29. June 2020

Turning science fiction into science fact

Professor Jürgen P. Rabe, director of the Integrative Research Institute for the Sciences IRIS Adlershof, about building bridges, joint labs, and a new research building

Prof. Jürgen P. Rabe © WISTA Management GmbH
Prof. Jürgen P. Rabe © WISTA Management GmbH

Ten years of IRIS Adlershof: what exactly goes on here?

Jürgen P. Rabe: It all begins with asking good questions – questions that impose themselves on us, that we can provide answers to by using our scientific potential in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science, and that we hope can, in turn, provide creative solutions to problems. To do this, our scientists and researchers have the utmost level of competence in their fields and the determination to pursue innovative projects that they could not tackle on their own.

Where do you position IRIS within the scientific landscape?

Our aspiration is to be noticed at a global level, including by our biggest competitors. Which is why we enjoy cooperating with leading international universities in our field as well as with non-university institutions, start-ups and other innovative companies.

IRIS, a builder of bridges – how does that manifest itself?

The first bridges we built were those between scientific disciplines, which we did by setting up so-called bridge professorships that are based in two fields at once such as physics and chemistry, or physics and mathematics. We also built bridges to other institutions, including non-university research facilities with a strong focus on application. Lastly, we take care of students planning to found university spin-offs and cooperate with established companies.

Hybrid materials and space-time-matter are your central research areas – to most people that sounds like science fiction.

We think we might be able to turn science fiction into science fact. Hybrid materials in electronics and optoelectronics were the key areas when IRIS Adlershof was founded and have developed rapidly since. Information technology has long been driven by inorganic silicon, but organic materials too have turned out to be highly promising optoelectronic materials. Our hybrid materials bring together both worlds and make possible new functionalities that we need if we want to make the development of technologies more sustainable and resource-friendly. The key goal of our space-time-matter research is the ‘theory of everything’. The general theory of relativity gives us a good idea of the cosmos, while quantum field theory helps us tackle small-scale issues. However, nobody has yet managed to combine both theories in a convincing way, which is why made it one of our more ambitious research aims. With both research areas we are taking part in the ‘Matters of Activity: Image, Space, Material’ excellence cluster of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, which focuses on developing a new culture of materials in the digital world.

How does basic research with a focus on practical applications work?

Whenever we formulate our key research questions, we always keep in mind how the potential answers might bring forth creative solutions to technological, social, and global challenges. We know something special has happened when we manage to turn science fiction into science fact as well as bringing that fact to application. The key is choosing the right field in the right place and Berlin Adlershof is certainly one of those right places.

What is the concept of the new research building?

It is that we approach a problem from all sides, from a physics and chemistry perspective as well as from a theoretical and experimental perspective. A thorough understanding of complex interfaces in terms of physics and chemistry, for example, can serve as an excellent basis for developing hybrid materials. Our new research building will be home to a large joint laboratory, where we apply an interdisciplinary methodology and learn from each other in the process. The underlying idea of the joint laboratory is reflected throughout the entire building. While drawing up the concept, together with architects we asked what distinguishes top-level international labs. How can the architecture reflect that we have disciplines continuously interacting with each other? Ultimately, it has turned out to be a wonderfully structured research building that constitutes a functional whole and fosters communication.

Is there something about IRIS that makes you particularly happy?

I would never have dreamed that everything would work out the way it has. The IRIS idea started out with a small team in an office at the HU physics department and we then managed to acquire federal and state funding for our dream laboratory. The new research building will be fully booked as soon as it is completed.


Interview by Rico Bigelmann for Potenzial – The WISTA Magazine



  • Operator: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
  • Address: Zum Großen Windkanal 2 | 12489 Berlin
  • Director: Prof. Jürgen P. Rabe
  • Manager: Dr. Nikolai Puhlmann
  • Office:
  • Members:
    • 22 Professors
    • 5 Young Research Group Leaders
  • IRIS Research Building:
    • Main usable area: ca. 4,500 m² for 150 employees
    • Investment: ca. 53 million euros
    • Completion: summer 2020
Potenzial – The WISTA Magazine. Edition IRIS Adlershof 2020