Karel Jungwirth: science cannot be controlled, but it has to

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Dr. Karel Jungwirth became the eighth emeritus researcher of the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. The letter of appointment was taken over by the director of the Institute, Michael Prouza, on December 19. On this occasion, we talked with the former director of the Institute of Physics about the pleasures and sorrows of scientific life.


Karel Jungwirth: "Když se člověk dostane organizačně o stupínek výš, musí zapomenout, že PALS je vaše dítě a musíte se starat o ústav celý. Nesmí to být protekce, jinak je to odsouzeno k zániku."
Karel Jungwirth: "Když se člověk dostane organizačně o stupínek výš, musí zapomenout, že PALS je vaše dítě a musíte se starat o ústav celý. Nesmí to být protekce, jinak je to odsouzeno k zániku."

Your life is connected with the work at the Institute of Physics. Did you influence it more as a director or a scientist?

I do not consider myself the right person to answer this question. I both roles my aim was high quality science. I started at the Institute of Plasma Physics, where on the wall of the high-current electron beam laboratory my credo could be read for a long time: Science cannot be controlled, but it has to. My colleagues wanted me to write it there and sign it in the crucial days of December 1989. What I understood by science control then, and still do, is to create such creative scientific environment where people who know how and want to do science had suitable conditions for it. This was my aim already when I worked in the management of the Czech Academy of Sciences and also later when I became the director of the FZU after Vladimír Dvořák. I was lucky that I took over the Institute in good condition and the only think I had to solve urgently after my appointment was a situation of a personal matter in the Optics division. I appointed a new head there, professor Řídký, who then became the director of the whole Institute after me.

As a director, I actively supported international cooperation on all levels, including our participation in international experiments such as CERN, Elletra Sincrotrone Triestre, or Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina, and I always tried to prevent us approaching these activities as poor relatives. Not only the quality of our work, but also this attitude granted us good reputation with our colleagues. I think, it was in Trieste where we remained alone from the original group of three (Poles, Hungarian and us) who kept their financial obligations as the Poles and Hungarian withdrew from the original three-party agreement. We also responded positively to the S.O.S. by Pierre Auger Observatory at the time of Argentinian financial crisis. Times are changing and unlike in the case of particle accelerators, it is now us who enable access to foreign colleagues, specifically to power lasers.

Do you remember the greatest success and loss of your professional career?

There were times when Czech science fought for its existence. In this relation, I consider it my success that I managed to maintain high quality teams and the level of work at the Institute. I reckon that what also contributed to this was me always having in mind that good work needs to be rewarded respectively. At the end of the year I used to send researchers who achieved outstanding scientific results a letter of thanks accompanied by a director's bonus. I, however, believe that they appreciated more that I noticed their work and that I expressed my respect rather than the extra bonus.

I dare to hope that I was not so bad since I was elected director twice. I was director also in 2007 when new legislation of public research institution was adopted. These were difficult times. All the functions of a public research institution were represented by the director, there were no boards and it was necessary to bring the whole new administration structure to life. I do not think that the act on public research institutions was a good one. For example, institute boards were established which work rather as boards of supervisors and directors in businesses governed by the Commercial Code. And it was already in 1968 when we fought for the right of researchers to elect scientific boards of institutes. In the end, the only scientific board left is the one of the whole Academy of Sciences. I am convinced that the institute should be governed by the Civil Code, not the Commercial Code. It would enable to form the board as a scientific board and not a board of directors. Indeed, Max Planck Society is incorporated today as “e.V.”, formerly GmbH (s.r.o.). It is perhaps remarkable that we have made legal changes in our country working in an opposite direction to developments in Germany. For a director to be able to positively influence the scientific direction and future of the Institute, he should be surrounded by a scientific board, as experts, to hear the opinions of people who understand this and not to make unnecessary mistakes.

As an outsider from the Institute of Plasma Physics, I was fortunate that the old interpersonal disputes and passions did not concern me, and I did not want to get involved in anything like that. Nevertheless, it can be considered a certain form of loss that some frictions survived even during my management, although I tried to eliminate the old aversions that had arisen in connection with joining originally two independent workplaces of Cukrovarnická and Slovanka into one institute, and perhaps I was not sufficiently consistent in this endeavour. For example, when I sought long and persistently to gain support for a respectable celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Institute. In the end, the celebration was held in Novoměstská town hall, and Dr Glogarová and I personally welcomed each colleague at the entrance so that they got a justified feeling that someone appreciated their work.

