From Paris to Darmstadt

Elsewhere, a French physicist is researching antimatter after winning the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

By Eva von Schaper

Alexandre Obertelli would have become an engineer if his father, a Parisian psychology professor who’d studied math, had had his way.

Alexandre Obertelli, 41, Darmstadt © Evelyn Dragan

Engineering was a path to a safe job, one that would lead to a grande école, a bastion of French higher education, Obertelli Senior believed. Instead, Obertelli Junior first eyed architecture, and then he segued to physics.

The choice worked out well. Earlier this year, Obertelli earned one of the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Professorships. The annual prize from the foundation of the same name aims to attract more budding superstars to German research and academia – both from home and abroad.

The professorship offers experimental scientists a whopping 5 million euros in research funds spread over a five-year period. The money will come in handy, says Obertelli, as he tries to understand the fundamental bricks that comprise particles. Right now, his project uses antimatter to investigate nuclei.

For his research, the 41-year-old travels between Darmstadt and Geneva. At the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), one of the world’s most respected centers for scientific research, Obertelli refines his protocols for trapping antimatter. Because antimatter has the largest energy density of all particles, it also could be used in medical applications, such as destroying cancer cells or fueling future space travel someday.

One of the things Obertelli enjoys most about his professorship is being thrown into a foreign environment, he says. As a doctoral student, he worked at the French Ministry of Energy, followed by a year at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory in Michigan.

He also spent a year at Riken, Japan’s largest comprehensive research institution, which is based in the city of Saitama. "These experiences allowed me to meet the best experimentalists in nuclear physics, and also provided unique opportunities to closely witness other ways of thinking," he says. "Changing environment from time time to time, let’s say every five years, is key to constantly questioning one’s own practices."

Darmstadt, nonetheless, came as a bit of a surprise, Obertelli admits. After he had held a lecture at Technische Universität Darmstadt, the university simply decided to nominate him for the Humboldt award. And he won it.

Darmstadt, a city of 150,000, is known for its proximity to Frankfurt’s international airport. But it’s also considered a mecca for nuclear physicists, as it is home to a number of research institutes.

The GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung, for one, has been key in creating some of the newest and heaviest atoms known to humankind.

"There aren’t so many places in the world that have two chemical elements named after them," Obertelli says. Darmstadtium and Hassium, named after the city and the state of Hesse in which GSI is located, were both named by researchers at the institute.

Obertelli, meanwhile, has finally swayed his earliest critic, his father: "Just recently, he told me that my decision wasn’t so bad after all."