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Episode 12 - Felix Otto and our commitment to the future (17.01.2022)

With a look towards the future, delivered as a speech by our director Felix Otto at the summer party of our institute, we would like to end our 25 years of MiS column. With a heartfelt thank you to everyone involved and all interested readers. And of course, with best wishes for your future. Your MPI MiS

The following speech was approximately given by Felix Otto at the opening of MPI's "Sommerfest" on September 16, 2021, celebrating the 25th birthday of the MPI.

Bernd Sturmfels asked me to address the future. For fundamental research as for a country's economy, I am not a believer in central planning or unified agendas. However, I do believe that it is important to provide an appropriate framework for the creation and competition of ideas. For more than a hundred years, the society in Germany  affords itself islands of academic freedom and endowment generosity in the form of its Max Planck Institutes. At least for their directors, this freedom in all security is a tremendous privilege. These funds for the Max Planck Society could be used for purposes more immediately beneficial to society and its members, hence we owe the country's society for this long-term commitment.

We have to pay back society in our own currency, which is high-precision creativity of spotless clarity, with full intellectual ambition and honesty. For us, this is a call to be programmatically daring and to take the time to dig deep. By this, I mean taking the time to listen to a mathematical problem and to distill the mathematics from other sciences. It would be a waste of the freedom that comes with an MPI's set-up to just follow fashions and mainstream trends. On the contrary, it is a call to extract, define and propagate quintessential new questions in the form of mathematical problems. Without this process, mathematics would reduce to mere mental dexterity or an auxiliary science.

My impression is that all the groups at the institute, in their very diverse individual styles, have vigorously taken up this challenge. For my own part, I must say that the success rate is so-so. Again, success cannot be planned.

This speech was a bit of a director's soul search. Actually, an outgoing director's soul search - all three of us are not eons away from retirement. As you know, we are in the process of hiring new directors, and it is this natural form of rejuvenation that is the best guarantee for innovation. I am looking forward to it.

The main carriers of innovation at the institute are the postdocs and PhD students. We directors are the facilitators and matchmakers. As opposed to most other people in your age group, you temporarily lead a nomadic life. Indeed, academia does not provide a typical job: you have a vocation somewhere between an artist and an athlete, combining creativity and stamina.

You - much more than us - suffered from the side effects of this pandemic. You missed some of the exposure important for your career, you had to renounce the pleasure of combining the attendance of conferences with exploration of places, you were confined to small quarters, and some of you couldn't even visit your families. I hope this is coming to an end soon.

I'd like to address also the third group, our service providers - and I am just reporting what I heard from all groups and visitors: Wir sind den Servicebereichen, d. h. der Verwaltung und den Sekretariaten, der Systemadministration, der Bibliothek und der Öffentlichkeitsarbeit, dankbar für die enorme Unterstützung, die Sie uns Forschern zuteilwerden lassen, stets auf leisen Sohlen und ohne viel Aufhebens. Sie haben effiziente Prozesse installiert, um die uns alle Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler an deutschen Unis beneiden. Sie schirmen uns von so manchen gutgemeinten aber in der Summe bürokratisch-hinderlichen Anforderungen aus Berlin, Dresden oder München ab - auch wenn das immer schwieriger wird. Ihre Hilfsbereitschaft und Menschlichkeit, Ihre Kompetenz und Ihr Qualitätsbewusstsein, Ihr Erfindungsreichtum und Einsatz werden allseits gelobt. Vielen Dank!

[The previous paragraph was originally conveyed in German. This translation is merely included for completeness: We are grateful to the service areas, i.e., administration and assistants, system administration, library and public relations, for the enormous support you provide to us researchers, always quietly and without much ado. You have installed efficient procedures that are the envy of all scientists at German universities. They shield us from well-intentioned but in sum bureaucratically obstructive demands from Berlin, Dresden or Munich - even if this is becoming increasingly challenging. Your helpfulness and sympathy, your competence and commitment to quality, your ingenuity and dedication are universally praised. Thank you very much!]

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Jana Gregor
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Paul Heine
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Jörg Lehnert
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17.01.2022, 11:53