He remembers this birthday very well. A Wednesday at the beginning of October 2007, Gerhard Ertl had just become 71 and was sitting in “his” Fritz-Haber- Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin-Dahlem. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was to be announced.
Ertl knew that his name had been given to the committee in Stockholm, but did not expect much of a chance, as he recounts in retrospect. “In the morning I said to my wife: After Peter Grünberg had already received the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday, they won’t take another German.”
Another German just got the call from Stockholm
Yes, they did. The grandees of his field awarded him the Nobel Prize for his “Studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces”. Ertl was surprised and touched, the whole institute cheered, colleagues, friends and politicians congratulated, journalists rushed over to interview him.
Especially these days he thinks back to it more often. On the one hand, because he is on 10. October celebrates another birthday, the 85 th. On the other hand, because he continues to pursue research in chemistry and now a German has just received the famous call from Stockholm: Benjamin List from the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mülheim an der Ruhr, for work on asymmetric organocatalysis.
“I met him once, but it would be an exaggeration to say that I know him well,” says Ertl.
Our call reached him in a retirement home where he has lived with his wife since he was dependent on a wheelchair. “The legs are no longer with us, but luckily the head still.” He seems and continues to talk to the older gentleman who 14 years ago in the focus of Public and describe the companions as exceptionally friendly, polite and attentive.
Hope to advance the energy transition
The hope is “on The basis of catalysis research is to make chemistry more sustainable and to advance the energy transition, ”says Ertl. “But the big breakthrough has not yet been achieved.”
Inadequate research funding is not necessarily the reason for this. “In Berlin, a lot of money is invested in catalysis research and people sometimes think that success will come then,” he says. The decisive factor, however, are “the good ideas, and you can’t buy them, you have to have them.”
But researchers need an environment in which they can develop ideas. That is why Ertl used a large part of the million Nobel Prize to donate a prize himself – not named after him, but after the first Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Jacobus van ‘t Hoff. It is intended for “outstanding personalities in the field of physical chemistry” who are roughly in the middle of their careers.
Now and then Ertl goes to his office
The rest of the prize money enables him and his wife, among other things, to stay in the senior citizens’ residence. Now and then he still drives to his office at the Fritz Haber Institute or works from home.
His autobiography “My life with science” was published in September. Punctually before 85. Birthday that he wants to celebrate with his family and guests from his institute.
“None of my predecessors reached this age,” says Ertl. And he also witnessed the war. “I’m just grateful to have led a happy life.”