Invited for this month’s cover is the group of Prof. Helmut Schwarz from Technische Universität Berlin, Germany. For this special issue dedicated to the memory of Detlef Schröder, the cover picture shows the then young Detlef—a mastermind dedicated to the sciences. Read the full text of the article on page 952.
What prompted you to investigate this topic?
It all goes back to thought experiments (“Gedankenexperimente”), which were brought up in group seminars more than twenty years ago by the late Detlef Schröder. He raised questions on how to activate inert molecules, such as CO2, CH4, or NH3, to name a few. It turned out, once more, that the breakthroughs achieved later were the result of a random combination of creativity, some intelligence, curiosity, persistence, and most importantly, serendipity! Furthermore, without the passion of students working on these seemingly unimportant problems nothing would have been achieved.
Is your current research mainly curiosity driven (fundamental) or rather applied?
Bond activation of inert small molecules is regarded by many colleagues as one of the major challenges of contemporary chemistry, in particular catalysis, therefore having huge practical and economic importance. Our combined experimental/computational approach is entirely curiosity driven: we would like to understand the cause of the problems associated with these “simple” transformations, e.g. insertion of a metal in a CH or NH bond, and we take Kant’s imperative serious that “utility is in the first instance only a moment of secondary importance”. Obviously, we aim at understanding.
In principle universities must continue to be places where scholars teach their students the concept of fundamental research as a cultural achievement that is at the core of intellectual activities, and may only later mark the starting point of value-added applications. Max Planck’s remark from 1919 that “insight must precede application” is still valid and as pertinent as the wise words of Vannevar Bush on the role of “curiosity for (the) exploration of the unknown”.
We are grateful for financial support to the Fonds der Chemischen Industrie and the Cluster of Excellence “Unifying Concepts in Catalysis” coordinated by the Technische Universität Berlin and funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. R.K. acknowledges the Stiftung Stipendien Fonds des Verbandes der Chemischen Industrie for a Kekulé scholarship and the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung for a Feodor Lynen Research Fellowship. We thank the Institut für Mathematik der TU Berlin for the allocation of computer time.