Sigmund Freud Prize winner Matthias Glaubrecht about knowledge transfer through literature

On November 4, Matthias Glaubrecht was awarded this year’s Sigmund Freud Prize for his generally understandable presentation of scientific facts in prose texts. © Deutsche Akademie/Andreas Reeg


On November 4, Prof. Dr. Matthias Glaubrecht, Scientific Project Manager of the new Hamburg Natural History Museum called “Evolutioneum”, was awarded this year’s Sigmund Freud Prize for Scientific Prose for his non-fiction books, including books on biodiversity and evolution. In addition, “Die Rache des Pangolin” has been nominated for the Hamburg Literature Prize as non-fiction book of the year. A conversation about the communication of knowledge and the connection between nature and literature.

The Sigmund Freud Prize honors authors who present complicated scientific issues in prose texts in a generally understandable way. Why is it only rarely awarded to natural scientists?

In fact, in all the years since 1964, the prize has only been awarded to four scientists – including Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. It has mostly gone to philosophers such as Peter Sloterdijk or Hans Blumenberg and historians such as Jürgen Osterhammel or Reinhard Koselleck. I am only the third zoologist or evolutionary biologist to receive the award.

It is first and foremost a literary prize – and natural scientists are rarely gifted in literature. However, this is certainly also due to the fact that we usually focus on the facts and findings rather than on the way we communicate them, i.e. how we reach a wider audience and how we make ourselves understood.

In earlier times, the natural sciences were closely linked to the arts. Universal scholars such as Goethe and Humboldt combined natural science and literary writing. What do you think of this literary popularization of science?

This combination of literary writing and natural history research is also problematic from a historical perspective. Goethe was still able to do both. But even Alexander von Humboldt failed when he tried to combine the aesthetics of art and literature with empiricism. If you look closely, specialist colleagues – from Charles Darwin to other contemporaries – thought little of Humboldt’s texts, especially his late work “Cosmos”, which is still unreadable today. Literary scholars still struggle with his sprawling work today, but he never wrote a truly catchy and accessible travelogue.

Humboldt was literally an entire academy – but in his writing, at least, he was anything but the best ‘popularizer’ of science. By contrast, his contemporary Adelbert von Chamisso, who actually led a double existence as a naturalist and a poet, very consciously kept the imagination, which is also needed for literary writing, out of science. However, it is not only the account of his journey around the world, which is still read today, that benefits from his rare literary talent, but also his celebrated poetry from his broad natural history experience.

Even today, science is brought out of the ivory tower – and presented on stage or in the pub. What would have to happen for literature to play a greater role in this knowledge transfer?

It is true: Some colleagues are making ever greater efforts to transfer this knowledge. A lot is happening, but unfortunately this is still frowned upon by many researchers. People continue to turn up their noses at those who leave the narrow circle of experts.

Even if it is debatable whether science slams, for example, make a significant and lasting contribution to improving this transfer of knowledge, communication as a whole is still too neglected. It is without question a difficult business, but in this country it is also promoted far too little in a targeted manner and with the right measures.

This also applies to literature as an instrument of science communication: a double talent like Goethe or Chamisso is rare, but unlike in the USA, for example, there are no regular courses on writing at universities in this country. That would certainly help. And writing would have to be seen as career-enhancing, which is not the case at the moment. In the Anglo-American world, an easy-to-read popular science book is seen as the crowning glory of an academic career. In Germany, on the other hand, there is still far too much separation between the two. And prizes for the transfer of science are a rarity – especially in comparison to the many literary prizes.

What motivated you to become an author of non-fiction books?

My first books were the result of my journalistic work during my studies and doctoral thesis here in Hamburg. For me, however, books are still a timeless and unbeatably great medium for effective and sustainable knowledge transfer – and they don’t have to be dry and boring at all. I see conveying knowledge and insight in an easily readable and accessible form as a positive challenge that I am happy to take on. As an author, you have to be more thorough than with a podcast or blog, for example. And I think that excitingly written non-fiction books are particularly necessary and actually irreplaceable in this day and age, in which many people think they know, but fewer really do.

You are a researcher who communicates science on various levels: As the scientific project manager of a new natural history museum in Hamburg, you are working on an exhibition concept, among other things. What can you already tell us about this?

Hamburg lost its natural history museum, once the second largest of its kind in Germany, in the Second World War, but urgently needs a central place for knowledge transfer again – especially in the increasingly central field of natural history.

With a new museum, we not only want to go far beyond the concept of the current Museum der Natur Hamburg in terms of the exhibition, but also break completely new ground in terms of access to science and research for visitors with innovative elements in the future “Evolutioneum”. Above all, we want to emphasize humans as an important evolutionary factor – as the name of the new museum suggests.

The “Evolutioneum”, which is now being built in Hafencity, is not only intended to develop new forms of knowledge transfer; we also hope to contribute to a better understanding of the importance of preserving nature. We need to reach even more people on this important topic for the future – and get them more interested in and committed to nature.

Sigmund Freud Prize and jury statement
The Sigmund Freud Prize of the German Academy for Language and Poetry is dedicated to the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who succeeded in presenting the complicated facts of his science in a generally understandable way and thus contributed to the popularity of his field of knowledge. According to the jury, Glaubrecht receives the prize for his non-fiction books, such as “The End of Evolution” on the extinction of species or on the natural scientist and poet Adelbert von Chamisso, in which, according to the jury, he provides “well-founded information on the processes of life on our planet in the Anthropocene era”. “In his masterful syntheses of the most diverse areas of knowledge and with his feel for the historical and poetic dimensions of scientific knowledge, he proves to be a brilliant stylist who continues the tradition of natural history prose in an impressive way.”

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