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Feb 26 2018

German Research Foundation funds new Koselleck project at Goethe University Frankfurt: Professor Thomas Ede Zimmermann on the quest for new methods for analysing sentences

A linguist ready to take risks

FRANKFURT. January 2018 saw the launch at Goethe University Frankfurt of a further Koselleck project funded by the German Research Foundation. The project, headed by professor and linguist Thomas Ede Zimmermann, deals with “Propositionalism in Linguistic Semantics”. Through its Koselleck funding line, the German Research Foundation aims to support researchers with bold ideas who are ready to take risks.

How do we humans understand linguistic content? That sense is not the outcome just of single words is presumably common knowledge. Formal semantics investigate the role played by grammar in imparting meaning. Professor Thomas Ede Zimmermann and his team aim now to investigate the underlying theoretical principles by means of a critical analysis of what is known as the “propositionalist hypothesis”. This hypothesis assumes that any reference to linguistic content is ultimately based on clausal embedding in grammar. More liberal intensionalist approaches, by contrast, build on the assumption that information content in principle corresponds to all types of expression. “We anticipate that the propositionalist hypothesis – depending on how precisely it is defined – will prove either to be trivial for formal reasons or empirically inadequate,” says Zimmermann. Ultimately, the aim is also to find alternatives to propositionalism. Whether this can be achieved remains to be seen. The German Research Foundation has placed a total budget of € 1.25 million at the project’s disposal up until the end of 2022.

What plays an especially important role in the project is the difference between extensional and intensional grammatical constructions. Extensional constructions are characterized by the fact that co-referring names and descriptions within them can be substituted without compromising the accuracy of the overall statement. Relative clauses, which another of Zimmermann’s research groups has been studying in depth for many years, are an example of such extensional constructions. For example, the sentence ‘The conman, who is from Wiesbaden, is on the run’ cannot become incorrect if the word ‘Wiesbaden’ is replaced by ‘Hessen’s capital city’. Attaching object clauses to attitude verbs such as ‘know’ or ‘think’ is an intensional construction: In the sentence ‘Fred knows that the conman is from Wiesbaden’, substituting the place name is not necessarily legitimate because Fred might have wrong ideas (or no idea at all) about Hessen’s capital city. According to Zimmermann, this distinction between extensional and intensional constructions is pivotal: Whilst the first type of construction can be captured by simple set-theoretic means, the second type demands much more sophisticated methods of information processing.

Intensional constructions typically involve (complete or incomplete) sentences, as in the case of object clause attachment mentioned above. According to a highly influential tradition, this is no coincidence: According to propositionalist analyses, intensionality is always a result of clausal embedding, to which apparent counterexamples can be attributed through suitable paraphrases.

In fact, in formal semantics, such constructions are often treated as underlying clausal embedding. The propositionalism project now underway in Frankfurt devotes itself to the general question of the extent to which the propositionalist strategy can be applied to any kind of intensional construction in arbitrary languages.

The project is not, however, confined to detecting and analysing potential counterexamples. According to Zimmermann, the risk - which is a typical characteristic of Koselleck projects - lurks above all in theory development, since previous attempts in this direction have shown that by the use of algebraic coding methods apparent counterexamples can be reformulated in such a way that they fulfil the propositionalist hypothesis at least in letter. What is needed in order to get to the bottom of this is interdisciplinary expertise in the areas of linguistics, logic, and philosophy of language, which the project manager and his (initially) four assistants as well as a whole number of international collaborators are able to contribute.

The Koselleck project is already the fifth at Goethe University Frankfurt. According to the German Research Foundation, the funding programme, which was launched in 2008, “enables outstanding researchers with a proven scientific track record to pursue exceptionally innovative, higher-risk projects”. The programme is named after Reinhart Koselleck who died in 2006. He was one of the most prominent historians of the 20th century and a founder of modern social history in Germany.


Further information: Professor Thomas Ede Zimmermann, Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Modern Languages, Norbert-Wollheim-Platz 1 (Westend Campus), Tel.: +49 (0)69 798-32394, email; URL:


Feb 2 2018

ACE syndrome caused by pathological protein aggregates/Research lays groundwork for causal therapies

Cause of severe genetic disease identified

FRANKFURT. Mutations in the p63 protein lead to a number of disorders, but none is as severe as the AEC syndrome. Scientists at Goethe University Frankfurt in collaboration with a research group from the University of Naples Federico II have now discovered that this syndrome resembles diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or ALS more closely than it does other p63-based syndromes. Their results, which were recently published in the scientific journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS), lay some groundwork for the development of new therapies.

