Professor Werner Blau resides in an office behind the Schrödinger theatre, nestled on the top floor of the Physics Fitzgerald building, where the famous Austrian physicist, himself, once sat during his time at Trinity. In a scientific community increasingly concerned with publishing papers and funding, along with which promotions are harder and harder to achieve, this accomplished Trinity lecturer obtained a Masters in Physics and Music, followed by a PhD, before becoming a Professor and Head of the Physics Department for 15 years. He is currently celebrating his 35th anniversary working in Trinity, whilst raising a family and developing his interest in music.
“This accomplished Trinity lecturer obtained a Masters in Physics and Music, followed by a PhD, before becoming a Professor and Head of the Physics Department for 15 years.”
One Christmas in Regensburg, Germany, a 13-year-old Werner Blau was given a present by his elder step-sister: an experimental set. Following the success of this gift, each year he was given a new set: first electrical, then chemical, then optical. The gifts were his first exposure to the world of science, which also taught him an important lesson in scientific practice: although he built the sets by closely following the instructions, they didn’t always work out the way they were supposed to. Soon after, his family pre-empted the beginning of the school year and bought his textbooks at the start of the summer. Hence, Prof Blau had access to a book on foundation physics, intended for four years of learning in school. He read it during the holidays, went to the library and found more scientific books to read. By the time classes had begun, he already had a solid background in physics.
“Although he built the sets by closely following the instructions, they didn’t always work out the way they were supposed to.”
When considering where to carry out his undergraduate degree, Prof Blau had to choose between staying in his hometown or travelling approximately 100km to Munich. In order to stay close to his family, he attended the newly opened Regensburg University, where he obtained his diploma in Physics and Music in 1979, equivalent to a bachelors and research masters. He went on to research in Nuremberg, Germany, where he built magnets for use in the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). He also worked on superconductivity and magnetic levitation trains which, 30 years later, are now running in Shanghai. But the hierarchical organisation in Nuremberg did not appeal to Prof Blau. The colour of one’s lab coat dictated their rank, and promotions were next to impossible.
So, in order to guarantee himself a few years of steady income for his young family, he accepted a three-year scholarship for a PhD position in Regensburg University. His supervisor gave him more and more experiments to carry out as the deadline for his thesis grew near. In the end, he had only six weeks to write it, first by hand. He paid the secretary of the lab to type it up and described the process of proofreading it: identifying mistakes, retyping corrections, cutting them out and gluing them down – very different to the ease with which students can edit their work on computers nowadays. Following this, he had his PhD defence – a public exam in Germany. His friends, colleagues and family watched as he was grilled by six examiners. “When you pass, it’s a great day,” he said, and he did.
In October 1983, intrigued by the excitement of living in a different country, Prof Blau travelled to Ireland with his wife and four-year-old son. He had applied for a job working for Prof Daniel Bradley in the newly-founded laser physics department in Trinity. Sadly, only weeks later, Prof Bradley was unable to continue work due to being unwell and Prof Blau had to choose once again: to stay in Trinity or move once more? He decided to stay, and in 1986 he was offered a permanent lecturer position. Rather than uprooting his wife, son and 18-month old daughter, he accepted the offer.
“Working in Trinity in the physics department is a nice atmosphere,” he commented. “It’s very friendly and productive.” In 1988, some of his colleagues hinted that he should go to Front Square on Trinity Monday, where the Provost would announce his fellowship. “They don’t just tell you you’re going to get the fellowship,” he said, laughing. “They just say, ‘You’d better be there!’” Prof Blau became an Associate Professor in 1991 and became Research Director of the TCD Advanced Polymer Research Centre in 1992. He gradually climbed the ranks, not only in Trinity but abroad; he serves as an adjunct professor in the University of Houston and a high-end foreign expert at Shanghai Institute of Optics and Mechanics. Today, he is Trinity’s chair in physics of advanced materials.
In the last five to ten years, Prof Blau has started to look at similar processes to the subject of his PhD: the non-linear response of dyes to high intensity laser pulses. New nanomaterials and interesting modern laser technology have allowed him to approach this subject in a new way. He mentions the state-of-the-art technology at Trinity, including the femtosecond laser in the CRANN, and the diverse applications of laser research, from medical uses to safety devices. In 35 years, he has supervised over 100 PhD students, including Trinity’s professors Jonathon Coleman and Valeria Nicolosi. His students have gone on to work or do research across the globe from Singapore to Australia, including “a whole clan in DIT”. Prof Blau uses Facebook and LinkedIn “largely to keep in touch with these students,” he said. He commented, on his 1998 paper on the interaction of carbon nanotubes with polymers, co-written by Prof Coleman and his team, that it is his favourite article to date. This paper produced a patent which Trinity licensed to an American company, Unidym Inc., leading to research on a new area of physics. He is a co-inventor of a total of 14 patents. According to ResearchGate, his research has been cited approximately 23,000 times.
“He is a co-inventor of a total of 14 patents. According to ResearchGate, his research has been cited approximately 23,000 times.”
When asked which he preferred, being a student or a teacher, Prof Blau was certain that being a teacher was more enjoyable. He described the reality of being a student: the repetition of experiments, the data analysis and the boredom whilst waiting for capacitors to load when he was carrying out his PhD. He believed the most challenging step in becoming a professor was persevering when the weariness of routine kicked in. In order to tackle this, he plays the piano at home to de-stress. He waved to the many Goethe-Institut Choir posters covering the walls of his office, in which he plays the organ, sings, and conducts. His interest in music is shared by his family – he explained how they sing together weekly.
“University is the freest time in your life, freest mentally and time-wise,” he said. To students starting out in Trinity, he recommends that they enjoy the mental freedom university provides, to befriend fellow students, join societies, and to read outside the designated coursework in order to understand your subject in a wider sense. “If you’re in university as a professor, you never grow old,” he said, chuckling, “it’s the students who get younger.”