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About Myself: Herbert W. Franke

Historische Manuskripte – Herbert W. Franke-Archiv im ZKM

Herbert W. Franke (1978)

In my desk, ready for general use, lie three different CVs. It’s bad enough if I confuse them, for I have chosen activities in some areas that seem very strange to the three different target groups.

The first field of activity, born out of a hobby, concerns rational aesthetics, apparatus art, and the computer as a design instrument. Probably it’s because I’m a little lazy and impatient – I’m disgusted by putting something on paper by hand because it’s so slow. Quite different to the program-controlled drawing machine or, even better, the electronic plotter: hardly have you finished thinking the thought, and it’s already put down in black and white, and often enough differently than you had imagined. An opportunity for fascinating experiments!

My second field of activity, born out of a hobby, is cave exploration, spelunking in German. As a scientist, I naturally refer to all the interesting problems related to spatial forms, deposits of stalactites, etc. All of this reflects the Earth’s history and climate over the past millions of years – you feel like a detective reconstructing the crime scene from clues. But in reality, it’s, of course, the allure of the unknown, the vast dark spaces, the three-dimensional labyrinth that attracts me and leads me to participate in many expeditions.

The third field of activity, born out of a hobby, is particularly shocking: science fiction. Even this hobby, turned into a profession, I can justify: many young people are first confronted with questions about the future through the medium of science fiction. It is by no means irrelevant whether they become acquainted with real issues or whether they are given pseudo-knowledge and fantasies. The often-given advice to fulfil this educational task through non-fiction books is not very helpful – you just need to compare the number of readers of science fiction books with the number of those reading non-fiction books. Furthermore, only a few know what to do with descriptions dressed in formulas. A sea level fluctuation of five meters, a temperature deviation of two degrees – what does that really mean? In science fiction stories, this becomes concrete and turns into unimaginable destinies that otherwise remain only on paper. But is that really what drives me to write science fiction books? For me, it’s something else too: a thought experiment, a breaking through of the limits set for us, the creation of fantastic worlds in other spaces and times…

With that, I have finally come to what I consider my central task, and in a sense, my hobbies are also connected to it. I am a scientist and cybernetician, and everything I do within and outside my profession is driven by the passionate desire to look a little beneath the surface of the world we live in – into those regions that are not readily accessible to our eyes. I guess there is a reason why I wrote a dissertation on a topic in electron optics, a technical science whose main goal is to make the invisible visible.

I studied at the University of Vienna, starting with physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Later, I also added astronomy and psychology. I also had to attend a philosophy lecture because at that time, philosophy was still included in the field of natural sciences, so obtaining a doctorate – Dr. Phil – also required a “Philosophicum.” I remember that I once entered the auditorium maximum in search of an interesting topic, where about 2,000 students were listening to the scholar at the lectern. Just as I opened the door, I heard the words “the soul of the atom…” upon which I left the room. I then found a tiny lecture hall in an old part of the building. There, the last representative of the Vienna Philosophers’ School, around Wittgenstein, held his lecture on value systems, and here, I found what I imagine philosophy to be – something that is compatible with the insights of natural science.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that it is not only the task of a scientist to acquire knowledge but also to disseminate it. This has become increasingly difficult in recent decades because the roots of events in our world lie in abstract areas, most easily expressible through formulas with the help of mathematics. But even that is a piece of reality that affects the life of every individual, and thus arises the problem of translating technical language into a comprehensible expression. The way to best accomplish this has occupied me for a long time.

The key to public science probably lies in two points: simplification and visualisation, as it is called today. Both points are controversial. Is it allowed to represent the proven complexity of connections incompletely and in a simplified way? Many experts strictly answer “no” to this. For me, the answer came from a comparison with how people can acquire knowledge in general. If you delve further into the matter, it turns out that no one is capable of processing arbitrary complexity all at once. It is determined solely by the nature of our perception and thinking that we always – even if we are not aware of it – move from simple mental images to more complex ones. This concept is supported by a sentence from the cybernetician Helmar Frank, which he wrote in his book on “Cybernetics and Philosophy.” It refers to the rule of successive models, which states that it is possible to approach reality through a series of models if you manage to refine them step by step. Therefore, it is also permitted to start from relatively coarse approximations – as long as they allow for gradual refinement.

Regarding the second problem: visualisation, as it’s called today. Atoms depicted as little balls; chemical compounds represented by symbols… a vision of horror for puritans. On the other hand, we have nothing else but representations – especially visual ones – with which we can grasp knowledge. Here, too, it is not a matter of recognising reality as it is, but of an adequate transformation into a mode of expression and imagination that suits us. Visualisations are also models, and the crucial point is whether they are functional representations of the otherwise inconceivable events that lie behind them.

Making the invisible visible, expressing the inconceivable, recognizing the unknown… at this point, natural science merges with philosophy and art. And if I look at it from a very personal perspective, even my hobbies find a logical place in that no man’s land where all these endeavours intersect. That’s how I try to see it – like anyone who wants to find meaning in what they do.