The origin of many diseases lies in genetic abnormalities that result in malfunctions in the proteins they are encoding. A well-known und extensively studied example is p53, the tumour suppressor protein. Inactivation of p53 is one of the first stages in the development of a tumour. Mutations in the homologous protein p63, however, lead to a group of syndromes characterised by defects in embryonic development.

The transcription factor p63 functions in the stem cells of the upper skin (epidermis) and regulates their development and proliferation. Mutations in a certain part of the protein are responsible for the life-threatening disorder ankyloblepharon-ectodermal dysplasia-clefting (AEC), which is characterised, for example, by cleft palate and long-lasting skin erosions similar to severe burns. Some symptoms can be remedied or alleviated through surgery, but so far an approach to treat the cause has not been possible due to a lack of knowledge about the mutated p63 molecules.

The mutations that cause the AEC syndrome cluster in two domains of the p63 protein and do not overlap with those of the other syndromes associated to it. Since these domains are known to be a platform for protein-protein interactions, it has to date been assumed that the disorder is triggered through a loss of those interactions.

“Instead, we were able to show that mutations within p63 expose hydrophobic amino acid sequences that attach to each other in the cell and form large unstructured complexes. This leads to the loss of p63’s function as a stem cell factor,” explains Professor Volker Dötsch from the Institute of Biophysical Chemistry at Goethe University Frankfurt. Similar types of protein aggregates also cause other diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS.

A wide variety of biochemical, biophysical and cell biological methods as well as a mouse model of the disorder were necessary to decipher this novel mechanism in detail. A success that was only possible thanks to close and interdisciplinary collaboration with the research group led by Professor Caterina Missero at the University of Naples Federico II. The researchers were also able to show that p63 regains its activity once the formation of aggregates is blocked. The research therefore opens up promising new avenues for treating the causes of the AEC syndrome.


Claudia Russo, Christian Osterburg, Anna Sirico, Dario Antonini, Raffaele Ambrosio, Julia Maren Würz, Jörg Rinnenthal, Marco Ferniani, Sebastian Kehrloesser, Birgit Schäfer, Peter Güntert, Satrajit Sinha, Volker Dötsch und Caterina Missero: Protein aggregation of the p63 transcription factor underlies severe skin fragility in AEC syndrome, in PNAS early edition,

A picture can be downloaded from:

Caption: Child with AEC syndrome.

Photo: Virginia Sybert

Further information: Professor Dr. Volker Dötsch, Institute of Biophysical Chemistry, Faculty of Biochemistry, Chemistry and Pharmacy, Riedberg Campus, Tel.: +49(0)69-798-29631,



Jan 26 2018

Scientists expect far-reaching consequences for ecosystems

Mammals move less in human-modified landscapes

Frankfurt am Main. On average, mammals move only half to one third of the distance in human-modified landscapes than they do in the wild. These findings have been published today by an international team lead by researchers at the Senckenberg Nature Research Society and Goethe University Frankfurt in the journal Science. It is the first time this topic has been examined at a global scale and for many different species at once. The authors highlight that these results may have far-reaching consequences for ecosystems and in turn, for society.

Most mammals are on the move every day while searching for food, to find a mate or to seek out shelter. Some larger mammals like zebra generally move longer distances, while smaller mammals, such as hares, usually cover shorter distances. A team led by biologist Dr. Marlee Tucker, Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University, has shown that the extent of these movements is significantly reduced in human-modified areas. In these areas, mammals move distances that are only half to one third of what they cover in more natural areas.

In this study, Tucker and 114 coauthors from various institutions collated movement data from 803 individuals across 57 mammal species from around the globe. To do this they used the data portal, Movebank, which archives movement data from researchers across the world. “Our study looks at everything from hares to wild boars to elephants. The scientists in our team equipped individual animals with a GPS tracking device that recorded each animal’s location every hour for a period of at least two months,” says Tucker.

The researchers then compared these data to the Human Footprint Index of the areas that the animals were moving in. The index measures how much an area has been changed by human activities such as infrastructure, settlements or agriculture.

During a period of ten days mammals only cover half to one third of the distance in areas with a comparatively high human footprint, such as a typical German agricultural landscape, compared to mammals living in more natural landscapes. This is the case for the maximum distance covered within a 10-day time frame as well as for the average distance.

The analysis shows however, that at shorter time scales than 10 days, such as one hour, mammals do not move any differently across landscapes of varying human footprint. This means that the human footprint affects the ranging behavior of mammals over longer time frames, but does not affect their movements at shorter time frames.

Potentially mammals move less because they have changed their behaviour in human-modified landscapes. “In some of these areas there might be more food available so that animals do not need to cover such large distances. In addition, landscape fragmentation and barriers created by infrastructure might limit mammalian movements,” says coauthor Dr. Thomas Mueller, Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University.

