Obituary: Arnold Schmidt

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Arnold Schmidt , a ’founding father’ of ISTA.  ISTA
Arnold Schmidt , a ’founding father’ of ISTA. ISTA

The Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA) in Klosterneuburg mourns the death of physicist Arnold Schmidt, who passed away last Friday at the age of 85. In addition to his career in research, Schmidt held several important positions in Austrian scientific institutions, was a mentor to Nobel Prize winner Ferenc Krausz, and played a key role in the creation of ISTA.

"Arnold Schmidt is a ’founding father’ of ISTA. He is one of the people who have significantly shaped our still young institute," emphasizes ISTA president Martin Hetzer. "His death is a bitter loss for many of his companions at the Institute. Our sincere condolences go out to his family."

Networking, balance and determination

Schmidt was very actively involved in shaping ISTA for many years - before, during, and after the founding of the Institute around a decade and a half ago. As a former FWF President and well-connected physicist, he was a close colleague of Nobel Prize winner Anton Zeilinger, on whose idea ISTA was originally based, and of the former President of the Weizmann Institute Haim Harari, who had a lasting influence on ISTA in its early days. For many years, Schmidt played a decisive role in the recruitment and selection of professors and advised the first president of ISTA, Tom Henzinger.

Members of the Institute who witnessed these times still talk of Schmidt’s important role. "In necessary negotiations and discussions, Schmidt knew when to use his conciliatory talents and when to clearly point out boundaries," summarizes ISTA President Martin Hetzer. "Although at home in physics, he was never interested in focusing the institute entirely on this one discipline. Schmidt was aware that the strength of the institute would lie in its interdisciplinarity-as well as in its independence from politics and business. Only in this way, truly curiosity-driven basic research is possible. We have also Arnold Schmidt to thank for the fact that we at ISTA are now conducting research freely in over 80 research groups across the natural sciences, mathematics, and computer science."

Schmidt himself recognized the gravity of this success, coining the phrase "an Austrian miracle" to describe the Institute’s success, which would later also be quoted by Austrian Federal President Alexander van der Bellen.

Career in Austria, the UK and the USA

Arnold Schmidt (* August 7, 1938 in Vienna, + July 5, 2024) received his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1962, conducted research in Vienna, York and Berkeley. He later returned to Austria to take a position at Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien), becoming a university professor in 1986 and later, head of institute. Schmidt was President of the Christian Doppler Research Association (CDG) from 1988 to 1994, President the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) from 1994 to 2003, eventually becoming the Chairman of its Supervisory Board. His students include the Nobel Prize winner in physics Ferenc Krausz, who described Schmidt as his "guide and mentor."

Arnold Schmidt served the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA) in several capacities, including Deputy Chairman of the Scientific Board from 2007 to 2013, member of the Audit Committee from 2006 to 2019, and most recently, Senior Advisor to the President from 2015 to 2019. The Institute, which opened in 2009 with 37 employees, has now grown to over 1200 employees and more than 80 research groups.