Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Angela Merkel, scientist

I found this New Yorker article (written by George Packer) about Angela Merkel very interesting. I don't really know enough about German politics to really deeply understand her, or her role (and I really don't understand how she can be seemingly blamed for the European economy, but I don't understand the relationship between the German government and the European Central Bank.) But this section about her life as a chemist/physicist was interesting:
In 1977, at twenty-three, Angela married a physicist, Ulrich Merkel, but the union foundered quickly, and she left him in 1981. She spent the final moribund decade of the G.D.R. as a quantum chemist at the East German Academy of Sciences, a gloomy research facility, across from a Stasi barracks, in southeastern Berlin. She co-authored a paper titled “Vibrational Properties of Surface Hydroxyls: Nonempirical Model Calculations Including Anharmonicities.” She was the only woman in the theoretical-chemistry section—a keen observer of others, intensely curious about the world. 
People who have followed her career point to Merkel’s scientific habit of mind as a key to her political success. “She is about the best analyst of any given situation that I could imagine,” a senior official in her government said. “She looks at various vectors, extrapolates, and says, ‘This is where I think it’s going.’ ” Trained to see the invisible world in terms of particles and waves, Merkel learned to approach problems methodically, drawing comparisons, running scenarios, weighing risks, anticipating reactions, and then, even after making a decision, letting it sit for a while before acting. She once told a story from her childhood of standing on a diving board for the full hour of a swimming lesson until, at the bell, she finally jumped. 
Scientific detachment and caution under dictatorship can be complementary traits, and in Merkel’s case they were joined by the reticence, tinged with irony, of a woman navigating a man’s world. She once joked to the tabloid Bild Zeitung, with double-edged self-deprecation, “The men in the laboratory always had their hands on all the buttons at the same time. I couldn’t keep up with this, because I was thinking. And then things suddenly went ‘poof,’ and the equipment was destroyed.” Throughout her career, Merkel has made a virtue of biding her time and keeping her mouth shut. 
“She’s not a woman of strong emotions,” Bernd Ulrich, the deputy editor of Die Zeit, said. “Too much emotion disturbs your reason. She watches politics like a scientist.” He called her “a learning machine.” Volker Schl√∂ndorff, the director of “The Tin Drum” and other films, got to know Merkel in the years just after reunification. “Before you contradict her, you would think twice—she has the authority of somebody who knows that she’s right,” he said. “Once she has an opinion, it seems to be founded, whereas I tend to have opinions that I have to revise frequently.”
I feel like I've met people like Dr. Merkel before -- this description reminds me of some of my professors. (That said, I cringe at the thought of some of my former professors being major politicians! (Not that I would do any better...))


  1. Another on the rollcall of former chemists scientists turned politicians.

    I wonder if the numbers are above or below averages?

    Off the top of my head, former chemists include:

    Margaret Thatcher (ex UK Prime Minister, part of the Dorothy Hodgkins family tree - I saw a cool female nobel lauretes graphic the other day but can't find it now)
    Jack Cunningham (former UK Labor party cabinet party member, now member of the House of Lords - the UK upper house. Interesting, a fellow alumni of mine and he spoke at one of our university chemical society meetings - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Cunningham,_Baron_Cunningham_of_Felling)
    Marion Barry, recently deceased formr mayor of Washington DC (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marion_Barry)
    Angela Merkel

    And then I found this: https://www.evi.com/q/which_chemists_have_also_been_politicians

  2. At first I read "Across from a Stasi barracks" as "Across from a Starbucks" and thought, "That's not too bad".