The Story of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics

A virtual dream come true

April 19, 2024

Kuno Kirschfeld, a contemporary witness and a founding Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, still vividly remembers the beginnings of cybernetic research at the Max Planck Society. He shares his memories in this article.

The story begins in the 1940s. During the Second World War, near Berlin, there were two radio stations working for the armed forces, located 200 meters apart. They had to monitor the airspace on behalf of the Air Force. In December 1943, Werner Reichardt, 19 years old, was doing his service at one of the stations; at the other, Bernhard Hassenstein, 21 years old, was stationed. These two met by chance, each one sharing what fascinated him: Reichardt was enthusiastic about physics and mathematics, while Hassenstein was equally enthusiastic about biology. They intensely discussed scientific questions.

Eventually, they decided and promised each other that if they survived this horrible situation, they would create an institute that had never existed before, at least in Germany: an institute of biology combined with physics. That was their dream and the origin of the institute.

By the end of 1944, they lost contact. While Reichardt was working on his PhD at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin with Ernst Ruska, Hassenstein was working on his thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Biology in Wilhelmshaven with Erich von Holst, trying to understand how insects perceive motion.

Foundation of a Cybernetics Research Group

In 1950, they met again and shared what they had been doing in the meantime. In the end, Hassenstein convinced Reichardt that it would be worthwhile to work together on the motion perception problem. Consequently, an intense written exchange between Wilhelmshaven and Berlin occurred, including occasional visits.

After finishing their PhDs, they had to look for new places to continue their work. Hassenstein secured a position at the University of Tübingen at the first chair for Animal Physiology in Germany under the leadership of Franz Peter Möhres.

Max Delbrück, born in Berlin, left Germany in 1937 because the political influence on science had become unbearable for him. Originally a physicist, he switched to biology on the advice of Nils Bohr. He famously said, "Biology is too important to be left to biologists alone."

The second key figure was Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer, Delbrück's brother-in-law and Director of the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen. Bonhoeffer, a chemist, was also fascinated by current developments in neuroscience. To cut a long story short, the interactions and initiatives of these two led to significant developments. Reichardt was able to come to Göttingen to continue his research in Bonhoeffer's department. After Bonhoeffer died in 1957, Hassenstein and Reichardt joined the MPI of Biology in Tübingen to found the Forschungsgruppe Kybernetik in 1958.

The group was led by Werner Reichardt, Bernhard Hassenstein, and Hans Wenking. Wenking, an engineer, developed electronic equipment not yet available on the market at that time. This small group consisted of two postdocs, Karl Götz and Dezsö Varju, and three PhD students: Christoph von Campenhausen, Peter Kunze, and Kuno Kirschfeld—seven scientists altogether. The postdocs and PhD students all achieved top positions in research. It was admittedly easier at that time than now, as the scientific landscape expanded considerably after the war. A classmate of mine at the Chair of Romanistik in Freiburg wrote in his autobiography, "One could escape a chair at a university in those days only by suicide." Our work was overseen by a Scientific Advisory Board, and even the first President of the Max Planck Society, Otto Hahn, attended the board's first visit to Tübingen. Konrad Lorenz also visited our group several times.

Installation of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics

From the beginning, Reichardt had well-established contacts in the USA. At MIT in Boston, biophysicist and neurobiologist Francis O. Schmitt had founded a think tank, the Neuroscience Research Program, and Werner was elected as a member. It was not surprising that Reichardt was offered a full professorship at Caltech in Pasadena as early as 1960. MIT and Bell Laboratories also expressed interest in him. Consequently, the Directors of the MPI for Biology, including Alfred Kühn and Georg Melchers, asked the Max Planck Society to appoint Reichardt as a scientific member and Director of their institute. From 1960 onwards, the Reichardt department was established at the MPI for Biology. 

At the same time, Hassenstein received a call to the chair of zoology at the University of Freiburg. After intense discussions with Reichardt, he decided to accept the call and leave Tübingen. Over the next few years, the Reichardt department grew, acquiring new coworkers and a new building. We worked in various fields, such as the pupil control circuit, the human retina, motion vision in bees and flies, and mechanoreception in insects. We even investigated the complex eye of the horseshoe crab Limulus and the reaction to light from the slime mold Phycomyces.

After a few years, the directors of the MPI for Biology concluded that the Reichardt department had become so large and thematically distinct from the other departments that a separate institute would be sensible. In the meantime, Dezsö Varju had been appointed to a chair in biocybernetics at the University of Tübingen, with whom we maintained close cooperation, especially regarding PhD students. When he was on sabbatical, we replaced him at the university.

Werner often discussed our future with Karl Götz and me, expressing his intention to appoint us as co-directors at the new institute. We decided to focus on one topic: studying the processing of visual information in insects at different levels, including behavior analysis, signal flow within the brain, and the optics of the eye, specifically its resolution. We also explored how light is transformed into electrical neuronal signals after being absorbed by photoreceptors. While Werner, Karl, and I could work on these problems, we lacked competence in understanding the brain structures involved in information processing and behavior generation. Werner knew Valentino Braitenberg, an anatomist from the Cybernetics Institute of Naples, and proposed him for appointment as a fourth director. With these four directors, the institute was founded in 1968.

From the first to the second generation of the institute

Werner retired in 1992. For his farewell party in September 1992, he invited coworkers and friends to an Italian restaurant in the old town. A friend of his, Gunter Stent from Caltech, was scheduled to give a laudatio for Werner. But something unexpected happened. Valentino Braitenberg approached my wife and said that Werner was unwell and asked if she could look after him, knowing that she was an anesthetist. Werner wanted to be taken home. One of Werner's coworkers, Christian Wehrhan, picked up his car, and they both took Werner home.

All hoped Werner would return, but were informed by phone that this was not possible. At the restaurant, they considered whether it would be appropriate under the circumstances for Gunter Stent to give the laudatio. We were certain Werner would have wanted it, so the laudatio was held. We later learned that Werner Reichardt had suffered a severe stroke, from which he died a few days later.

In 1994, Valentin Braitenberg retired. Since Karl Goetz and I retired many years later, we were entitled to suggest appointments for two new Directors. We had to take into account that this would determine the research direction of the institute for the next decades. In fact, the focus of research had already shifted from insects to vertebrates and humans. Therefore, we were looking for scientists in this field.

We realized that a particular research area that had originated in Germany with Weber and Fechner was no longer represented in Germany: psychophysics, which today is a part of Cognitive Sciences. It was not difficult to find an excellent psychophysicist: Heinrich Bülthoff. He did his PhD here in Tübingen and stayed with us for five years. Then he left for the USA, and became Professor of Cognitive Sciences at Brown University in Providence in 1988. We were happy that he accepted the call as a Director here in 1992.

Of course, we also looked for a neurophysiologist. I knew Nikos Logothetis from the literature. We were happy, first, that the Max Planck Society was willing to balance the costs necessary for his appointment, and second, that he was willing to come to Tübingen. So, in 1997, Nikos Logothetis became a Director here. In 2021, Nikos Logothetis left our institute with several of his coworkers and went to an institute in Shanghai, China. Logothetis introduced magnetic resonance imaging here. As you know, a large department of magnetic resonance technology is still active under the direction of Klaus Scheffler. Finally, theory should also be represented by the institute. Bernhard Schölkopf completed the second generation of institute Directors in 2002.

Go to Editor View