A Jointventure of
Spotlight On
A | A | A

You rarely see an unemployed physicist

by Bärbel Broer

Whether in the lecture theatre or on television - Harald Lesch knows how to captivate an audience. This may be surprising for some, because his subject is physics. But the lecture theatres are packed when the professor at the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics at LMU Munich gives his lectures. Even non-physicists understand when Lesch presents his TV programmes such as "Abenteuer Forschung" (The Adventure of Research) for German public broadcaster ZDF. In 2011, the 52-year-old was voted "Lecturer of the Year" by the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers in cooperation with the ZEIT Verlag publishing house. academics spoke with the self-described "physics freak" about his passion for physics, opportunities for physicists on the labour market and fixed-term contracts in academia.

You rarely see an unemployed physicist© ZDF / Jens HartmannSuccesses in space exploration in the days of the Apollo and Gemini flights thrilled physics professor Harald Lesch when he was a child
academics: Why should people study physics nowadays?

Harald Lesch: (laughs) It's the most successful science on the planet. No other discipline has wrought such great changes in the world as physics. On the one hand in terms of understanding the structure of matter, the shape of the universe, but especially regarding technical knowledge. The other natural sciences couldn't exist without physics. That means it's the absolute fundamental science of everything that exists in this universe.

academics: So you think far more young people should study physics ...

Harald Lesch: Physics is not just a fantastic science, it also has the wonderful side effect that there are practically no unemployed physicists. Students of physics can be employed anywhere. I like to compare studying physics with studying the law. By which I mean that you are introduced to the legal code of nature. First you are given clean, tidy and comprehensive basic training. From this basis you can choose to specialise in the more theoretical or the more experimental fields. Whether in medicine, in archaeology, in climate research or industry - I can only say good things about becoming a physicist. I have taught quite a lot of students in my 17 years at LMU, and I don't know of a single graduate who had trouble finding a job.

academics: You speak so passionately about physics - how did your personal interest in physics begin?

Harald Lesch: I was born in 1960 and, therefore, grew up in a completely different era - that also includes how science was viewed in society. I became a physics freak quite simply due to the Gemini and Apollo flights.

academics: How old were you at the time?

Harald Lesch: I was 12 when I knew that I wanted to be an astronomer. And to be an astronomer you have to study physics. I was almost obsessively into it, although there are no other physicists in my family. And so I enrolled to study physics at the University of Gießen as soon as I finished school. After five semesters I switched to Bonn to specialise further in astronomy.

academics: You weren't able to become an astronaut because you need glasses - how did your academic career continue? Did you also find yourself employed on one fixed-term contract after the other, as is the norm in academia today?

Harald Lesch: In 1987 I completed my doctorate and started working at the observatory in Heidelberg. I had my first fixed-term contract there. Then I worked in Toronto and Bonn on further fixed-term contracts. By then my son had been born and I promised my wife that by the time I was 35 I would have a permanent job or leave academia. I never wanted to be one of those people who are still trying to somehow keep their head above water by struggling from one fixed-term contract to another at the age of 40. That did rather annoy me, having to be dependent on someone and constantly wonder, "Are they going to employ me not?"

academics: How would you advise scientists who find themselves going from one fixed-term contract to another in teaching and research today ?

Harald Lesch: They should set themselves a limit. If by a certain point you haven't managed to get a permanent position somewhere, you should say to yourself, "Okay academia, you didn't want me, so nuts to you."

academics: But you never reached that critical point ...

Harald Lesch: I was simply extremely lucky: my career went like a hot knife through butter - that's how smoothly! My post here in Munich only became vacant because a colleague had chosen to go to Basel. And when this previously ad personam professorship became vacant, I managed to get it. But if I hadn't been appointed to LMU, I'd probably be a head of department for natural sciences and philosophy at an adult education centre now.

academics: Was that really a possibility?

Harald Lesch: Yes, it was. I did quite a bit of theatre acting and had good contacts to the adult education centre. And when the association was looking to hire someone back then I did have a certain inclination to apply.

academics: Does your popularity cause you any problems among your scientific colleagues?

Harald Lesch: Quite the opposite: I just gave a lecture that was attended by 1,300 people. My colleagues invite me because they know I'll fill the house. And because I don't do any peer reviewing, I'm completely harmless. I don't take advantage of my media presence to promote any academic projects. A long, long time ago I worked as a peer reviewer for the German Research Foundation, but I've been staying out of all that for quite some time now. I wouldn't want to be suspected of taking advantage of my media presence to attract research funding. I just try to do what I'm supposed to: work as a lecturer.

academics: Are your lectures especially well attended by students?

Harald Lesch: I teach astronomy to bachelor students. Those lectures are pretty busy. Many students from other disciplines also come to see what I'm up to. Some of those stick around.

academics: Sometimes by changing their degree course?

Harald Lesch: Oh yes. I teach philosophy and physics. One part of my teaching load is physics, the other part is philosophy at the Munich School of Philosophy run by the Jesuits. And there have been quite a few physics students who are now studying philosophy as a minor subject, as there are philosophers who are now studying physics.

academics: How well are women represented in physics?

Harald Lesch: The proportion of women is increasing all the time. I'd estimate that about a third are women now, with an upward trend.

academics: What would you suggest in order to make physics more attractive as a subject?

Harald Lesch: Changes in mathematics teaching would help a lot. Of the utmost importance is the connection of physics as an appendix to mathematics. There is far too much calculating at school and not enough experimenting. Maths lessons are too theoretical and not sufficiently applied. Children frequently don't know what it is they are working out. Teaching should take more time to explain what certain mathematical techniques are good for. They give life guidance: if you can work out percentages, you'll notice more quickly if someone is trying to cheat you. If you understand the rule of three, you'll be able to work out more quickly whether something has become more expensive or cheaper. There should be much greater focus on applied mathematics teaching in school. Then physics would also have a better chance. As it is, physics has the image of an incredibly difficult mathematical science. That puts many people off.

To our landing page 'Spotlight on: Starting a career in the natural sciences'»

academics :: March 2013