Disrupting established patterns of thought

Sebastian Bonhoeffer has been Full of Theoretical Biology at ETH Zurich since 20

Sebastian Bonhoeffer has been Full of Theoretical Biology at ETH Zurich since 2005. (Image: Stefan Weiss)

Collegium Helveticum is the joint think tank of ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). Leadership of the organisation is set to change hands in January 2021, with ETH professor Sebastian Bonhoeffer taking over the reins. A biologist and musician, Bonhoeffer has long pursued his passions for science and art. We sat down with him to talk about how he sees his new role. 

ETH News: What motivated you to become Director of Collegium Helveticum?
Sebastian Bonhoeffer: I’ve always found spaces like the Collegium very exciting: places where people find the space to detach themselves a bit from everyday routines and engage in in-depth reflection.

On what issues in particular?
I was expecting this question, but that’s not how I understand my main role - I don’t define what creative people should be thinking about. If you set out too many parameters, you run the risk of limiting people’s thought and creativity. That’s already something we generally do too much of. Of course you need certain guidelines, but for me the Collegium is the ideal place to give people room for creativity. Our topics and issues will be born from the bottom up.

How do you understand your role as the new director?
I would like to create structures to make the Collegium a livelier place, to create an environment where transdisciplinary interactions truly lead to something new. To make this happen, I want to get our academic guests more involved - the ones who, for example, are doing a sabbatical at our sponsor universities. These people are already on a journey - they want to deeply examine new issues and take the time to do so. They’re open for exchange.

Transdisciplinarity is at the core of the Collegium. What was your last important insight that came from another discipline?
The issue that’s on all our minds - the coronavirus crisis - is a very topical example of this. As a member of the Science Task Force, I’ve been working intensively with economists and ethicists. This process made it clear to me that you can only tackle such a complex situation when you take all perspectives into consideration. We see this in infection biology, where developing a vaccine is absolutely critical - but that alone has never ended an epidemic. You also need fields like the social sciences.


The involvement of ZHdK means that the arts are also represented at the Collegium. What can art do that science can’t?
Art speaks to people in a totally different way than science, and in doing so it better encompasses the human being in all its facets. What both fields need - art and science - is creativity. In my experience, it’s very enriching when both fields come together, because it opens up totally new perspectives.

You yourself are both a scientist and a cellist. What does that mean for your new role?
Music has always been my passion, and my training as a cellist has also had some influence on how I am as a scientist. That doesn’t mean I’m writing better articles, but for me, music is a source of inspiration, and it’s sharpened my awareness of what’s possible from internal motivation alone. When intrinsic interest and passion collide with an open, inspiring environment, great things can happen. Hopefully this is also true of the Collegium Helveticum.

Why do we need the Collegium Helveticum?
I could give a lot of answers here, but I’ll limit myself to two. Firstly, it’s important for everyone to step out of their hamster wheel a bit in order to gain a new perspective. That might sound like a luxury, but I’m convinced that this ultimately raises productivity, especially in creative and academic lines of work. This is backed up to a considerable degree by people’s experiences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, for instance.
Secondly, I think that’s there increasingly less space in society for open debate. By open debate I mean you go into a discussion with one view and come out with another. The Collegium is interdisciplinary in the best way possible. It explicitly wants to disrupt established patterns of thought.

And how do you achieve that?
It’s a question of culture. Do you allow opposing views? And what do you do with those views? You shouldn’t judge people based on where they enter a debate, rather from where they are at the end of the process.

What kind of external impact should the Collegium Helveticum have?
Even though we have highly talented people here in Zurich, I’d like for the Collegium to strengthen its international relationships. Zurich also needs an outside perspective. But of course, we need to do outreach to bring our work to the public. We’ve always had exhibitions and events intended for the public, but in the future it would be nice to have them on a somewhat larger scale. All in all, the Collegium should make Zurich even more attractive - maybe as a city of artists and thinkers?

Isn’t that a little elitist?
Elitism can imply that you close yourself off and exclude others, which is not something I’m interested in. The doors of the Collegium are open to everyone interested in interdisciplinary exchange. Dealing with things intensively and in depth, things where there’s maybe not a use or purpose that’s immediately apparent, has never been a mainstream phenomenon, however. If you think back to the salons of the 19th and 20th century, where people were meeting and inspiring each other, you recognise what massive cultural and intellectual value spaces like these have.

What would you consider a success?
Not every achievement can be quantified or measured. For me, it would be a success if people who meet at the Collegium find the experience to be enriching, and if the interactions that take place there have a long-term impact on their thoughts, actions and ways of working.

About Sebastian Bonhoeffer

Sebastian Bonhoeffer was born in Tübingen, Germany, in 1965. After studying music in Basel, he studied physics in Munich and Vienna. He did his doctoral studies at Oxford’s Department of Zoology under Martin Nowak and Robert May. Bonhoeffer has been Full Professor of Theoretical Biology at ETH Zurich since 2005. His research and teaching concerns the dynamics of infectious diseases, which is why his expertise has been in high demand during the coronavirus pandemic. Bonhoeffer lives in Zurich. He is married to a musician and has two daughters.

Collegium Helveticum

The Collegium Helveticum was founded by ETH Zurich in 1997 as a forum for dialogue between the sciences. The first director of the organisation was author and ETH professor Adolf Muschg. The Collegium Helveticum has been sponsored by both ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich since 2004. ZHdK became a partner in 2016. The goal of the Collegium Helveticum is to foster mutual understanding between the humanities and social sciences, the natural sciences, engineering, medical science and the arts. As the only institute of its kind in Switzerland, the Collegium Helveticum aims to create intellectual space beyond the mainstream and the established paradigms within disciplines.

Franziska Schmid