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Niels Bohr

August 16, 2010

Quill’s Ink: 1#: Niels Henrik David Bohr

      Any photograph you find of Niels Bohr will be one where his expression appears either blank, confused, or entirely lost. The last thing you think of this man in the photo, would be “Wow, now that is brilliance in the making.” Though in a certain photograph (several, actually) of him and Albert Einstein, where Mr.Einstein has one hand behind his head relaxing with a cigar in the other, Niels’s posture and body language remains not only secretive, but thoughtful. One hand deep in his pocket while the other is either resting on his knee or holding his chin in a contemplative gesture. It is easy to see him as a rather mellow, serious human being, at least whenever a camera was around (there is one photograph, taken seemingly when he was quite older, in which he actually has a broad smile across his face.)

 Niels was born on the 7th of October (for you astrology fans, that makes him a Libra) in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1885. His father, a devout Lutheran, was a professor at the University of Copenhagen, where he taught physiology. He had one brother, by the name of Harald, who became a mathematician and football player, and, in comparison to his somber sibling, actually has tendency in photographs to have the beginnings of a smirk on his face.

     In 1916, Niels became a professor at the same University as his father, where he taught physics. It has been said that Niels found philosophical applications for the topic in which he taught. With the assistance of the Danish Government, he succeeded in founding the Institute of Theoretical Physics in 1921, of which he became its director (you have to wonder how hard he really had to work to get that position.) In 1922, Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics “for his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them.” Bohr’s institute served as a focal point for theoretical physics in the 1920’s and 30’s, and Niels was a pretty darn well-known theoretical physicist of that period. It is unclear exactly when Niels married, but what we do know, is that Niels and his wife, Margrethe, has six sons. The oldest died in a tragic boating accident, and another died from childhood meningitis. The others, however, went on to lead successful lives, including Aage Bohr, who became followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a successful physicist, and, continuing in the pattern of like-father-like-son, Aage won a Nobel Prize in physics, in 1975.

    Niels conceived the principle of complementarity: that items could be separately analyzed as having several contradictory properties. An example: physicists currently believe that light behaves either as a wave or a stream of particles depending on the experimental framework (two apparently mutually exclusive properties) on the basis of this principle. Bohr found philosophical applications for this daringly original principle; just as he did when he taught at Copenhagen University. Albert Einstein much preferred the determinism of classical physics over the probabilistic new quantum physics. He and Bohr had good-natured arguments over the truth of this principle throughout their lives. Now for a super-spy aspect of his work: They called him Baker. Nicholas Baker.. That’s right, when Niels worked at a top-secret (initiate spy music) Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico in the U.S on the Manhattan Project ( you know, the project during World War II that developed the first nuclear bombs?) He was a knowledgeable consultant or “father confessor” on the project. He was concerned about a nuclear arms race, and is quoted as saying, “That is why I went to America. They didn’t need my help in making the atom bomb.”

    Bohr believed that atomic secrets should be shared by the inernational scientific community. And after meeting with Bohr, J. Robert Oppenheimer (scientific director of the Manhattan Project, also known as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’) suggested Bohr visit President Roosevelt to convince him that the Manhattan Project be shared with the Russians in the hope of speeding up it’s results. Roosevelt suggested that Niels return to the U.K to try to win British approval. Winston Churchill disagreed with the idea of openness towards the Russians, and mentioned such a point in a letter: “It seems to be Bohr ought to be confined or at any rate made to see that he is very near the edge of mortal crimes.” After the war, Bohr returned to Copenhagen, advocating the peaceful of nuclear energy. When awarded the Order of the Elephant by the Danish government, he designed a coat of arms, featuring a tajitu (aka, the famous symbol of Yin and Yang) and the latin motto contraria sunt complementa (opposites are complementary).

    He died in Copenhagen in 1962 of heart failure. He is currently buried in the Assistens Kirkegard in the Norrebro section of Copenhagen. We know several things about Niels for certain, and these things are distant from his work in chemistry: He was a good son, a good father, and an advocate of peace and unity. And should it represent anything, contraria sun complementa appears to be Niels Bohr’s goal in life. To seek peace and unity among all.

 Notable contributions by Bohr to Physics and Chemistry:

  •  The Bohr model of the atom, the theory that electrons travel in discrete orbits around the atom’s nucleus.
  • The shell model of the atom, where the chemical properties of an element are determined by the electrons in the outermost orbit.
  • The correspondence principle, the basic tool of Old quantum theory.
  •  The liquid drop model of the atomic nucleus.
  • Identified the isotope of uranium that was responsible for slow-neutron fission 
  •  Much work on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  • The principle of complementarity: that items could be separately analyzed as having several contradictory properties.

Until next time, keep on posting! –Quill

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 29, 2011 7:47 pm

    nice post.

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