Can the Institute of Physics, as the largest institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, serve as a model of development for others?

It is true that the Institute of Physics is by far the largest institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, but I would not dare to claim that its development should always be taken as a model for the other institutes. While it is a fact that we have moved significantly forward in certain aspects – a new building is being built as part of SOLID 21 project, in Dolní Břežany the construction was complete and it is great, the world also does not sleep. I miss two things. I believe there should be more researchers from abroad, which is closely connected with the second thing I miss, and it is setting up better rules of funding. I wish the institute was more international. It was the reason why I initiated and support for example user access to PALS or to ELI Project where international researchers contribute their knowledge and skills in exchange for the access to our experimental equipment.

I participated in the establishment of the Grant Agency of the Czech Academy of Sciences, which was definitely a right step, but I am afraid that the current policy of targeted funding is too much at the expense of institutional funding. Science, or more precisely its institutions, need to have sufficient certainty that it will be able to continue in a certain prospective direction once it decides to go that way. In Germany, at the Max Planck Society, funding from the federal states and governments and from the central government is guaranteed for a much longer period of time than in our country and it is good. On the other hand, we have experienced a lot of different worthless attacks against the mere existence of science and struggles for its survival. The fact that politicians often stress the importance of education and research in their pre-election campaigns does not make much difference when the moment of implementation arrives, and the reality is often different.

Recently physics is experiencing a boom of new fields. Would you choose a different focus if you could make a choice again?

In fact, I have changed my expert interest several times in my professional carrier. And it never lacked internal logic and relations. I went from the theory of magnetoactive plasma stability to nonlinear phenomena, from charged particle power beams to power laser systems and laser plasma. As a student, I had the feeling that controlled thermonuclear fusion is a vision worth dedicating a whole human life to. I still think so today, although progress towards achieving this goal is far from what was expected at the beginning of the 1960s. Certainly in the field of solid-state physics the utilization of new knowledge has progressed much further and also lasers have changed our daily lives.

Quite soon, I was convinced that theoretical physics was what attracted me, also because mathematics was very close to me. Moreover, we had a great teacher of physics at upper secondary school, Mr Dohnal. He did classical experiments with us from the time of the origination of modern physics and I started to love physics then, but only in the third grade of my studies at the Faculty of Nuclear Sciences I understood what field I had chosen. It was something hardly believable, the fantastic journey into the world of quantum physics and the microworld. I was so enchanted that I tried to explain it also to my future partner, who then studied at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering of the Czech Technical University. We are such a crazy natural science family.

Only later have I realized that I could have done something completely different, for example medicine or psychology, maybe because my wife suffered from a long-term illness and when you can help a needy person, the practical result can be seen faster than when you calculate something. But in my youth, the inanimate nature had the advantage over social sciences and humanities that it had the same laws here as to the west of our borders, and people were free to think. This was an area where you could often here officials say proudly: “I never understood mathematics” and thus they left it alone.

Karel Jungwirth
Karel Jungwirth

Ing. Karel Jungwirth, DrSc., in 1963 he graduated with honours from the Faculty of Technical and Nuclear Physics of the Czech Technical University and in the same year he joined the Institute of Plasma Physics of the then Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. He was elected several times to the Scientific Board and later held the post of Head of Laser Plasma Department. From 1990 to 1991 he lectured at the University of Texas in Austin and the Institute for Fusion Studies in the USA.

From 1991 he led the Research Area of the Sciences about Inanimate Nature of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (since 1993 the Czech Academy of Sciences) and since 1993 he has been a member of the Academy Council of the Czech Academy of Sciences for two terms. In the second term of office, ie from 1997 to 2001, he was Vice-President of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

In 2001–2006 he worked as the director of the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences and until May 2007 he was in charge of its management. In 2003–2008 he was a delegate for the Czech Republic to ESFRI at the European Commission.

He was the founder of the PALS Research Center (Prague Asterix Laser System) and was its head from 1998 to 2001, and then from 2008 to 2019. In 2008 he became a member of the managing bodies of the preparatory phase of ELI and HiPER – ESFRI Roadmap projects.

Karel Jungwirth is the author or co-author of more than 120 works published in international peer-reviewed journals, which received approximately 1500 citations. According to WoS, Karl Jungwirth 's Hirsch index is 21.

Autor: Petra Köppl, 21.12.2019