Farewell, Prof. Littke!
Between young scientist development and high mountains: Prof. Littke retires
After studying geology and obtaining a doctorate at the Ruhr University in Bochum on the subject of "Structure and formation of seams of the Dorsten, Horst and Essen strata of the Ruhr Carboniferous using the example of the Wulfener Heide 1 well," you moved to the Forschungszentrum Jülich in 1985, where you were first a research associate at the Institute of Petroleum and Organic Geochemistry and, from 1993, deputy director. To what extent did your years at a pure research institution shape you?
That was a very important experience, especially compared to the university I came from and then went back to. Many things worked much better in Jülich; there was generally much more money and technical staff available. Many procedures were simpler and the administration was much more service-oriented. Decisions that required dozens of meetings with dozens of participants at the university were made in a board meeting with five participants. In my opinion, an infinite amount of time is wasted in this area at universities. And students learn not what administrative procedures should look like, but what they should not look like. On the other hand, the university with its many young people simply brings an invaluable breath of fresh air to research, which is often lacking in the large research institutions (today: Helmholtz centers). And research at the centers is also always politically co-directed; that is less the case at universities and a very important advantage there. As a geoscientist, I myself learned to appreciate the cooperation with physicists and chemists and then continued it at RWTH.
In 1993 you completed your habilitation with the topic "Deposition, diagenesis, and weathering of organic matter-rich sediments" in Bochum. Since 1997, you have been a full professor at RWTH Aachen University and head of the Institute for Geology, Geochemistry and Deposits of Petroleum and Coal. Where does your interest in these energy sources come from and how do you assess future developments in this field, also with regard to the further development of your chair?
There are two for me essential aspects: On the one hand, coals and petroleum source rocks are excellent and irreplaceable archives for paleoenvironmental conditions, including paleoclimate. Thus, they are suitable for basic geoscientific research, which has constituted a large part of our work. On the other hand, fossil fuels have accounted for more than 85% of the world's primary energy consumption for many decades; so, they are also enormously important economically. For example, the value of oil annual production is several times greater than that of all metallic raw materials. As a result, there have been many exciting and well-paid jobs for geoscientists there for decades. I was keen to equip students who completed their master's thesis or doctoral dissertation with very good prerequisites for good jobs - through a good understanding of petroleum systems and through analytical thinking geared to quantifying geoprocesses.
In the Department of Geosciences and Geography, you were head of one of the chairs with the highest third party funding and have attracted well over 30 major research projects (including the priority program Sedimentary Basin Dynamics ), which were funded not only by industry but also by public funds from the major scientific organizations (including DFG, EU and BMBF). Especially in the area of sediment basin research, you have been able to merge basic research with empirical data sets derived from the petroleum industry. How important do you think it will be in the future for industry and basic scientific research to work together?
As already written above, a lot of money is invested in the oil and gas industry, especially in personnel, drilling, seismic exploration and state-of-the-art software. Without these data, it is virtually impossible to meaningfully explore sedimentary systems. We have managed to do this through many joint and trust-based projects, but it has not always been easy to reconcile public and private sector interests. But - if you don't try, you've already lost. After all, we had excellent laboratories, know-how and the commitment of young, motivated employees to offer; so the industry representatives also had their own interest in cooperation. In other countries, such as Norway, the Netherlands or Australia, essential data from the hydrocarbon industry must be made available to the public anyway; unfortunately, this is not the case in Germany.
An H-index of 71 and over 21,000 citations from more than 600 publications , covering a very broad geoscientific field from sequence stratigraphy, sedimentary systems and basin analysis to petrophysical investigations, organic geochemistry, coal petrography and hydrocarbon systems, attest to your scientific visibility in the national and international context . In addition, you have supervised over 70 PhD students. What is your recipe for success, especially in the area of promoting young scientists?
