Big Thoughts

Report by Lea Steinmetz (Bachelor’s student archaeology), Saskia Plura (PhD student physics), Samira Mahi-Moussa (Master’s student Political Economy and International Relations)

Over the course of our lives, we learn about many discoveries that shaped and changed our everyday lives. But how do these discoveries come about? In the Q+ seminar “Big Thoughts,“ we dealt with the initial ‘idea’ behind an important insight or discovery. Together with professor Dr. Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht and Nobel Prize winner professor Dr. Reinhard Genzel, we attempted to find answers to the following questions: How does a big thought emerge? What is required to put this thought into practice? And most importantly: What is a big thought?

On the first day of the seminar, Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht from Stanford University gave his proposal for a working definition of the topic “big thoughts” and asked for responses. To that end, he asked the questions that would become the guiding thread for the following days: What is a thought? What are big thoughts? Under which conditions do they emerge? And: Since when has there been an interest in big thoughts?

First, Gumbrecht defined ‘thought’ from a philosophical point of view, as an articulated present state of consciousness. To speak of a big thought, he suggested, two prerequisites have to be met: One, these thoughts need to have an impact among specialists and/or a public audience. Two, there needs to be a discontinuity in the (specialized) world – that is, a before and an undeniable after. Western culture’s fascination with big thoughts is inseparable from the emergence and dissemination of the historical worldview between 1780 and 1830, as well as the rise of the concept of genius in the early 19th century. Gumbrecht didn’t exclude the possibility that big thoughts had existed before, but he considers human self-reference as key for their development and especially reception. In a worldview in which humans consider themselves as God’s creation and their thoughts as God-given, it is unlikely that thoughts would have significant impact and cause discontinuity. The historical worldview, in which humans understand themselves between an instructive past and a shapeable future, made possible a more fertile ground for the emergence and reception of big thoughts.

An attempt at creating a typology led us to conclude that the diversity of big thoughts, formulated in a wide range of different disciplines, makes a single general definition impossible. We then discussed, among other issues, a key feature of big thoughts: their spatial and social eccentricity. During his research, Gumbrecht noticed that several big thinkers shared a certain eccentricity. Examples included: Jesus, who despite spatial eccentricity as a Nazareth native managed to gather people around him; Immanuel Kant, who grew up in modest circumstances in Königsberg; Marie Curie, who was born in then-provincial Poland and experienced antisemitic discrimination; and Alan Turing, who was known for eccentric behavior at odds with societal norms.

During the discussion, we also agreed that big thoughts aren’t just related to one person, but also to a historical, social, and private network context. All big thoughts have a prehistory, as the second seminar day confirmed. Students introduced various big thinkers: Copernicus, who established the heliocentric worldview; Maria Montessori, who developed Montessori education; Simone de Beauvoir, who made key contribution to feminist literature; and Alan Turing, who invented the Turing machine. All four were fascinating thinkers, who changed the world in small and big ways.
We found that some people at the head of significant social movements aren’t or weren’t necessarily great thinkers, but instead may be categorized as ‘catalysts.’

After the philosophical approach of the first two days, the third seminar day gave us the opportunity to talk to someone who had had a big thought and changed his discipline in a lasting way. Prof. Dr. Reinhard Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching and joint winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, together with Andrea Ghez und Roger Penrose, “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy,” joined us live from Stockholm, where he had just accepted his Nobel Prize.

He gave us a lecture on his research, which over the course of 40 years led to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery. Genzel does research in the field of infrared and sub-millimeter astronomy with radio telescopes, which he developed with Charles Townes, on the formation and evolution of galaxies. While the idea of a black hole at the center of the galaxy isn’t new to the public, it has only been proven due to Reinhard Genzel’s work. The reason lies in the nature of a black hole: since a black hole sucks in light due to its extreme gravitational pull, direct observation is impossible. Genzel first examined the movement of gas around the black hole Sagittarius A* (SgrA*), before the improved resolution of new telescopes allowed for the targeted examination of individual stars near the black hole’s event horizon. Thanks to the steadily improving resolution of telescope images other hypotheses could be excluded, finally proving the existence of a black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

The following discussion showed that the realization of a big thought not only required the thought itself, but also courage and perseverance. Genzel’s research, lasting over 40 years, is an impressive demonstration. Genzel also stressed that even without direct applicability for the general public, a discovery can have great impact. The fascination with the universe proves that insights from fundamental research, like the discovery of a black hole, inspire enthusiasm for current research. This enthusiasm has to be encouraged to bring forward the big thinkers of tomorrow. It is important that research is not just limited to one area, Genzel added, but addresses all areas. The insights gained from one field of research may turn out to be of greatest importance to another.

The seminar was a huge success, both students and speakers agreed. Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht helped the seminar to approach the topic of big thoughts, often described as centrifugal and highly complex. Reinhard Genzel completed the seminar, by demonstrating the development of a big thought using the example of his own research. On behalf of all participants, we would like to sincerely thank both speakers for their thoughts, their honesty, and their appreciation. We also thank the organizational staff who made this seminar possible.

Lea Steinmetz, Saskia Plura, Samira Mahi-Moussa

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