About the Institute

The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (MPL) focuses on basic research into all aspects of the interaction between light and matter, from modern optics to photonics, quantum effects and their applications in the "real" world. It aims to extend the realm of the possible in the science and technology of light. MPL was founded in 2009 and is one of the more than 80 institutes that make up the Max Planck Society, whose mission is to conduct basic research in the service of the general public in the natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

 

The Story of MPL's Formation: The first decade 2000-2008

 

The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (MPL) is a spin-off from the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU). Its beginnings date back to the spring of 2000 when, on the recommendation of an external committee, the chair of the optics institute, Gerd Leuchs, was tasked with finding more sustainable ways of supporting optics research in Erlangen. He succeeded in convincing the FAU leadership to establish a “Centre of Modern Optics”, with activities ranging from fundamentals to applications, and then contacted the Max Planck Society (MPG), convincing them in turn to become engaged with optics in Erlangen. This resulted in the establishment in 2003 of the Max Planck Research Group (MPRG) for Optics, Information and Photonics. Five years later, following three positive external evaluations, the MPG took the decision to transform the MPRG into a full-blown Max Planck Institute, culminating in the founding of MPL on the 1st of January 2009.

 

Optics in Erlangen - a long shared history

The roots of optics in Erlangen can be traced back to 1868, when the government of the Kingdom of Bavaria appointed the Bavarian Eugen von Lommel to a chair in physics at FAU, in the process overruling the wishes of the university board, which favoured a candidate from Berlin. At that time Franconia still had strong ties to Prussia, six decades after Napoleon forced the region to join Bavaria. This appointment was a wise move, for Lommel, who had studied mathematics and physics in Munich, turned out to be a successful lecturer and scientist. Very popular with the students, he would often include experimental demonstrations in his lectures. He became more and more interested in optics, and made ground-breaking discoveries on the theory of light focusing.  This culminated in the definition of a family of new functions, now known as Lommel functions,  that describe the behaviour of light at the focus of a lens. These functions occupy an entire chapter in the well-known textbook on optics authored by Max Born and Emil Wolf. Lommel himself wrote several books, one of which, "Das Wesen des Lichts", was translated into English under the title "The Nature of Light, with a General Account of Physical Optics" and published in 1875 by Henry S. King & Co. in London. After 18 years in Erlangen, Lommel moved to a chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

 

Awakening from hibernation - Optics at FAU in the 20th Century

In those early years FAU had only one physics professor, and following Lommel's departure optics remained dormant for some 60 years, until in 1948 FAU started slowly to expand and Erich Mollwo from the University of Göttingen was appointed professor of applied physics. With a background in solid-state physics, Mollwo worked on the optical spectroscopy of solids, publishing the book "Maser und Laser" together with Wittich Kaule in 1966. The true renaissance of optics in Erlangen can be traced back to 1973 with the appointment of Adolf Lohmann from UC San Diego, who was well-known for his pioneering work on computer-generated holograms and optical signal processing. At the time of Lohmann’s retirement in 1992, the optics chair was the largest in the Department of Physics, and its students regularly won best paper awards at annual meetings of the German Society for Applied Optics. At that time there were four large groups within the chair of optics, led by Karl-Heinz Brenner, Gerd Häusler, Johannes Schwider and Norbert Streibl. Following Lohmann's retirement in 1992, the Department of Physics briefly considered shifting the topic of the chair away from optics, which caused some delay in finding a successor.

 

A fresh breeze for the Chair of Optics  - Gerd Leuchs appointed to FAU

In the end a candidate was found who appealed to all interested parties: Gerd Leuchs. Appointed in 1994, Leuchs brought quantum optics to Erlangen. With a background in atomic and laser physics, interferometric gravitational wave detection, and the commercial engineering of an optical displacement sensor, he appealed not only to physicists and the existing optics staff, but also to members of the engineering faculty, whom also participated in the selection process.  Fresh from a five-year-long stint in industry (based in Lichtenstein), Leuchs embarked in several new research directions, including quantum optics using telecom¬mu¬ni¬¬cations tools and the quest for the ultimate limits of focusing—topics that continue to be pursued at MPL to this day.

In the late 1990s an external review panel recommended that the optics activities in FAU's physics department be strengthened. Thus encouraged, and bolstered also by the support of Herbert Walther, director at the MPI for Quantum Optics in Munich, Leuchs proposed the establish¬ment of a Zentrum für Moderne Optik (ZEMO). FAU’s president at the time, Gotthard Jasper, expressed the reservation that a centre with three physics professors was perhaps not inter-disciplinary enough. Leuchs’s twist to a well-known MIT slogan, namely "FAU’s engineers employ the optics of today while the new centre will develop the optics of tomorrow", apparently convinced the FAU leadership. As a result ZEMO was established in the spring of 2000, supported by start-up funding from FAU.

 

MPG joins in - founding of the Max Planck Research Group for Optics, Information and Photonics at FAU

In the autumn of the same year, Herbert Walther reported that MPG’s Vice President Gerhard Wegner had agreed to the formation of an independent Max Planck Group at the chair of optics, proposing a funding level that Leuchs felt was insufficient. Wegner visited Erlangen for a few hours on December 5th 2000, touring the laboratories of Leuchs, Schwider and Häusler  where experiments ranging from modern classical optics to quantum optics were in progress. He also listened to presentations from three other optics-related groups in the physics and engineering departments. The next day he reported back to MPG head¬quarters in Munich, and then called Leuchs telling him that the MPG President Hubert Markl had requested a document outlining the perspectives for optics in Erlangen. This Leuchs submitted to the MPG president early in 2001, proposing that the MPG engage with Erlangen for a limited period, possibly culminating in the establishment of a new Max Planck Institute—the first such institute in Franconia.

