Ngoun Vanna was blinded by a fragmentation mine. He found work through the Kien Khleang center, operated by Veterans International Cambodia, with funding from USAID, The Rotary Foundation, and U.S. and Korean Rotarians. Rotary Images/Alyce Henson
P hysicist Ute Böttger’s most treasured instrument sits in a specialized glass box beside her desk at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin.
Called a Raman microscope – in honor of C.V. Raman, who won the 1930 Nobel Prize in Physics – the apparatus uses laser light to excite molecules and take a “fingerprint,” Böttger explains, of material from the solar system. For three years, Böttger, 51, has spent her days sealed in a windowless laboratory, passing slivers of meteorites and asteroids through the microscope and assembling a portrait of the building blocks of the planets. The research, she says, is aimed at answering two perennial questions: Are we alone in space? and How did life come to be formed on Earth?
Böttger once confined such sophisticated analyses to extraterrestrial bodies. But a chance encounter at a workshop in the town of Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich, in 2001 alerted her to the potential applications on Earth. After listening to a fellow physicist describe how polarization – a precise way of measuring electromagnetic waves – could be used to detect the presence of buried land mines, Böttger began researching the subject and came away astonished and angry. “I wanted to know, why don’t they use these processes in the field?” she recalls. The answer, Böttger discovered, lay in a combination of high price and a lack of information about the possible uses of the technology.
Science Against Mines
Böttger’s solution was to cofound Science Against Mines (Wissen gegen Minen), a German organization that has worked to foster awareness and disseminate information about advanced land mine detection techniques. Launched in late 2004, it has the attention-grabbing slogan, “Although we are able to find water on Mars, there is still no solution to the problem of mines on Earth!” Shortly after the group was established, Böttger joined the Rotary Club of Berlin-Schloss Köpenick. “Being a Rotarian gives you connections with many people you wouldn’t get to know otherwise,” she says. Through her association with Rotary, she was introduced to the land mine advocacy groups Mine-Ex Germany, the Switzerland-based Mine-Ex Foundation, and Rotarians for Mine Action, a Rotarian Action Group that formed at the 2002 RI Convention in Barcelona, Spain.
The manufacture and trade of anti-personnel mines, which are small and easily activated, largely ended with the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production, and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction – known informally as the Ottawa Treaty. To date, 156 countries, or 80 percent of the world’s nations, have signed it. The treaty also strived to eliminate the tens of millions of mines that have been buried in fields and forests and on footpaths in conflict zones from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Cambodia alone, estimates indicate that as many as 10 million land mines were strewn across 1,300 square miles during its three-decade conflict; about the same number lie undetected in Afghanistan. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people are injured, maimed, or killed by the explosive devices every year, according to the United Nations. The common detection and demining methods – dogs, metal detectors, prodders, and armored vehicles – have their limitations. For instance, in Cambodia, the mineral-rich soil often gives off false-positive signals to metal detectors. As an additional challenge, the detectors are ineffective against mines made out of ceramic and other nonmetallic materials. And the armored vehicles, Böttger says, “catch only 70 percent of the mines, and sometimes dig them deeper without exploding them. We needed to look for other possibilities.”
Böttger’s group identified more than 20 possible detection procedures that use electromagnetic energy and other methods to uncover land mines. (All objects emit energy, and the most sophisticated detection instruments can determine with precision the shape and type of object beneath the surface.) The team’s list included X-ray fluorescence, gamma-ray imaging, and infrared waves. “None of these methods had ever been used before – they were too expensive, too difficult to take into the field,” Böttger says. “Nobody would pay for their development. The market was too small to make big profits.” The group quickly realized that it lacked the resources to bring the technology to mine-afflicted countries. Instead, it focused on developing websites that could help government officials, engineers, and scientists determine their needs and lobby for assistance. The sites matched devices to climactic and ground conditions. The moisture in Cambodia’s soil makes it impossible for infrared waves to focus on specific heat sources and detect hidden objects, for example, so other methods, such as radiography, are required. Afghanistan’s dry environment is more appropriate for infrared technology. “Our aim was to make these countries self-reliant,” Böttger explains.
