Commuting between Nobel Committee and HZB

Professor Nils Mårtensson

Professor Nils Mårtensson

“I am very impressed by the open and friendly atmosphere at HZB. Users can always feel welcome at BESSY.” This praise of HZB comes from none other than Nils Mårtensson, member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics.

A professor at Uppsala University, Mårtensson supervised the planning and implementation of the Swedish synchrotron radiation source Max IV for 13 years, and was distinguished in 2013 with a grant from the European Research Council (ERC). At HZB, Mårtensson researches in the Uppsala Berlin Joint Laboratory (UBjL), which was established with the funds from his ERC grant, and which he heads together with Professor Alexander Föhlisch, director of the HZB Institute “Methods and Instrumentation for Synchrotron Radiation Research”.

Arranging an interview with Nils Mårtensson is pleasant, but has to be done a fair while in advance. This is understandable, considering the frequent flyer has scientific affairs to attend to not only at HZB but also in Sweden and many other countries. When we do get talking, we learn what kept Professor Mårtensson engaged in Sweden for so long: “In the Nobel Committee, we are already making the selection for the 2018 Nobel Prize,” Mårtensson reveals. “This means gathering many expert opinions, which will be discussed among the selection committee. All discussions must be held in person. We cannot communicate by telephone or email, in order to guarantee absolute secrecy. That of course makes it a very time-consuming process – but one that is rewarded with exciting insights into the world’s top physics research.”

Mårtensson has now came to Berlin for two days – and takes ample time to explain his research for “lichtblick”. “At UBjL, we have developed examination methods for functional materials that exist at no other research institute,” Mårtensson says. “These are based on angle-resolved time-of-flight electron spectroscopy – ARTOF for short. Only at BESSY II do we find pulses with the time structure we need for researching with these methods.” Thus, here, Mårtensson and his team can study the state of functional materials – for generating renewable energies, for example – at the lowest possible X-ray dose. “The samples have a much longer life span than when examined with stronger X-rays,” Mårtensson stresses. Further methods allow detailed characterisation of the electronic structure of materials.

As the director of MAX IV, Professor Mårtensson, when you were involved in the design of the machine, why did you not plan from the beginning for it to have the same ideal research conditions as those here at BESSY? “That’s not how the community involved with developing and building synchrotron radiation sources works,” the researcher answers in a measured tone: “It would be insanely expensive to build facilities everywhere that can optimally do everything that is technically feasible. One has to set priorities, and become truly world leading in those aspects. The researchers and designers of the respective facilities gladly help each other out in this process. With MAX IV, it was specifically the low emittance of the radiation that was important to us. We can already get extremely short pulses here in Berlin, at HZB – where I immediately feel very comfortable on every visit.”

As for tomorrow, Mårtensson is off again on to a conference in the USA.