Manfred Eigen grew up in a musical family. Concerts and piano music were a characteristic part of his childhood. At pre-school age, he started to play the piano and practiced intensively, but after a few years, he felt that his enthusiasm for playing music faded, and admitted so to his father, a professional cellist of the Bochum Symphony Orchestra. Much to his surprise, his father accepted his wish, but imposed two conditions. Firstly, he should give up piano playing entirely because tinkling would not be tolerable for his father. Secondly, he should devote the time he would have spent practicing piano playing to other meaningful activities. To the concern of his mother, he established a small laboratory at home, which he extensively used for experimentation: “It was a real laboratory, which my mother was not at all happy with, especially when something exploded yet again”, Manfred Eigen remembered, and so it was initially no problem for him to obey his father’s precept.
However, Manfred Eigen’s passion for music was greater than he thought when making the agreement with his father, possibly also because he was constantly surrounded by music in his parents’ home where chamber concerts regularly took place. He met well-known artists not only at official concerts, but closely and personally at home. These events increasingly strengthened his desire to continue with music, and he secretly started again practicing to finally surprise his father with a special birthday present—to play Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata together with him. His father was so impressed by his son’s talent that he insisted on sending him to a first-rate teacher for piano lessons. Manfred Eigen did what he always does—he brought his piano playing to perfection. As a 12-year-old child, he gave public performances including piano concerts by Bach, Haydn, and Dittersdorf. His future was predetermined towards a career as a pianist!
The Second World War interrupted his dreams. Fifteen-year-old Manfred Eigen had to serve in an anti-aircraft unit with no chance to practice piano playing. When he returned from the war, he therefore decided to follow his second passion—to the great benefit of science as it turned out later—and matriculated at the University in Göttingen, where he became a full-time student of physics. There was only little time left to practice piano for some years until he again devoted time to active piano playing in the late 50s by taking lessons from Rudolf Hindemith, the younger brother of Paul Hindemith, and his wife Maria Landes-Hindemith. Many who participated in workshops and conferences with Manfred Eigen experienced his delightful piano interludes. Two of his piano concerts of Mozart, accompanied by the New Orchestra of Boston under David Epstein and the Basler Kammerorchester under the direction of Paul Sacher, are immortalized on CD.
In one of his concerts in Basel, Sydney Brenner was in the audience, sitting next to a professional pianist. Sydney asked what she thought about the quality of Manfred Eigen’s performance. “Not bad for a chemist” was the answer. That evening, Manfred Eigen told Sydney his ideas about the hypercycle, which he developed together with Peter Schuster, and his quasispecies model. “Not bad for a pianist…” was Sydney’s reaction. Not bad…!
Together with his friend Paul Sacher, Manfred Eigen tried to convince the Max Planck Society’s leadership to establish a kind of “Musik-Bauhaus”, which would connect research in art and science by bringing together renowned scientists and musicians in one institute. This idea was preceded by the “Hinterzartener Kreis”, where he and leading natural scientists of different research areas—including Werner Heisenberg, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, and Konrad Lorenz, the philosophers Georg Picht and Theodor Adorno as well as musicians like the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, and the flutist Aurèle Nicolet—met to discuss the concept. This project failed, since the Max Planck Society decided that Manfred Eigen’s idea should not be realized. Therefore, no surprise, he smiled when the society discussed much later his initial idea again and subsequently founded the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt in 2012. Manfred Eigen’s proposal failed, fortunately for us, because he then devoted all his efforts to establish our institute, the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry.
This brings us back to his scientific roots and the university years of Manfred Eigen. As already mentioned, due to the lack of practice, Manfred Eigen gave up the idea of becoming a professional musician. When he returned from the war, after managing to escape from an American prisoner-of-war camp near Salzburg (Austria), he walked all the way to Göttingen to enroll there in physics and chemistry in 1945. The University of Göttingen was one of the first German universities to open up again after the Second World War. The young student immediately had contact with outstanding scientists: he attended physics lectures by Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Paul; the former was already a Nobel Laureate, the latter would become one.
He completed his diploma thesis with Arnold Eucken, who was so impressed by his outstanding abilities that he proposed that Manfred Eigen should enroll immediately as a doctoral student. He effortlessly measured up to the expectations placed upon him. He was only 24 years of age when he successfully completed his PhD in physical chemistry, subsequently becoming a research assistant at the Institute for Physical Chemistry at the University of Göttingen.
Measuring immeasurably fast reactions
“The rate of true neutralization reactions has proven to be immeasurably fast”. Manfred Eigen had found this quote in Arnold Eucken’s chemistry textbook Lehrbuch der chemischen Physik while preparing for his PhD examination. This book was his “bible of physical chemistry”, but he was then of an age at which one accepts practically nothing without asking critical questions. So he started to reflect on just how fast an immeasurably fast reaction might be. In 1953, he accepted a position as an assistant at the MPI for Physical Chemistry, with Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer as a supervisor and mentor. He turned his attention to the study of extremely fast chemical reactions, focusing on “the immeasurable”.
At that time, chemical reaction rates could be measured down to a thousandth of a second. Convinced that nothing in chemistry was immeasurable and that the problem was simply a matter of unsuitable experimental tools, Manfred Eigen successfully began to develop the so-called relaxation measurement methods. He was fortunate: Leo De Maeyer, who later became a director at the new MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, joined his group and it turned out that he was essential for developing the necessary equipment for measuring ultrafast reactions. The approach involves the perturbation of a system in chemical equilibrium, by sound wave, for example, to then measure the time the system requires to return to its original state of equilibrium. Due to this “trick”, the “immeasurable” became measurable. Manfred Eigen presented his results to the British Faraday Society in 1954, showing that this method made it possible to determine reaction rates at the micro- and nanosecond scale—a scientific sensation! Manfred Eigen’s method solved key issues not only in physical chemistry but also in biochemistry, for example, by allowing an understanding of how enzyme activities are controlled.
In 1958, Manfred Eigen was appointed a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society. Four years later he became head of the Department of Chemical Kinetics at the MPI for Physical Chemistry, and was appointed as director in 1964. His laboratory in Göttingen attracted chemists from all over the world who wanted to investigate ultrafast reactions.
Just about 10 years after measuring the immeasurable, Manfred Eigen’s major scientific breakthrough was honored with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he received together with Ronald G. W. Norrish and George Porter in 1967.