On the Death of Hans-Peter Dürr An Inconvenient Fellow

Hans-Peter Dürr
Hans-Peter Dürr | Photo (detail): © Peter Ludwig

He was a student of Werner Heisenberg, wrote his doctorate under Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. This maverick out-of-the-box thinker and winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize has died at the age of 84.

Not many researchers address far-ranging interrelationships above and beyond the confines of their own narrowly delimited fields, in particular if they touch on esoteric spheres. Hans-Peter Dürr can surely be counted among them. Dürr, a particle physicist who was one of the most influential researchers of the twentieth century, intervened whenever he spotted contradictions – even at the risk of endangering his reputation as a former student of Heisenberg.

Towards the end of the 1970’s, when the debates about nuclear power were erupting, Dürr took an unambiguous position against both its peaceful as well as its military uses. In the 1980’s he was actively involved in the peace movement. Most recently Dürr, a winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize (1987) and former mediator between East and West, contended against the exploitation of nature and for a holistic view of the world.

Two utterly irresponsible people

Dürr, born on 7 October 1929 in Stuttgart, sometimes gave the impression that there is a solution to all the problems in the world; one only need tread hard enough on the toes of responsible parties. And if humanity had accepted greater responsibility for creation, things would have not come to such a pass with nature. In his young years, Dürr had encountered two irresponsible people. One was his father, who had volunteered to fight in the war: not out of a wish to serve his Fatherland, but because of a profound depression that made it impossible for him to take on the responsibility for his own life and that of his family any longer, as he himself once recounted.

The other was Edward Teller, to whom the young physicist was drawn in 1953. The co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb became Dürr’s doctoral adviser just at the time when Teller was entangled in his controversy with Robert Oppenheimer. And although Dürr never worked on the bomb, he recognised the ambivalence of his research activities: what seemed of the greatest interest philosophically and epistemologically was at the same time something capable of unleashing enormous destruction, as he once put the matter.

The quantum world in daily life

Dürr, who served for many years as director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich until his retirement in 1997, felt attracted to and at home with North American indigenous peoples. It is sometimes difficult to pigeonhole the man. Was he a visionary, or was he still the quantum physicist who had made the worldview of atoms and molecules his philosophy: never to be predictable, enabling new ideas and insights to arise, but always remembering what has been? Hans-Peter Dürr died on 18 May 2014 in Munich. He was 84 years old.