Where past meets future: the Werner Reichardt Symposium

Celebrating a founding father of biological cybernetics

April 22, 2024

On April 19, 2024, the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics commemorated the scientific work of its founding director Werner Reichardt with a symposium marking the centenary of his birth. The meeting celebrated Reichardt’s pioneering work in the fields of vision science and what is now known as computational neuroscience. Over 140 participants attended the wide range of talks, which covered both history and modern research.

An opportunity to look backwards and forwards, the symposium remembered Reichardt’s trajectory and his seminal ideas, but also covered new developments and hypotheses.
Werner Ernst Reichardt’s life is inextricably entwined with both the history and the scientific developments of the 20th century. Born in 1924 in Berlin, he developed an interest in physics early in life. Being drafted into the air force at the age of 17 and deployed in a technical unit, he joined a resistance group trying to establish radio contact with the Western Allies. Found out by the Gestapo, Reichardt was sentenced to death, but managed to escape and hid until the end of the war.
It was already during his military service that he had met a friend who would prove pivotal for his later scientific career: the biologist Bernhard Hassenstein. Reichardt realized that Hassenstein’s experiments on the visual systems and flight orientation of insects could be formalized in a similar way to electronics experiments, leading to the development of interdisciplinary theories of motion perception.

A virtual dream come true

This convergence of biological and physical-technical thinking contributed to the establishment and eventual institutionalization of the budding field of biological cybernetics in Western Germany: In 1958, Reichardt, Hassenstein, and the physicist Hans Wenking founded the cybernetics research group at the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Tübingen. Ten years later, the department was transformed into an independent institute: the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics – “a virtual dream come true”, as Reichardt’s long-time colleague Kuno Kirschfeld called it in his historical review at the symposium. Reichardt’s personal contacts and engaging personality helped to quickly establish the young institute as an important scientific center for neuroscientists from all over the world.
Reichardt contributed seminal concepts, results and methods to the nascent field of biological cybernetics. His own research focused on information processing in the nervous system of insects, with a particular emphasis on motion perception. Many lectures at the symposium impressively demonstrated that Reichardt's ideas are still fruitful in the present: the synthesis of technical and biological thinking and a focus on vision research in the model organism fruit fly, both deeply rooted in the tradition of Reichardt's thinking, characterized the day.
Reichardt died in 1992 in Tübingen at the age of 68 after collapsing at the end of a conference in his honor. The radiance of his ideas continues to this day and is unforgotten. The present-day symposium illustrated that many colleagues are still building on them, successfully continuing the field of research.


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