The researchers are concerned that the reduced travel distances could affect ecosystem functions that hinge on animal movements. “It is important that animals move, because in moving they carry out important ecological functions like transporting nutrients and seeds between different areas. Additionally, mammalian movements bring different species together and thus allow for interactions in food webs that might otherwise not occur. If mammals move less this could alter any of these ecosystem functions. For example, the dispersal of plant seeds by animals between different habitats could be endangered”, says Tucker.


Tucker, M.A. et al. (2018): Moving in the Anthropocene: Global reductions in terrestial mammalian movements. Science, Doi: 10.1126/science.aam9712

Pictures for download under:


Jan 15 2018

Astrophysicists at Goethe University Frankfurt set a new limit for the maximum mass of neutron stars: It cannot exceed 2.16 solar masses

How massive can neutron stars be?

FRANKFURT. Since their discovery in the 1960s, scientists have sought to answer an important question: How massive can neutron stars actually become? By contrast to black holes, these stars cannot gain in mass arbitrarily; past a certain limit there is no physical force in nature that can counter their enormous gravitational force. For the first time, astrophysicists at Goethe University Frankfurt have succeeded in calculating a strict upper limit for the maximum mass of neutron stars.  

With a radius of about twelve kilometres and a mass that can be twice as large as that of the sun, neutron stars are amongst the densest objects in the Universe, producing gravitational fields comparable to those of black holes. Whilst most neutron stars have a mass of around 1.4 times that of the sun, massive examples are also known, such as the pulsar PSR J0348+0432 with 2.01 solar masses.

The density of these stars is enormous, as if the entire Himalayas were compressed into a beer mug. However, there are indications that a neutron star with a maximum mass would collapse to a black hole if even just a single neutron were added.

Together with his students Elias Most and Lukas Weih, Professor Luciano Rezzolla, physicist, senior fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies (FIAS) and professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Goethe University Frankfurt, has now solved the problem that had remained unanswered for 40 years: With an accuracy of a few percent, the maximum mass of non-rotating neutron stars cannot exceed 2.16 solar masses.

The basis for this result was the “universal relations” approach developed in Frankfurt a few years ago []. The existence of “universal relations” implies that practically all neutron stars “look alike”, meaning that their properties can be expressed in terms of dimensionless quantities. The researchers combined these “universal relations” with data on gravitational-wave signals and the subsequent electromagnetic radiation (kilonova) obtained during the observation last year of two merging neutron stars in the framework of the LIGO experiment. This simplifies calculations tremendously because it makes them independent of the equation of state. This equation is a theoretical model for describing dense matter inside a star that provides information on its composition at various depths in the star. Such a universal relation therefore played an essential role in defining the new maximum mass.

The result is a good example of the interaction between theoretical and experimental research. “The beauty of theoretical research is that it can make predictions. Theory, however, desperately needs experiments to narrow down some of its uncertainties,” says Professor Rezzolla. “It’s therefore quite remarkable that the observation of a single binary neutron star merger that occurred millions of light years away combined with the universal relations discovered through our theoretical work have allowed us to solve a riddle that has seen so much speculation in the past.”

The research results were published as a Letter of The Astrophysical Journal. Just a few days later, research groups from the USA and Japan confirmed the findings, despite having so far followed different and independent approaches.

Gravitational-wave astronomy is expected to observe more such events in the near future, both in terms of gravitational-wave signals and in the more traditional frequency ranges. This will further reduce uncertainties about maximum mass and lead to a better understanding of matter under extreme conditions. This will be simulated in modern particle accelerators, for example at CERN in Switzerland or the FAIR facility in Germany.

Publication: Luciano Rezzolla, Elias R. Most, Lukas R. Weih: Using Gravitational-wave Observations and Quasi-universal Relations to Constrain the Maximum Mass of Neutron Stars, The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Volume 852, Number 2,, DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/aaa401

A picture can be downloaded from:

Caption: Gravitational-wave emission from a collapsing star

Further information: Prof. Luciano Rezzolla, Institute of Theoretical Physics, Riedberg Campus, Tel.: +49(0)69 798-47871,


Jan 2 2018

German Research Foundation awards further € 1.5 million for long-term project at Goethe University Frankfurt

Nok research project enters final phase

FRANKFURT. Goethe University Frankfurt can continue its study of the Nok Culture. The German Research Foundation has recently approved the funding application submitted by Professor Peter Breunig, Professor of African Archaeology, and Professor Katharina Neumann, Professor of African Archaeobotany. This means that an additional € 1.5 million are available to complete the project, which explores the 2,500-year-old West African culture.

