BERLIN—On November 9, 1918, a German politician announced the creation of the new democratic nation of Germany. Twenty years later on November 9, 1938, the Nazis destroyed synagogues and killed dozens to hundreds of Jews, beginning the pogroms that sent thousands more to concentration camps. And then on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and symbolically brought the Cold War to an end. It’s no wonder that Germans marked this day with events across the city ranging from free concerts, art exhibitions and fireworks. Germans will forever remember November 9 as a day of sweeping change.

So it was only fitting that the newly established Einstein Foundation in Berlin chose this historic day to organize a select group of academics to talk about the intellectual and cultural walls that have already fallen and the next walls to crumble, at a conference aptly termed Falling Walls. Among the issues addressed were: the walls around understanding human evolution; the walls around our lives; the walls around our universe; and the walls around our minds.

To Scientific American readers, many of the “fallen walls” are the very same scientific breakthroughs that they have read about over the years: recent hominid fossil finds in Africa that are helping to piece together human origins; brain implants that will one day help paralysis victims move prosthetic limbs by merely thinking about it; completion of the Large Hadron Collider that will help us understand the hidden universe.

But what may not be familiar is how scientific progress, and the lack of it, contributed to a historical event of such magnitude as the falling of the Berlin Wall, at least according to a nonpracticing yet very important physicist who also happens to be the Chancellor of Germany: Angela Merkel. Despite having a full slate on her calendar, Merkel wanted to address the conference because “people here had something to do with the changes in my life,” she said.

On November 9, 1989, a young Merkel, who was working as a scientist at the time, crossed the street and stepped into West Berlin. The move “changed her life” but it didn’t dampen her love for science, she told attendees.

In fact, the collapse of what was then a bipolar governance system was probably more closely connected to science than anything else, she said. It was scientific innovation that ushered in electronic communication, without which people would not have been able to learn about the Western world and agitate for change. Scientific innovation also requires a critical mass of free thinking people; such people often fled East Germany or were silenced by the regime, to its own detriment. “In those areas where new ideas are engendered by innovative thinking, it was difficult for the Eastern Bloc countries to keep up,” she said. In other words, they collapsed because they didn’t progress.

Indeed, progress was the most important theme of the conference. Norbert Holtkamp, principal deputy director of the ITER Organization, talked about progress on the tokamak vessel for fusion research; partners have already started constructing parts. Martin Schwab, professor of neuroscience at ETH in Zürich, talked about the potential to help paraplegics walk again; clinical trials are underway that give newly injured patients infusions of an antibody intended to block a protein that stops nerves from regenerating. Franz-Josef Ulm, professor of environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talked about progress on developing concrete that emits only half as much carbon dioxide as traditional concrete. 

For all the walls that have fallen, there was also much talk of the walls that still exist. One barrier to innovative science is the unwillingness of nations to collaborate on projects when collaboration means losing sovereignty. As examples Merkel spoke of the inability of nations to agree on a global plan to halt climate change, and how strong nationalism has interfered with creating a truly unified Europe. “This will not be a global world if we don’t accept global collaboration. Walls can be brought down. We ought to use globalization to talk about the walls of the world and think about how to bring them down,” she said.

Merkel's strong sense of solidarity with the theme of the conference comes as no surprise. She grew up in the former Democratic Republic of Germany and yet managed to win over the hearts of West Germans to be recently elected to a second term. She rose among the ranks of what had been a male-dominated government to become the first female chancellor of Germany. Certainly, she's no stranger to breaking down walls.

Image of people atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989; Sue Ream/Creative Commons