand is greatest. What does mankind want? Health! This is a huge issue in an aging society. However, we still do not understand the causes of 70% of all known illnesses and therefore we are unable to treat them. There is an incredible need to catch up, to understand the molecular processes that lead to illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease or cancer. And nanomaterials are already being developed that can transport cancer medication directly to where it needs to take effect.

After the initial excitement about nanotechnology, it seems some disillusionment is now setting in. The materials have turned out to be expensive and the development of applications is taking longer than expected. How do you respond to this?
Nanotechnology is a technology of the future; in some areas it will create breakthroughs, in other areas it will prove to be a dead end. And the excitement is definitely still there. One hundred years ago, nano was just a theoretical physics concept. Today, we are finally able to find practical applications for this concept. Being able to see and actually work with molecules and atoms has created incredible impetus.

How important is nanotechnology for the economy?
It is critical to survival. And if we want to stay on the ball, we will have to tough it out through phases where not everything succeeds quickly. I can’t imagine, for example, that we will be able to abandon nuclear energy without the scientists who are active in both fundamental research as well as in the industrial applications of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology can be controversial and there is a lot of talk about the risks. How do you address this?
In many cases, there is simply a lot of talk based on unquestioned fear. As far as I know, there has been no serious incident causing harm to human health which can be attributed to nanotechnology products. Just by sitting around a campfire, you are already breathing in a lot of harmful nanoparticles. We always need to weigh the risks and opportunities. From a philosophical-ethical perspective, someone might say we have to evaluate everything first and make sure it is watertight. But someone closer to the issue – a person who has a relative with a brain tumor, for example – will be happy if there are people working on nanoparticle cancer therapy. This person might be willing to accept greater risk.

Could nanotechnology become a conflict-laden issue, as genetic technology did?
I believe we have done things much better here than with genetic technology. For example, we got humanities scholars involved at a very early stage. And we established a dialog on opportunities and risks through the NanoCare initiative supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which enables people to talk to researchers and developers. We will be on the right path if, instead of taking a top-down approach to helping people and deciding for them, we invite them to take part as much as possible in the decision-making process.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang M. Heckl is Professor of Science Communication at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). After obtaining his doctorate, the biophysicist worked in the IBM research group led by Nobel Prize winner Professor Dr. Gerd Binnig. One of the founding fathers of nanoscience, Binnig was a co‑inventor of the scanning tunneling microscope, which – for the first time – allowed atoms to be seen, manipulated and researched. Since 2004, Heckl has also been Director General of the Deutsches Museum (German Museum) in Munich, where he established a permanent exhibit on nano- and biotechnology with an open research laboratory. He also made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for drilling the “world’s smallest hole” by writing an atomic bit. Heckl is head of acatech, the topic network on nanotechnology of the German National Academy of Science and Engineering and an advisor to the European Commission and German government on the field of nanotechnology.