The long-term project, which is designed to take a total of twelve years, has been examining all the main aspects of the Nigerian Nok Culture since 2009. The researchers from Frankfurt are working on site alongside their Nigerian colleagues and have also employed a large number of local helpers. At times, the project was the largest employer in the area. Surveys, excavations and extensive data analysis are making a significant contribution to deeper knowledge of chronology, settlement, land use and environment, iron metallurgy, material culture and geographical range.

Peter Breunig is very pleased about the merry pre-Christmas news that the project will be funded right through to the end: “It really is something very special for an archaeologist when you can conduct such extensive research over many years and with a large team thanks to such broad support.” The Nok project is outstanding in terms of content too: not many projects worldwide are set out to explore an entire archaeological culture.

The Nok Culture, which lasted for about 1,500 years and is named after the small village of Nok to the north-east of Abuja, the capital city, emerged around 1500 BC. This is also one of the things that the project has unearthed. At that time, the population lived in simple farming communities and its most important crop was pearl millet. The ornate terracotta figures, for which the Nok Culture is known outside the archaeological world too, emerged 600 years later, i.e. around 900 BC. Looting had already brought many to light before the Frankfurt researchers got to work – the statuettes are coveted objects on the international art market. “The fired clay sculptures represent the oldest and some of the largest examples of figurine art in sub-Saharan Africa,” explains Breunig.

What purpose did the terracottas serve, some of which portray people and others animals? What was their original function when they were made about 2,500 years ago? This has been one of the main questions over the last nine years. The researchers presumed that the figures played a role in burial rites. And indeed, at some sites they were able to locate features interpreted as graves near the terracottas, for example in Ifana where they found around 20. “The custom of making a clay effigy of a deceased dignitary and placing it on the grave still exists in West Africa today. When the figures have weathered, they are all buried together at the same spot,” say Professor Breunig. Perhaps it was the same back then.

The researchers have gained many other important insights besides that. “We know how the Nok people settled, what their pottery looked like, that it was travelling craftsmen who made the terracottas,” says Breunig. And thanks to close cooperation with archaeobotanist Professor Katharina Neumann, the researchers also know what they ate and how their surrounding landscape changed over the course of time. The decline of the Nok Culture began around 400 BC; terracottas and Nok ceramics finally disappeared at the latest by the birth of Christ.

After Breunig and a member of his team were kidnapped in February 2017, the team has returned to Africa only once and did not venture beyond the capital. “But we’ve finished our field research anyway. We’ve got enough to do in the next three years,” explains Breunig. The focus now is on the last remaining studies and publications on settlement, structure and chronology of the sites and the material culture as well as analysis, classification and long-term storage and accessibility of the data. In view of the extensive excavations, volume of data obtained, modern methods applied, countless carbon 14 dating results and the breadth of topics examined, the Nok Culture numbers - thanks to this project - amongst the most thoroughly investigated archaeological complexes in West Africa.

The archaeobotanical research work led by Professor Neumann also plays a prominent role in the project. Her objective is to design a model for vegetation development as well as resource and land use in the Nok region from the beginning of the Nok Culture around 1500 BC up until the first centuries AD. With the help of botanical macroremains and analysis of the chemical residues found in ceramics, her team is examining how the early Nok population adapted to a new habitat, how overexploitation in the Middle Nok period (900 to 400 BC) led to soil degradation and what role this might have played in the decline of the Nok Culture after 400 BC. 

The Research Unit “Ecological and Cultural Change in West and Central Africa” funded by the German Research Foundation had already conducted initial research work related to the project from 2005 onwards. The long-term project then entered its first phase shortly after the global conference on African archaeology at Goethe University Frankfurt in 2008, which was opened by Namadi Sambo, later vice-president of Nigeria. One of the highlights was undoubtedly the much acclaimed exhibition “Nok – African sculpture in archaeological context” in 2013/14 at the Liebieghaus Museum in Frankfurt, which was also financed by the German Research Foundation. Since this year, the exhibits are on display at Kaduna National Museum under the title “NOK Within the Context of Nigerian Art Traditions”. All materials which were brought to Frankfurt for research purposes are also returned to Nigeria.

Amongst others, a workshop is planned for the last phase of the project that aims to position Nok ceramics within a broader West African context. By comparing ceramics from other West African regions, the researchers hope to find further answers to the question of where the Nok people came from and how they lived.

Pictures and captions can be downloaded from

Further information: Professor Peter Breunig, Institute of Archaeological Sciences, Department of African Archaeology and Archaeobotany, Westend Campus, Tel.: +49(0)69-798-32094, email