To a great man and scientist
A few words about Gerhard Ertl on the occasion of the Ertl Award Lecture Dec. 12, 2022
The quality of a great scientist and the light of a warm soul shine on all the recipients of this award and it is fitting for those standing for a few moments in that light to say a few words about the great man.
It is a truism to say Gerhard Ertl is an excellent scientist. Nevertheless, it is true. I have had the opportunity to work for about 30 years in the same field as Gerhard and to benefit again and again from insights and knowledge that has come from his laboratory. I was struck by this last year when one of my best doctoral students while finishing a paper on the rates of surface reactions, exclaimed to me almost in despair, “Ertl has already figured everything out”. While it can be tricky to navigate a field that has been so well investigated by someone of Gerhard’s abilities—one does not want to re-invent the wheel—the truth of the matter is that my work would never have developed as successfully as it has, had I not had the resource of his discoveries to draw upon. Science is a community and generational undertaking and we all stand to benefit from one another by the free exchange of ideas. Gerhard is a wonderful example of someone who understands that truth and practices it.
It has been my bad luck that I am not a close friend of Gerhard, although I consider him my friend. However, I have known Gerhard “from afar” if you will, through his work and his lectures and through the close friends of mine who have known him closely. Talking with them has left a deep impression. It is not simply that no one has an unkind word for him. When those who know him well speak in private to others, one gets a sense that in not knowing him more closely, one has missed out on something marvelous. His personal nature seems to bring out the best in those around him and through their admiration of him, they want to do better and even to be better people.
Science is a great calling and I feel very fortunate to have become a scientist. However, scientists are also mere people and scientists like people can sometimes be difficult. In fact, successful scientists can sometimes be very difficult. It seems that for some, hearing often how important one’s work is, may not be the best environment to develop optimal people skills.
It is therefore all the more remarkable to see a scientist like Gerhard Ertl, whose work is undoubtedly some of the most important carried out in our lifetimes, who has worked with dedication and learned to practice the art of serving those around him. I am certain that the rise of the Fritz Haber Institute to what many Max-Planck-lers would acknowledge is a flagship institute within the Max Planck Society was a direct result of Gerhard’s warm and personal approach. It is perhaps not too much to say that the environment Gerhard created for others to flourish at the Fritz has been die Krönung seines Lebenswerkes.