Prof. Dr. Kurt Mehlhorn: Computer science as determining social factor

Computer systems increasingly in­­flu­­ence our lives. They not only form the basis for practically all business processes, but for a long time have also played a significant role in science and technology and over the last decade, impressively so in daily life and entertainment. Today, digital information processing is in­­dis­­pen­­s­­able for practically every area of life. In this way, computer science is a determining social factor.

In addition, computers as well as the related software and networks – prima­­r­­­­ily the global internet – are the most complex structures ever created by the hand of man. Indeed, hardware, and to a far greater extent software, are so complex that they can no longer be understood in all their detail.
This makes computer sys­­tems a powerful and mysterious tool. Both the capabilities and the secrets of computer systems demand their scientific research.


The Max Planck Society has adopted this conviction and founded the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science in 1990. The in­­stitute is subdivided into five de­­part­­ments and currently accommodates approxi­­ma­­tely 200 scientists. The central research object of the ins­­titute is algorithms. An algorithm is a calculation specification – a precise command string for a computer on how it should calculate some­thing. In the department “Algorithms and Com­­plexity” (Prof. Dr. Kurt Mehlhorn) and the research group “Automation of Logic” (Prof. Dr. Christoph Weidenbach), re­­­­sour­­ces such as, for example, the com­­puting time and disk space that an al­­gorithm needs for its calculation, are examined.
Here, not only new algorithms are developed that minimize the demand for computing time and disk space and thus have direct and highly-practical relevance, but also ba­­sic limits of this procedure are highlighted: How much computing time/disk space is generally necessary for a calculation? How can the correct func­­tioning of a programme already be automatically verified in its run-up?

The department “Computer Graphics” (Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Seidel) dedicates itself to computers as instruments for the representation of pictures and films. It thus takes into ac­­count that increasingly a computer does not ma­­nifest itself as an intermediary of num­­bers and text, but above all of pictures and multimedia data.

Also here, the fundamental questions are raised: What is basically doable? And: What resources are required? In this way, a computer is not only used as a producer of pictures, but it should (with the help of suitable algorithms) also “understand” pictures – a duty, which equally presents a great scientific challenge.


The department “Computational Bio­l­o­­gy and Applied Algorithmics” (Prof. Dr. Thomas Lengauer) takes into ac­­count that computers have attained fundamental significance over the past few years in the area of life sciences, particularly for the in­­ter­­pretation of biological data. Com­­pu­­ters are an essential instrument of mo­­dern biology and medicine. The un­­­­derstanding of biological processes on a molecular level is not possible without computers, as, on the one hand, im­­mense amounts of data must be pro­­cessed in modern biology and, on the other, because the complexity of biochemical interactions in living or­­ganisms makes the study of these cycles pointless without the help of a compu­­ter.

Bioinformatic methods are thus a basic element of modern re­­search for the diagnosis and therapy of di­­sease.

Finally, the department “Databases and Information Systems” (Prof. Dr. Gerhard Weikum) particularly dedicates itself to the themes of division, organization and search of data in large computer networks such as the internet.
In this way, aspects of the ef­­fective search for information in networks (search engines like Google are ap­­propriate instruments), the reliabi­­l­­ity of methods in case parts of the network are not accessible, as well as the effective dispensation of computing du­­ties to computing per­­for­­man­­ces as available in the network (for example in peer-to-peer systems) have priority. The practical uses of this research is quite clear: Who has not at some stage wanted to search for pictures with graphic rather than text information or even with difficult que­­ries from the submachine indeed had relevant entries pre­­sented first.

The aim of the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science is to achieve an effect equally through scientific results, soft­­ware and development of the aca­­de­­mic next generation.
The institute manages an active promotion programme for doctorate stu­­dents and post-doctorate students. This be­­gins with taking up the doctorate at the “International Max Planck Re­­search School for Com­­puter Science” and allows for ex­­change with cutting-edge institutions around the world after graduation from the doctorate, via in­­ter­­national co-operation agreements such as the “Max Planck Cen­­ter for Visual Com­­puting and Com­­mu­­nication” (post-doc programme with Stanford Uni­­ver­­sity) and the participation in international re­­search pro­­jects. In result, the young scientists of the institute re­­ceived more than 20 offers of a professorship in- and outside of the country.


autor_kurt-mehlhornProf. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Kurt Mehlhorn studied computer science and mathe­ma­­tics at TU Munich and at Cor­nell University in Ithaca (USA). He has been teaching informatics at Saarland Uni­­ver­­sity since 1990 and has acted as director at the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science in Saarbrücken since 1990. Among other things, he belongs to the Senate of the Max Planck Society and is a member of the Leopoldina Aca­­de­­my.