Herlinde Koelbl’s Fascination with Scientists

Avi Loeb
4 min readFeb 28, 2023
From left to right: Physics Nobel laureate Wolfgang Ketterle, German Consul General to New England Sonja Kreibich, astrophysicist Avi Loeb, photographer Herlinde Koelbl, MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden, executive director of MIT’s Koch Institute Jane Wilikinson and the MIT Museum curator Gary van ZanteGoethe Institut, Boston; February 27, 2023).

It is often said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Herlinde Koelbel’s pictures are worth a million words.

In a special event organized by the German Consul General to New England last night at the Goethe Institut in Boston, Herlinde described her fascination with the humans behind her photography. Over the past five decades, she photographed holocaust survivors, the living rooms of ordinary Germans, the scientist turned Chancellor Angela Merkel, soldiers trained to kill, and most recently: scientists.

Herlinde’s latest book of photos and interviews is titled: “Fascination of Science”. It features interviews and photographs of 60 leading scientists that she handpicked from around the world after a thorough review of background information.

I was surprised and honored when Herlinde showed up in my Harvard office in 2018 and asked me to participate in her collection of scientists. After interviewing me for a few hours, she handed me a black marker and asked me to write down on the palm of my hand the scientific item that I regard as most important. It was obvious to me that this choice must include a question mark, since our scientific knowledge is an island in an ocean of ignorance. I marked the question that holds the potential of revolutionizing the future of humanity: “Are We Alone?”

Herlinde’s exhibit of sixty science portraits took place first in October 2020 at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities, and since then traveled to Kyoto, Japan and to Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT Press will publish in August 2023 the English translation of Herlinde’s book “Fascination of Science”, including all photos and interviews of the sixty scientists that she met. “Each individual scientist was different in the way they put out their hand and what they study, but a common thread is that they are independent creative thinkers”, Herlinde commented last night.

Yesterday’s event featured a panel composed of three of Herlinde’s handpicked scientists from the Cambridge area, namely the two MIT professors: neuroscientist Ed Boyden and Physics Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Ketterle, and myself.

During the discussion with the audience, Herlinde was kind to mention that she was intrigued by my unusual upbringing on a farm in Israel. I thanked her and added a footnote that what defines me is not only where I came from but also where I wish to go in the future: interstellar space.

Becoming a scientist made me realize that we are all citizens of the Universe. Finding evidence for a sentient partner from interstellar space will give a cosmic meaning to our terrestrial existence that transcends the lifeless constituents of elementary particles, radiation, stars and galaxies, that cosmologists focused on so far.

The three panelists were asked whether photography plays an important role in their disciplines. I replied in the affirmative. As a member of the first science advisory board to what became the Webb Space Telescope three decades later, I am proud of its deepest images of the first galaxies in the Universe, especially if they were to offer surprises compared to predictions from my textbook “The First Galaxies in The Universe”. As the founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, I am proud of the black hole images derived in its conference room. And as head of the Galileo Project, I am proud of the new images that its first observatory is currently taking of the sky. Photography guides the way astronomers make sense of our cosmic neighborhood.

In the future, I noted that science may be pursued by artificial intelligence (AI) and so Herlinde’s next exhibit may have to focus on interviews and photographs of computers.


Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".