October 7 – Happy Birthday, Niels Bohr

Posted on October 7, 2013

What can I say about a man who—while fleeing from the Nazis himself—refused his flight to safety until he made sure that other Danish Jews would have a place to go, as well?

Well, for one thing, I can say that he was a hero!

Niels Bohr was a famous scientist who contributed a lot to our knowledge about atoms and about quantum physics. Born on this date in 1885 in Copenhagen, Denmark, hen Bohr was just 20 years old, he won a gold medal competition in physics. In order to enter this competition, he had to use his dad's physiology lab because Bohr's university had no physics laboratory! Also, Bohr had to learn how to blow glass so he could create the kind of test tubes that he needed. When it came to actual assigned experiment, Bohr went above and beyond what the contest required—which is no doubt why he won! Much later in his career, Bohr won the highest prize in science: the Nobel prize.

As fascinating and important as Bohr's scientific career is, I find it interesting that he was so helpful in rescuing people during World War II. He gave Jewish scientists who were worried about Hitler temporary jobs at his institute, thus providing them financial support; he also arranged for many to receive fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, and he helped the scientists find permanent jobs elsewhere in the world, far from Europe.

After Hitler invaded Denmark, when it looked like Jewish people were about to be arrested and deported, Bohr was taken out of Denmark on a boat and carried off to safety in Sweden. As soon as he stepped foot in Sweden, Swedish government officials informed him of their orders to get him safely to the United States so he could work on an atomic bomb project. However, Bohr was worried about all the Jews in Denmark who were not important physicists. He refused to go anywhere until the Swedish king announced on radio and in newspaper that Sweden would take in all the Danish Jews—that they would have a new home in Sweden. Eventually Bohr made this plea in person to Sweden's King Gustaf—and Sweden did indeed take in around 7,800 Jewish Danes.

(Some historians believe that, even without Bohr's efforts, Sweden would have taken in the refugees. But other historians say that Bohr's personal plea made a huge difference in how these events played out.)

Last (and certainly least), Bohr was even able to save two scientists' Nobel medals from the Nazis (who would have undoubtedly melted them down)! Bohr directed that the medals be dissolved in acid! I know you are wondering why dissolving a gold medal in acid is better than melting a gold medal down into a lumpbut the Nazis would have that gold lump to pay for weapons and ammunition. Whereas, after the war, the scientists were able to precipitate the gold from the acid and have the Nobel committee re-strike their medals. Good as new!

Back to Atoms...
Check out this YouTube video of the structure of an atom. (Note: This super-simple look doesn't get into the quantum realities that Bohr worked out.) 

This video is a more advanced look at Bohr's model of the atom. 

Here is a Nova special on quantum physics, the field that Bohr helped start. 

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