"Although we are able to find water on Mars, there is still no solution to the problem of mines on Earth." - Science Against Mines slogan
In May 2007, Böttger traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she initiated the creation of a Khmer-language land mine awareness website, visited a prosthesis workshop, and met mine-blast victims. She is a “very enthusiastic person with wonderful ideals,” says Gerhard Selmayr, chair of Mine-Ex Germany and a member of the Rotary Club of Karlsruhe-Schloss. “She has a great amount of energy and has never lost sight of her goals.”
Born in 1959, Böttger grew up in the East Berlin neighborhood of Mitte, in what was then the German Democratic Republic – communist East Germany. From her apartment window, she remembers, “I could look down and see the other side of the Wall.” More interested in academics than politics, she graduated in 1983 with a degree in physics from the prestigious Karl Marx University (now the University of Leipzig), then joined the Institute for Space Sciences at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. Böttger worked with Soviet scientists, interpreting satellite imagery gathered by the Mir space station to measure the distribution of chlorophyll in the Earth’s oceans. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the unified government merged the East and West German space programs. Fifty percent of her East German colleagues lost their jobs. For a long while, Böttger, who was a single mother with two small children, worried about her future. “It was a time of uncertainty,” she recalls. “I had eight or nine short-term contracts. I stopped counting them.” To strengthen her credentials, she developed connections with astronomers around the world, working alongside NASA scientists on one project to measure the emission of greenhouse gases by the Earth’s wetlands. In 2005, Böttger received a permanent position at the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Aerospace Center), which occupies the same complex in Berlin’s Adlershof neighborhood that she worked in before the Wall fell.
Three years later, in 2008, Böttger’s group teamed up with Mine-Ex Germany to support the education of Ratanak Phut, a Cambodian who at age 11 lost his left hand in a land mine blast during fighting near the Thai border. That joint effort led Mine-Ex Germany to create the Zinsmeister Fellowship program, named after the late Wilhelm Zinsmeister, who headed the organization until his death in 2006. Now, says Selmayr, “we’re expanding the fellowship program around the world.” Using contacts at the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and mine action centers around the globe, Mine-Ex Germany and Böttger are working to identify qualified candidates for the awards, focusing on mine-blast victims with a yearning for education. “We’ve received a list of 200 possibilities,” says Selmayr. “The biggest problem is not money, but finding the people who really need the help. We don’t want to finance people about whom we know nothing.”
The problem of apathy
Böttger says that for her, the main challenge in the campaign against land mines has been overcoming apathy. “If you look in the newspapers, the mine problem doesn’t exist anymore,” she says. “You find it talked about sometimes by humanitarian aid groups, before Christmas, and sometimes on 4 April, the United Nations mine awareness day. But otherwise, you don’t hear about it, you don’t see it.” In the mid-1990s, Britain’s Princess Diana heightened awareness of the mine problem through highly publicized visits to Angola and Bosnia, where she met with amputees and witnessed mine-clearance operations; many credit her with posthumously influencing the signing of the Ottawa Treaty. But her death in 1997 removed a glamorous force from the cause and may be part of the reason for its slow fade from the radar screen.
After Böttger’s trip to Cambodia, public interest began to wane in the web-based demining campaign. She and her colleagues at Science Against Mines have phased out the project, and the group has only a handful of active members. However, she is “still very much involved,” she says, in the Zinsmeiser Fellowship program in cooperation with Mine-Ex Germany.
Böttger expects to continue her study of asteroids and meteorites. She has a small, stony meteorite found in the Moroccan desert that came from an asteroid thought to have hit the Earth about 3.5 billion years ago. She believes that the information it yields could provide insight into why life developed on Earth but failed to flourish on its nearest neighbor, Mars. “In early times, we know that they were similar, but something happened to Mars, and we don’t know what.” She finds it ironic that we can use sophisticated technology for space research but have yet to harness its full potential on Earth.