Republic of Poland

Honorary doctorate for prof. Wolfgang Keller

November 14, 2018

An honorary doctorate is the highest distinction any scientist can receive, but it is often said to be also an obligation. How is it in your case?

It is both. First of all it is a extraordinary honour to be awarded the title of a doctor honoris causa at the end of my professional career. This is emotional very moving. This honour also strengthens the long lasting links between myself and the colleagues from WUELS. In the coming summer term I will give lectures about Digital Signal Processing and Wavelet Analysis at the WUELS in the framework of the DAAD Gottfried Herder program.

You have been cooperating with the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences for a long time. Do you remember the beginnings of the cooperation? What has it given you and what has the University received from you?

As I have already mentioned the relationship tot he WUELS has a long history. It started already during my time at the Technical University Dresden. In this time Prof. Andrzej Borkowski did his PhD in Dresden and a personal friendship developed. Based on this friendship, a scientific cooperation arose. We worked on joint research projects both in Wroclaw as well as in Stuttgart. A number of publications originated from this cooperation.

I also spent my sabbatical at WUELS. In this time I gave a lecture about Wavelets. This gave me the opportunity to advertise fort he Stuttgart International Master Program GEOENGINE. A considerable number of Wroclaw students finished this program. Some of them are now well recognised scientist and one Wroclaw student even won the very prestigious German Grant.


When you came here for the first time what did you know about our city and the University? What is your current view of Wrocław and your colleagues at WUELS?

I do not remember the date of my first visit in Wroclaw. It must have been at the end of the 1990ies. Of course Wroclaw was not alien to me. I grew up in a village close to Dresden meaning that we were almost neighbours. About WUELS I only knew that it existed. Now that I have been several times in Wroclaw I could observe the development of Wroclaw to an enchanting city. Especially, in spring with the blossoming chestnut trees on the islands of the Odra river, the city has a heartbreaking charm.

As much as the city itself changed within these years the relationship to the WUELS colleagues remained unchanged. I was always warmly welcomed and immediately felt at home here.

Do you believe that the era of competition in science has ended and an era of cooperation has begun? Is it still the individual success of one genius that counts or are we heading towards teamwork which bases on exchanging information rather than jealously guarding it?

Scientific competition is indispensable. Only in the contest about the best ideas scientific progress is possible. Nowadays this competition is not between individual researchers but between scientific groups. The growing complexity of our field necessitate the cooperation of a number of people to tackle the problems at hand.

Each of this groups develops ist own technology and infrastructure for the solution of complex problems and by  comparison of the outcomes of different technologies the results can be validated.

Nevertheless, this also has a drawback. Once a scientific technology has been developed, it will be applied again and  again, leading to a large number of papers an PhD theses. This also contributes to the scientific progress, but only gradually.

Therefore, from time to time a change of paradigms is necessary. To look at the problems from a different angle and to obtain new insights. Those changes of paradigms are mostly initiated by individual researchers instead by  groups of them.

There is a common perception linking satellites to espionage and television, however, they have also given completely new research possibilities to scientists, especially those dealing with Earth science. How do you evaluate the contribution of technology to the development of science? What have the satellites given us? How have they changed the state of our knowledge and what new possibilities have they opened for scientists?

The development of geodesy in the last decades was triggered by two technologies: computers and satellites. In the pre-satellite area we got our knowledge only point-wise and sparsely distributed over the continents . From the oceans we almost knew nothing.

Satellite technologies like altimetry, SAR-imaging and most of all GPS changed the situation dramatically. Of course, from the beginning GPS was a military technology, but it is the merit of the geodetic community to enhance the accuracy level of this technology by several orders of magnitude.

Other technologies like SAR imaging and altimetry were developed for  different communities and not explicitly for Geodesy. But the usage of these technology for geodetic purposes brought up a fruitful cooperation with other disciplines. An thanks to this cooperation satellite technology, we nowadays have a detailed insight in the dynamic of the Earth and we can really measure how dramatic the consequences of climate change are and what will happen to our planet if this change cannot be stopped.

How, in your opinion, can the developing techniques of Earth observation, together with Big Data/Data Mining technologies, change the functioning of national economies, particularly in the areas of farming and extraction of natural resources?

Satellite technologies have already changed our daily life considerably. Think only of car-, ship- or even hikers navigation. Think of precise farming or deformation monitoring by interferometric SAR. This influence will increase in the years to come. Autonomous cars are only one issue. There will be more applications than we can imagine at the moment.

Regarding big-data and deep-learning  I am a bit sceptical. Both technologies are so-called data-driven technologies and they hope to find answers in the data without any underlying models. In some fields they will be beneficial: Classification of data, finding correlations between data. But they are no universal problem solvers as it is sometimes anticipated.

How will the access to these data influence the competition between national economies? Will it help to reduce economic disproportions between countries or can it rather increase them?

Data in itself is neither good nor evil. It depends on its usage. Of course environmental, hydrological or subsidence data, which is delivered by satellites, can show, what has to be done to reduce disproportions. But the necessary actions can only be carried out by international cooperation. And in this respect the recent political constellation gives only  little hope.

To what extent can the knowledge obtained with the satellites used for Earth observation help us to prepare for space colonization? Could the available technologies be easily implemented on orbits of other planets in our Solar System or do they need to be intensively developed?

The short answer would be: no. Of course, gravity field modelling by geodetic techniques can and were already applied fort he navigation of orbiters and landers to cosmic objects. Think only oft he Rosetta mission. But colonization is confronted with much more serious technological, ethical and legal question that Geodesy plays only a subordinate role.