Dr. Brigitte Röthlein

Dr.  Brigitte Röthlein
Writer's Bio: 

Dr.  Brigitte Röthlein has an education as a physicist and social scientist and has been working as a science author at different magazines, at television/broadcast and for newspapers since 1973. She also published several popular science books. Since 1991 she has been working as a free lance science writer for several newspapers and magazines in Germany. In order to get a picture of her work, please look at the following links to articles that she wrote for the research magazine of the Max-Planck-Society and that have been translated into English or at her homepage www.roethlein-muenchen.de.

Particle Physics:

Loop quantum gravity:

Conversion of biomass:


Some personal impressions about her professional career:

In my professional life I was able to become acquainted with scientific communication from two sides.

During five years I worked as a public relations officer at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics. There I had to deal with the difficulties scientists have in describing their work, their aims and their methods to the public and in explaining why public funding is necessary for good research. I learned how to tell pupils, students and interested laymen how scientific things work, and how slow and difficult progress in research sometimes is.

When I changed over to journalism in 1979 and began to work as a science editor at the magazine Quick, on the other hand, I noticed the problems journalists have to overcome to get reliable and understandable information about sophisticated scientific subjects. I also had to deal with the problem: How do I find news from the scientific world that might be of interest for my readers? This question has since then been largely answered by the possibilities that the internet provides, but there still remains the difficulty of how to present scientific subjects in a way that arouses the interest of the reader. In all the professional positions I have occupied in the last 30 years, I have often had to debate with scientists how much simplification is allowed or necessary, what content is crucial, and which details may be left out. At Quick magazine these questions were especially difficult to solve, because it was a magazine for ordinary readers, who were mainly interested in entertainment, sports and politics. To fight for space for scientific topics in this setting was always hard, but taught me a lot about how journalism works.

This background was very useful for the rest of my life. I changed to the monthly popular science magazine PM-Magazin in 1981, which was (and still is) the popular science magazine with the highest circulation in Germany. There it was relatively easy to place topics from all fields of science, but the articles here were quite long (several pages each), and now I had to learn much about the dramatic element that is necessary to keep the readers’ interest awake during the whole story.

When in the year 1986 the Chernobyl reactor exploded, it was my task as a physicist to write a series about the accident, radioactivity, atomic energy in general, and a lot of related topics. I became familiar with nearly every screw in the Chernobyl plant, and so it was a great experience for me when ten years later I had the opportunity to visit it personally, enter the destroyed plant and talk to some of the surviving engineers.

After ten years, in 1991, I decided to become independent and began to work as a freelance science writer. This worked very well from the beginning, as I commanded a good network of scientific contacts on one hand, and on the other of colleagues in newspapers and magazines to commission stories from me. Parallel to this daily work I was now able to write popular books about scientific subjects that I was personally interested in. Thus from 1993 until today several books have emerged, about quantum physics, brain research, atomic physics, history of science etc. The most successful one was a book about “Schrödingers Katze” in 1999, which has now reached its 6th edition.

Besides my free lance work I was asked to develop and run the popular historical magazine Damals, which I did for three years. In this context it was very useful that I have an education in scientific history, which was a subsidiary subject during my studies in social sciences. Again, from 2004 to 2006 I was chief editor of a popular scientific magazine called Innovate. It was a supplement to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the biggest daily newspapers in Germany. In this magazine, which was funded by the industry, I had the opportunity to mix topics from industrial research with reports of basic research in universities, the Max Planck Institutes, Fraunhofer Society and elsewhere.

In the last few years I have often been asked to give lectures on scientific communication. I have taught scientists from the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Center in Munich, the Deutsche Museum and the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg how to disseminate scientific content and how to prevent disappointment in dealing with journalists. On the other hand, I have also taught students from various universities and institutes how to write popular scientific articles and how to find the information for these. That is why I hope to make a substantial contribution to the life of the KITP in communicating its scientific work to a wider audience.

Brigitte Röthlein

Parting Comments: 

For years and years I have been writing about physicists and their work, also about theoreticians. But never before I had the opportunity to watch them during their real work. When I met them before, it was on conferences or for interviews, and they told me about their latest results and how they got them. I wondered how their work usually is going on, and asked many of them. But nobody could really give me an answer, because to themselves the way they work seems so natural.

Now I know better. During my stay at the KITP I had the opportunity to observe them working. I watched their discussions in front of the ubiquitous blackboards, I listened to their arguments, and I attended quite a few talks, though I did not understand very much. I found out what is the secret behind their work: talking, talking, talking. “Theorists have to talk to each other all the time. It is a very risky business they are following, they are really speculating”, David Gross told me. So I learned much about the working methods, the way of life and the culture of theoretical physicists. And I could appreciate the important role of KITP in this process, which tries to provide the best conditions for this type of work. I wrote an article about this for two big German newspapers.

On the other hand I tried to give some of my experience as a science writer to the scientists. They have as little clue about my work as I had about theirs, and I think it is important for them to know about the conditions and restrictions of our job. So they might avoid perils and pitfalls when they try to bring their work to a broader audience. And that is a concern that I always have: to let people know more about science and to interest them for its topics.

Sometimes I had the impression that it is too difficult to get a connection between the two cultures: journalists on the one hand and scientists on the other. But in many one-to-one talks that I had during my stay, I found out that many scientists want to share their goals and their results with the public and look for ways how to do it successfully. It was a great joy for me that some of them even came up with very concrete proposals for projects I or we together should perform. Some of them are meanwhile accomplished, others were still under way at my departure.

Another gratifying experience was that every scientist whom I asked was willing to give me a lot of his time and to put in great efforts to explain his work on a level appropriate for me. I am very grateful for this because my work cannot be done without it. So evolved some stories about subjects people at the KITP are working on, e.g. the search for exoplanets, the development and investigation of metallic glasses and the statistical approach to the evolution of HIV. And I lay the foundations for a popular book about exoplanets which I will write in the next months. I also established contact with other scientists on the UCSB campus to write about their activities. One of these articles was already published, and there are still some to come.

To summarize my experiences in a few short words: It was a great time, I got opportunities I had never before, and the surroundings and the atmosphere at this institute are unmatched. I will never forget my time at the KITP, and I will carefully watch what is going on here in future programs.



Research paradise on the beach: The Kavli Institute in Santa Barbara is the El Dorado for Theoretical Physics in the entire world
Berliner Zeitung, #144, 6/5/2010

Research paradise on the beach
Frankfurter Rundschau (newspaper from Frankfurt), 06/26/2010

The search for other earths (exoplanets)
Berliner Zeitung, 05.05.10

The search for other earths (exoplanets)
Frankfurter Rundschau (newspaper from Frankfurt), 05.04.10

Avatar on the couch
Die Welt, No. 19, 05/09/2010