I always wanted to support our students and invested most of the projects and income of my chair in the employment of PhD students, in addition to the naturally necessary investment in state-of-the-art equipment. And in the mid-1980s, after completing my doctoral thesis, which I had written in German as was customary at the time, I shared a room at Forschungszentrum Jülich with a Dutch geochemist who had also just received his doctorate and whose dissertation consisted of individual articles written in English and previously published. It was clear that this had to be the future, because this way research can be made known much better to a broad, international audience. We then implemented this concept quite consistently, with some exceptions confirming the rule. This is how many publications came about. The professional range came about - as with many colleagues - over the years: we established ourselves with a special topic, but over time more and more related topics were added, also through collaboration with many scientists from a wide range of disciplines.
In teaching, you have received several awards and have been particularly involved in the examination boards. In addition, you served as Dean of the Faculty of Georesources and Materials Engineering as well as Senator of RWTH and most recently represented the Division of Geosciences and Geography as Division Speaker . How important do you consider involvement in the bodies of academic self-government to be?
First, I internalized that universities are places for research and teaching: These are also the tasks of the professors. So I have always considered teaching to be an essential part of my duties and have enjoyed doing it; for me, it was not a burden to stand in the lecture hall. Even during my time as senator, dean, and vice dean, I continued to teach completely and did not reduce anything. So on the one hand I took that seriously, on the other hand it was fortunately easy for me. Serving on committees, on the other hand, is simply a necessity. After all, it is clear that examination boards or appointment committees are necessary - important work is done there that is necessary for the central goals - research and teaching. Critically, I see that practically all committees are too large, among other things to satisfy any relationships between different groups of employees, civil servants and students. Ultimately, this leads to an unjustifiable expenditure of time - this time is lost for the central tasks in research and teaching.
In addition to research and teaching, you are involved on a voluntary basis in the geoscientific professional associations and have also filled important leadership positions here and implemented extensive reforms. After the merger of the then West German "Deutsche Geologische Gesellschaft" (DGG) and the East German "Gesellschaft für Geowissenschaften (GGW) to form the new all-German DGG in the course of reunification, you decisively prepared the unification of the Geologische Vereinigung (GV) and the DGG to form today's DGGV in 2015 as the then chair of the GV from 2010-2014. What role do you see in the professional associations with regard to communicating a common geoscientific profile for the future? How important do you consider membership in professional and technical associations for students and young scientists?
Firstly, I think that the integration of the earth sciences of the solid earth, i.e. geology, geophysics, mineralogy and paleontology, should go further in the direction of a society of earth sciences. At the moment, after all, there is an individual society for each discipline, although today and for the last 20 years our students are no longer studying the individual subjects, but geosciences. This separatism does not make sense in the long run and cannot be communicated to the younger ones. Of course, such a society must also offer the space at conferences and via publications to deal with special topics in great professional depth.
On the other hand, I think that it is good to find a professional home as a student or young scientist. This can be done very well through membership in one of the societies. I myself was a member of more than a dozen scientific societies at peak times, but have now reduced that to DGGV for retirement. I advise everyone to try it out at least for some time.
After 26 years at RWTH, you will retire on September 30, 2023. When you look back on this time in Aachen, what were your personal highlights and, if applicable, lowlights?
Highlights are definitely the many exciting research projects, often also with colleagues from RWTH, which were brought to success through collaboration with postdocs, PhD students, and students who did their master's or bachelor's thesis with us. I remember many nice and committed people every day; I still have loose contact with many of them, and even closer contact with a few. Lowlights were unspeakably slow and partly destructive processes within the very expensive central administration of the RWTH, partly also driven by the fear to do something wrong - with the result that it is better to do nothing at all. Whoever does nothing, of course, does not make a mistake, but does that bring us forward?
In your free time, you spend a lot of time climbing in the high mountains. What plans do you have for (un)retirement? Will you try out new via ferrata routes?
Sure, new via ferratas - and the repetition of some particularly beautiful known routes, especially in the Dolomites - are definitely on the schedule. But it's not just the climbing routes that appeal to me, but the grandiose high mountain landscapes in general. Much of it can be excellently hiked, but via ferrata routes give you additional access on steep faces and ridges. Outside the Alps, Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, which I know quite well, there are other countries, islands, cities in Europe that I would like to explore, for example, Brittany, northern parts of Scandinavia or Ireland.