In June 2001 a symposium on Optics, Information and Photonics was organized with the aim of informing interested MPI directors about the planned research directions in Erlangen. The event included guest lectures from Ari Friberg, Peter de Groot, Stefan Hell, Atac Imamoglu and Andreas Tünnermann. Following this, Leuchs was asked to make the plans more concrete, in particular by including suggestions for directors of the proposed research divisions. He presented his plans at the perspectives commission of MPG’s Chemistry, Physics and Engineering Section (CPTS), chaired by Peter Fulde, on the 18th of September 2001 in Stuttgart, accompanied by Klaus Rith (Dean of the Mathematics & Physics Faculty) and Albrecht Winnacker (Dean of the Engineering Faculty). Leuchs has often said that he would never forget this meeting, because it took place only one week after 9/11. Leuchs proposed the establishment of four divisions covering the topics: (1) optics beyond traditional limits, (2) photonics for information processing and communication, (3) micro-optics/nano-structured optical materials, and (4) nano bio-photonics. In the end, at a meeting in February 2002, CPTS recommended the establishment of a Max Planck Research Group for Optics, Information and Photonics at FAU, to consist of three divisions and to run for a period of five years.

 

New directors - how Lijun Wang and Philip Russell enriched the MPRG

The next task was to find two further directors to head the planned second and third divisions. MPG imposed an additional condition: FAU should provide two full-professor fall-back positions in the event that the Max Planck Research Group (MPRG) was not transformed into a MPI. The FAU Physics Department and university leadership generously agreed to provide this guarantee. It was finally decided that FAU, in cooperation with MPG, would establish a new university institute, to be named the MPRG for Optics, Information & Photonics and to include two new chairs. A document confirming this agreement was signed MPG and the State of Bavaria in March 2003, the new positions were advertised in February 2002, and in April 2002 candidates were invited for interview. The first offer was made to Lijun Wang from the NEC Research Institute in Princeton, who accepted it later in 2002. The search was then continued, culminating in further interviews, but a second candidate willing to come to Erlangen was not found.

In 2003 the Federal Government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder unexpectedly cut the previously agreed budgets of the MPG and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (the German Research Foundation). This was a major blow, resulting in the freezing of all new projects. Fortunately, MPG and the State of Bavaria had already signed the MPRG contract so that the first MPG funds were available in July 2003. The first appointment was Sabine König, who played a key role in setting up the MPRG and later in building up its administration and infrastructure.  It was not until the late summer of 2003 that MPG President Peter Gruss informed Gerd Leuchs that the search for a third director could be resumed. It so happened that around this time (in October 2003) the Frontiers in Optics Conference was held in Tucson, Arizona. On one of the evenings, Pierre Meystre invited a few participants to a party at his home, among them Herbert Walther and Philip Russell. In the course of the evening Russell, who was at the time based at the University of Bath in the UK, mentioned to Walther that he was looking for new opportunities. On the next day Walther called Leuchs suggesting that he might consider Russell as a possible candidate, especially considering the hint about his in-principle availability. Phone calls and visits followed, including an invitation to the opening symposium for the MPRG, which included keynote talks by Charles H Townes and Emil Wolf. In October 2004 MPG agreed to appoint Russell as the third director of the MPRG, and FAU appointed him as a full professor with tenure, in line with the promise made by the FAU leadership in early 2002.

 

Hard work pays off - the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light is founded

In the following years the three MPRG divisions built up in strength, working to produce the best possible research results so as to increase the likelihood of transitioning to a full Max Planck Institute. By coincidence one of the first papers published by the MPRG (in 2003) concerned engineering the polarisation state of a beam so as to focus light to a tighter spot, neatly linking back to Lommel's pioneering work in the 19th century. MPG president Peter Gruss appointed Vladimir Braginsky, Pierre Chavel, Elisabeth Giacobino, Roy Glauber, Satoshi Kawata, Peter Knight, Wilson Sibbett, Anthony Siegman, Orazio Svelto, Charles Townes and Yuzhu Wang as members of an international evaluation committee, which visited the MPRG in April 2006 and December 2007. In parallel the CPTS carried out its own independent external evaluation, based on paperwork provided by the MPRG. In the end the MPG resolved in June 2008 to establish a new Max Planck Institute, with founding directors Russell and Leuchs . After much discussion about its name, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (in German, das Max-Planck-Institut für die Physik des Lichts) commenced operations on January 1st 2009.


1 Herbert Walther was the doctoral (1978) and the habilitation (1982) supervisor of Leuchs
2 By that time Karl-Heinz Brenner had moved to the University of Mannheim and Norbert Streibl to Bosch AG, Stuttgart.

3 Lijun Wang decided in 2007 to move back to Beijing, where he now heads his own institute.

 

Appendix: Optics Professors in the Physics Department at FAU 1868-2008
1868 - 1886         Eugen von Lommel
1948 - 1976         Erich Mollwo
1973 - 1992         Adolf Lohmann
1982 - 1989         Gerd Weigelt
1987 - 2010         Gerd Häusler
1993 - 2003         Johannes Schwider
1994 - 2019         Gerd Leuchs              MPL director 2009-2019
2003 - 2010         Lijun Wang
2004 -                   Joachim von Zanthier
2005 - 2014         Ulf Peschel
2005 - 2021         Philip Russell              MPL director 2009-2021

 

 

 

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