Zebras and Covid

The Coronavirus Council of Experts advises the German federal government. Meet here one of its members: Viola Priesemann

Viola Priesemann of the Coronavirus Expert Council
Viola Priesemann of the Coronavirus Expert Council Imago

The German federal government is advised in many important areas by experts in science and research. We introduce you to the most important persons and committees. Here Viola Priesemann, member of the Coronavirus Expert Council.

Zebras. Often, when journalists meet the physicist to learn more about her and her research, the conversation turns to the animals with the black and white striped fur. Because the fact that these patterns emerge at all has to do with complex mathematics, with the way two chemical substances interact with one another inside the animals. And this is exactly what has fascinated Viola Priesemann since her student days: how it is possible to get to the bottom of the riddles of our seemingly chaotic world with the precise language of mathematics?

What do zebras have to do with mathematics and the coronavirus?
What do zebras have to do with mathematics and the coronavirus? Imago

This is also how we can understand why Priesemann, who has been head of the "Theory of Neural Systems" research group at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen since 2016, became interested in the spread of the coronavirus at the beginning of 2020. Her speciality is modelling information processing in the human brain. And corona and brain research have something in common. In both cases, it is a matter of drawing conclusions with great difficulty about the big picture from a small, well-observed part.

The physicist is regarded as a coronavirus expert

The 39-year-old scientist studied physics at the Technical University of Darmstadt and worked under the brain researcher Wolf Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main. Priesemann continually adapts mathematical models developed by her team in Göttingen for the study of neurons to coronavirus case number modelling. She has long since made herself heard in policy questions and is regarded as an important coronavirus expert on talk shows.

Priesemann loves interdisciplinary work. During her time in Frankfurt, she organised salons with friends from philosophy, sociology and economics to study the financial crisis. After the pandemic, she would like to revive the meetings and discuss new complex phenomena - such as the concentration of power. And so to make her contribution to their understanding. "Black is power, white is powerlessness – how do they mix, what patterns do they form?" is how the weekly newspaper Die Zeit put the question. A new zebra riddle for Priesemann.

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