He loves electrobeats as much as electrochemistry: Rainer Waser does not fit into any pigeonhole. The director of a Peter Grünberg Institute at Forschungszentrum Jülich and professor at RWTH Aachen University is both a visionary and a tinkerer – someone who looks beyond the boundaries of individual subjects, who gets carried away, whose enthusiasm is infectious and who puts his energy into more than just research. The 67-year-old has never been one to miss out on joy and fun.
His first chemistry laboratory in Heusenstamm was closed against his will. At that time, the spark not only literally ignited in his parents’ basement, but also in his mind: 15-year-old Rainer Waser wanted to become a chemist. After the unintended real-life “spark”, however, he had to promise his parents that he would not open his “basement lab” again until he actually studied chemistry. “That’s what I started doing in 1974,” the 67-year-old recalls. He reopened the lab one room further – in the slightly larger basement toilet. “I had water and electrical connections right there.” For many years, the now internationally networked scientist experimented within these four walls. He tinkered, drilled and built test stands as well as electronic systems such as amplifiers and loudspeakers. “I poured all my pocket money into this,” says Waser and smiles – something the director of the Peter Grünberg Institute likes to do a lot: his motto is “research with pleasure”.
Boundary-crossing and new interdisciplinary thinking
The anecdote from Waser’s youth reveals a lot about the successful natural scientist and engineer, who received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize in 2014 for his research on resistive switches as memory in information technology. Waser is someone who likes to consider disciplines anew, who is not afraid to cross boundaries, and who leads his team with confidence and assurance, always looking for new challenges and solutions – in the service of science and society: “Interesting research often takes place at the interfaces of disciplines,” Waser sums up.
The best example of this is his research on memristive devices. These have properties similar to nerve cells in the human brain and are therefore considered a promising basis for neuromorphic circuits. They could be used to build energy-efficient computers modelled on the brain, such as those needed for AI applications. Waser had discovered how the components function at the atomic level and thus laid the foundation for their technical use.
“Interesting research often takes place at the interfaces of disciplines.”
Always ahead of his time
Sounds futuristic, but the father of two and patchwork father of four has always been a bit ahead of his time: for his doctorate at the Technical University of Darmstadt in the early 1980s, he built a fully automatic, computer-controlled test bench. “It’s standard today, but there was nothing like that back then,” says Waser. He had a Z 80 sent to him from England, where he spent two semesters abroad as a scholarship holder of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation in Southampton and published his first paper. “The computer consisted of one huge circuit board and a thousand individual parts – and had no screen or memory,” he recalls. The doctoral researcher even had to write the software himself, in assembler code. He did not waste a single thought on failure. In the end, all that was missing was an electrochemical measuring system, a so-called potentiostat, supposed to cost DM5,000 – money that the institute could not afford. Waser bet his doctoral supervisor Konrad Georg Weil a meal that he would succeed in building the device himself within a week. The doctoral supervisor lost. “I hardly slept and kept drilling, soldering and measuring around the clock in my basement lab. I exposed the boards with my mother’s sunlamp. Sounds a bit crazy, I guess,” says Waser. He even integrated a screen into the measuring stand – namely his grandmother’s discarded black-and-white television. In Waser’s life, nothing is impossible. When talking about his research, his enthusiasm is irresistible – always with a quiet smile or grin, polite, never pushy, but full of energy and drive.
These days, Waser is concentrating on the preparation of the 2nd Neuromorphic Day on 30 August 2023 at Jülich, and he is one step ahead in planning an international conference on the topic in Aachen for June 2024. He is already exuberant: “We bring together interdisciplinary communities that haven’t had much to do with each other so far. These include our Jülich memristive memory for neuromorphic computing and neuroscience and the computer science from Aachen with its AI Center. That’s where I want to drive exchange further,” says Waser.
However, his love of electrochemistry and physics is not the end point of his enthusiasm. For example, he used the time between leaving school and starting at university to attend lectures in Frankfurt and Darmstadt: quantum mechanics, philosophy and music theory – the inquisitive young Waser took it all in, “even if a lot of it was way beyond my level of knowledge at the time”. En passant, he wrote a paper on the sociology of music, which later won an award at the European level. For music in and of itself: here, too, Waser cannot be pigeonholed. The man, almost 1.90 metres tall, listens to medieval sounds as well as metal, classical music, electronic beats or world music. When he sits at his computer in his office at home in Aachen, he always listens to music. One of his most memorable musical experiences: a visit to Belgium’s Tomorrowland festival in 2015, a mecca for techno and rave fans – at the age of 59. “Fantastic!”, he still raves today. When he celebrated his 60th birthday a few months later, the festival with its fairytale ambiance served as a template for him. “First there were many great scientific lectures, and later there was dancing, dressed up to the motto ‘60 Years of Craziness’ – research with pleasure,” says the professor of electronic materials.
Easy-going and aiming at 100
2024 will mark the official the end. He is placid about his “after work” time: “After all, no one is stopping me from continuing. But I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.” In any case, he wants to devote more time to philosophy. “There are also more fitness activities on the agenda,” says Waser, who has a hang-gliding licence, goes skiing and roller-skating. At the moment, he limits himself to a few minutes of trampolining in his own house – to music, of course: “In a minimum of time, I deliberately bring my pulse up to 130 once a day. That’s healthy and goes easy on the joints.” Efficient training leaves him more time for his work. Extreme sports like base jumping or sky diving fascinate him, but he no longer wants to do them as the risk of injury is too great – and so is the risk to his long-term goal: when he turns 100, he wants to throw a big birthday party where he chooses the music and dances. “With the help of an exoskeleton, if necessary,” says Rainer Waser and smiles. One can bet he will, too.
About Rainer Waser: Born in Darmstadt on 16 September 1955, Rainer Waser studied chemistry at the Technical University of Darmstadt, where he also completed his doctorate after a research stay in Southampton. He then worked in industry for eight years before being appointed professor by the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at RWTH Aachen University in 1992. Since 1997, he has also been the director of the Peter Grünberg Institute for Electronic Materials (PGI-7) at Forschungszentrum Jülich. He is considered one of the most cited representatives of his fields of research. His current research is focused on making storage elements smaller and thus more energy efficient. In 2014, he was awarded the German Research Foundation’s Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, the most important and most highly endowed research funding prize in Germany. Among other things, he succeeded in obtaining the structural change project “NEUROTEC” to develop, together with companies and research institutions in the Rhineland Region, basic technologies for neuromorphic computing and other alternative concepts to conventional computer technology. The project entered its second phase at the end of 2021 and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research with €36.5 million until 2026.