Remembrance

Hans-Peter Dürr,
Peacemaker and Physicist

Hans-Peter Duerr in Berlin, 2010

Hans-Peter Dürr, Berlin, 2010


"Mistakes must be possible", he said, "for they are our greatest teachers." One of his greatest teachers was Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. In 1953 the young physics student Hans-Peter Dürr from Stuttgart, Germany, newly arrived at California's Berkeley campus, was searching for a doctoral mentor. He found him in Teller, who had completed his Ph.D under Werner Heisenberg, the formulator of quantum mechanics famous uncertainty principle. What a lucky connection, Dürr thought, for he was a great admirer of Heisenberg.

Only all that business about Teller's association with the hydrogen bomb clouded the picture. Teller was of the opinion that the sole way to preserve peace on earth was to place in the right hands the ultimate bomb. The whole issue was a continual source of argument between Teller and Robert Oppenheimer, chief of the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer's conscience was profoundly troubled by all his work at Los Alamos, its fruition being the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki extinguishing the lives of thousands upon thousands. But now, Teller fumed, here was this young pup of a physicist from Germany who also wanted to weigh in on the issue! "How horrific!"

Hans-Peter Dürr found such lively clashes of considerable importance: he recognized the ambivalent transcendence of physics and of the natural sciences in general. That's why he had dedicated himself to the study of physics – to learn "what ultimately holds the world together." Now in the U.S. he could also observe the forces at work outside of physics inside the universities – the ones shaping the American scientific agenda.

In 1958 Hans-Peter returned to Germany with his doctorate, which investigated the resonance phenomena of electromagnetic fields – the basis for nuclear science's diagnostic tomography. In happy tow was also Dürr's new American bride, the former Susan Durham of Hawaii, a dance instructor. The pair moved to Munich. There Hans-Peter did his post-doc work under Werner Heisenberg, joining the revered scientist's team. Heisenberg deeply valued Hans-Peter's professional commitment and ability as a theorist to think outside of the box. In 1978 Heisenberg appointed Dürr as his successor as the director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics in Munich. Dürr remained director at the Institute until his retirement in 1990; he was also a lecturer at the Ludwig-Maximillians-Universität, where he inspired new generations of students with his scientific zeal and spirit to make a difference in the real world.

The wide split between what we know and what we do forever rankled Dürr. He appealed to his colleagues to work towards sustaining the earth instead of towards accelerating its destruction. He loved to cross mental borders, but was never one to trespass the borders nature had set. Towards the end of his life the gas fracking going on around the earth upset him as much as the blood being spilled in Syria and the Ukraine.

Over all the years many colleagues reacted with mockery to Dürr's scientific models and remonstrations. Elementary particle physicist Murray Gell-Man, who in 1969 won the Nobel Peace Prize in physics, said it had been Heisenberg's biggest mistake to appoint this elitist Dürr as his successor – such a man could do nothing to move science forward.

When Dürr learned of the remark, he replied, "Which way forward?"

Especially after Dürr retired, though, we found out which way forward went. Hans-Peter held onto his office at the Institute, and used it as his nerve center or headquarters while traveling the country and the globe giving talks on our coming predicaments and his ideas for solution. The man's interests and pursuits were legion, his concepts spreading from his desk to his publishers out into society in general. Dürr had never been a white-coat scientist who allowed the walls of his lab to blot out the world at large. He became a traveling salesman in the name of the earth, the future, and the coming generations.

A pacifist Dürr had been since adolescence. His father, a grammar school mathematics teacher, fell into a depression and in 1943 walked in the door with a gun to shoot his wife, two sons and four daughters. He wanted to save them from the tragic desperation and insurmountable grief he felt was racing their way, ineluctable. Dürr's mother managed to stop the man in his plan of familicide in a scene that would never leave her. In 1944 the father was drafted and died some several weeks later on the front. Hans-Peter was also drafted as a fifteen-year-old and spent the final months of the war in uniform. On February 23, 1945, the RAF, in a reprisal air raid, dropped so many incendiary bombs on Dürr's hometown of Pforzheim that nearly a third of the population – some 17,600 people – died. With his own hands, Hans-Peter buried the charred bodies of his closest friends. This was the memory Dürr shared with Teller when the physicist spoke of the Big Bomb's blessings.

A call from Dürr brought people together. In 1987 he held a colorful gathering at Lake Starnberger to further an interdisciplinary NGO named Global Challenges Network (GCN). It was the era of Glasnost and Dürr traveled behind the old Iron Curtain, meeting and striking up lasting friendships with Mikael Gorbatchov and Tschingis Aitmatov. Dürr and his Global Challenges Network received the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) for working to shoot down Ronald Reagan's Star Wars initiative. The Award with its prize money was a great facilitater; the Global Challenges Network became more global, took on more challenges, and the network grew: WorkNet:future is GCN's assemblage of worldwide players active in the peace, human rights, and environmentalist scene – a powerful, alternative net within the net.

The German physicist had become a global peacemaker.

That Hans-Peter Dürr would join the Pugwash movement, which the core physicist Józef Rotblat had founded in 1955, was a surprise to no one. In 1995 Pugwash became the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Dürr was also a formidable force within International Physicians Against Nuclear War (IPPNW), which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. When Jakob von Uexküll, the founder of the Right Livelihood Award, created the World Future Council in the nineties, Hans-Peter Dürr was naturally one of Jakob's first choices to sit on the council of elders. Like Uexküll, Hans-Peter saw himself as a Possibilist.

"We cannot give up and accept the false markers our culture has set up as given and irrevocable. Everything is in motion!" Dürr valued his many exchanges with Indian environmental activists from the USA. Much of his own thinking he felt very near to the Native American mindset. Deep reality as a circulation of circulations – wasn't that another way of considering the fluctuations of quantum physics?

Dürr's tirelessness was endlessly encouraged by his wife, Sue. While Hans-Peter was off, for instance, holding lectures in China, Susan was leading summer courses for young world changers on behalf of attac. Susan and Hans-Peter made up a super activist duo. When Hans-Peter wasn't traveling, the pair before breakfast would take a morning stroll through Munich's English Gardens, sharing and comparing experiences, hopes, doubts, dreams. And when Susan hosted a dance gathering in the basement of their home, inviting activists, neighbors, scientists, and friends to participate in one of her wild choreographies well into the night, Hans-Peter was always the partner at her side, beaming. Heads of state, NGOs and corporations would have to excuse his absence, or reschedule their sessions planned for the wrong night, for Susan's call to dance Hans-Peter never could resist. On the Global Challenges Network the following quotation has stood for the last several weeks: "When I die, I have no more consciousness, but all that I have thought has been added to the background. As information it has mixed with the world mind, has influenced the whole and become part of it."

English translation: Craig Eldon Reishus