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A Valuable Supporter of JMU


The Faculty of Arts of the University of Würzburg awarded an honorary doctorate to Professor Ekhard Salje, the long-standing chair of the university council, in recognition of his scientific achievements and committed work.

Honorary doctorate for Ekhard Salje (2nd from left). Group photo (from left) Roland Baumhauer, Alfred Forchel, and Lisa Salje.
Honorary doctorate for Ekhard Salje (2nd from left). Group photo (from left) Roland Baumhauer, Alfred Forchel, and Lisa Salje. (Image: Daniel Peter)

He was commended for being mindful of the practical relevance and applicability of his research results at all times. "As a member and chairman of the university council for many years, he devoted his practical focus, expertise, broad experiences and excellent leadership skills to the service of the University of Würzburg," said Professor Roland Baumhauer, the dean of the Faculty of Arts, on the occasion of the awarding of the honorary degree to Ekhard Salje.

Numerous university representatives and companions of Ekhard Salje had gathered in the Toscanasaal of the Würzburg Residence to honour Salje's achievements, including former doctoral students and the past president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Salje has been a member of the Würzburg university council since October 2011. In October 2015, he was elected chairman of the council, a role he performed "with great foresight and exemplary personal commitment" until the end of his term of office on 30 September 2019 as the university president, Alfred Forchel, said in his address.

Thank you from Alfred Forchel

It was Forchel who had asked Salje whether he wanted to become a member of the university council because of earlier encounters. A professor at Cambridge University at the time, Salje contributed in-depth experiences in foreign education systems which would prove to be highly inspiring for discussions in the university council. Forchel still remembers quite clearly one of Ekhard Salje's first contributions. "He asked about the job pool available to the university board for setting new priorities," Forchel recalled. At the time, such a pool did not exist. But the University of Würzburg subsequently introduced a comparable model by tendering various intramural funding procedures in which university money was spent on specific focal subjects.

"During this time, you promoted the development of the University of Würzburg, and in particular its strategic orientation, in a valuable manner. We have collaborated very productively for eight years and I have come to know and appreciate you as someone who contributed stimulating ideas and impulses in all areas," Forchel said. He commended Salje's keen analytical skills and constructive problem-solving abilities and described him as someone capable of finding quick and precise solutions also for complex issues.

Outstanding personal commitment

Forchel gave three examples to highlight Salje's accomplishments for the university: The establishment of the Siebold Collegium Institute for Advanced Sciences (SCIAS), for example, was initiated by Salje and his wife Lisa. The couple had launched and implemented a similar project including financing back in Cambridge – the "Salje Building" of Clare College – which proved to be very helpful.

Salje also played a supportive role in the preparation of the Excellence Competition. When it came to staffing junior research groups, he looked at various proposals himself and suggested further experts. "Thanks to this approach, we were able to win top people for which we are extremely grateful," Forchel said.

Thirdly, Forchel mentioned the Excellence Competition. Salje played an important role in designing the application from the draft to the full proposal phase – "a process that yielded a highly satisfactory outcome with the acquisition of a joint cluster of excellence in physics," the university president continued.

Forchel stressed Salje's exceptional leadership skills and outstanding personal commitment in his role as the chairman of the university council of the University of Würzburg. He thanked Salje for his commitment to the University of Würzburg and for the fruitful and enjoyable work together both "personally and on behalf of the university". He expressed his gratitude that Salje had agreed to continue supporting the University of Würzburg as a member of the board of trustees in the future.

Ekhard Salje's Curriculum

Professor Ulrich Bismayer presented Salje's scientific career during the ceremony in the Toscanasaal. Bismayer is a former doctoral student of Salje and today heads the Institute of Mineralogy and Petrography at the University of Hamburg.

Ekhard Salje was born in Hanover on 26 October 1946. "After a start in theoretical solid-state physics, Ekhard Salje has become one of the world leaders in applying the theoretical and experimental advances of physics to problems in mineralogy and solid-state-physics," quoting the website of the Royal Society of which he has been a member since 1996.

"He wrote his doctoral thesis on quantum optics in 1972. After his habilitation, he became a professor in 1975 and at the age of 29 he was the youngest professor at the University of Hanover at the time," Bismayer said. After changing from the Institute of Quantum Physics to the Institute of Mineralogy and Crystallography, Salje began to grow crystals from aqueous solution and worked on different physical effects of perovskites, iodates and tungstates.

In 1985, Salje went to the University of Cambridge where he focused on earth sciences and physics. "At the Cavendish Laboratory, which is the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, he did Raman spectroscopy, making electron microscopy and diffraction his main field of research at the Department of Earth Sciences," Bismayer continued. From 1998 to 2008, Salje headed the Department of Earth Sciences in Cambridge. From 2001 to 2008, he was the president of Clare Hall College, being the first German to hold the position of a College Master at Cambridge.

In 2008, Salje had completed his administrative duties in Cambridge and resumed his research activities. He has published over 600 publications to date, receiving numerous awards for his work – including the Humboldt Research Award (2000) and the Federal Cross of Merit (2006). He is a Knight of the Order of the Palmes Académiques and became a member of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in Barcelona in 2010.

Ceremonial address of Helmut Schwarz

Salje also led the British section of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for some time. For this reason, the ceremonial address was delivered by Professor Helmut Schwarz, the president of the foundation from 2008 to 2017. His speech was titled: Basic research funded by the taxpayer – why and what for?

Based on the essay "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" published in 1939, Schwarz described how the greatest discoveries evolved from seemingly useless activity: no GPS without Einstein's "esoteric theory of general relativity which was completely irrelevant under practical aspects", no X-rays without the previous random experiments.

"Truly new knowledge arises from the need to understand something better, from the thirst for insight and knowledge – and not necessarily from a concrete application assignment, such as that of a ministry or an industrial partner," Schwarz emphasised in his address. He believes that junior scientists play a key role in this context; after all it is "the enthusiasm of young people, their openness to new things, and their fearlessness to shape the future that distinguishes them from their ancestors".

Funding people not projects

Perseverance in a sufficiently funded research funding landscape and the principle to trust people first and to promote their openness and curiosity towards what is foreign – according to Schwarz, these are the prerequisites for excellent fundamental research and he praised Ekhard Salje for exemplifying Humboldt's principle of supporting people, not projects. "His indefatigable efforts to solve problems, to get to the bottom of questions, to explore the full breadth and depth of science and understand the world intellectually and emotionally are prime examples of what Jack Dunitz called 'the subjective motivation of a researcher'," Schwarz said.

Schwarz ended his speech with a short poem by Rose Ausländer: "You are irresistible truth. I see you and name you: bliss". And he concluded that according to the poem Salje had to be a happy person.

By Gunnar Bartsch