As it’s Nobel Prize time for 2011, I thought I would tell you all why Niels Bohr is one of the most bad-ass of all Nobel Prize winners.

It is highly unlikely you will ever be as cool as Niels Bohr. Image: Benjamin Arthur for NPR. Sunglasses added for extra-cool effect.

Chemistry 1 – Nazis 0

Let’s start with this great story that was just featured on NPR. You should read the whole thing but I’ll summarize the details below.

Bohr, at his institute in Copenhagen, has in his possession two Nobel prizes, given to him for safe keeping by scientists who found themselves at odds with the Nazi party. Unfortunately Nazi Germany had just taken over Denmark and the gold metals are no longer safe.

Convinced that burying the metals will not work, Bohr and a visiting Hungarian chemist Georgy de Hevesy decide to dissolve the metals in Aqua Regia. While this sounds like a fancy mixed drink you’d be better off not tasting it because it’s actually an extremely acidic mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid which is typically used in refining metals because of it’s remarkable property to dissolve metals which are typically extremely stable and non-reactive such as gold and platinum.

They drop the metals in the aqua regia solution and soon it is just a flask of murky orange liquid that they place inconspicuously on top of a shelf in the lab. Bohr and his family later flee to Sweeden on a fishing boat, and from there eventually to the USA to help with the Manhattan Project.

After the war, de Hevesy found the solution untouched in the lab just where they had left it. He precipitated the gold back out, sent it to Sweden where new metals were then recast! (While it makes for a nicer story to say that the new metals were made from the same gold that was dissolved in aqua regia, this source says that the Swedish mint preferred to use fresh gold because it was easier to work with.)

Other Bohr Bad-Assery During WWII

Some of the more astute readers may wonder – “didn’t Bohr win his own Nobel Prize in 1922? Where did he hide that?” It is true that he had already won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work in elucidating the structure of the atom, but by the time the Nazis had reached Denmark he had already auctioned off the gold metal and donated the money to a fund helping Finns displaced by the War.

In addition his position as director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen (now called the Niels Bohr Institute in his honor) allowed him to bring colleagues out of dangerous situations in Nazi Germany. He also used his connections to the Danish resistance movement to then send these people to Sweden.  Later, upon receiving a message from the UK (on microfilm hidden inside s secret compartment of a key) inviting him to come join the atomic weapon effort, he refused saying:

“I feel it to be my duty in our desperate situation to help resist the threat against the freedom of our institutions and to assist in the protection of the exiled scientists who have sought refuge here.” 1

After receiving information that he was to be arrested by German authorities shortly, Bohr and his entire family made the dangerous trip to Sweden via a fishing boat. Instead of proceeding to the USA, Bohr went directly to the King of Sweden and apparently convinced him to publicly announce that Sweden would offer asylum to Jews fleeing Denmark.

Did you ride in the cockpit? No - I rode in the unpressurized bomb-bay where I took a little nap while we evaded German fighters... Image: Wikipedia

And then when he did decide to go join the Manhattan Project, he had to be smuggled out in the bomb-bay of a small, unarmed RAF Mosquito plane.  The plane apparently had to fly to a higher altitude to avoid detection by Germans. The pilot radioed to Bohr that he should put on his oxygen mask as the bomb-bay was not pressurized, but Bohr was not wearing the helmet with the radio headset as it did not fit his head. Bohr then passed out and almost died from lack of oxygen but the pilot went to a lower altitude after failing to receive any response back from Bohr. He apparently recalled none of this claiming that he “slept like a baby” the whole flight.1

Another bit of information that was told to me by my old chem professor Dr. Geiger – but which I could not find any other sources for – was that the pilot of the plane was under orders to open the bomb bay doors and drop Niels Bohr into the sea if he to come under attack by Nazi fighters so that Bohr did not fall into enemy hands.

So, the Chemistry Nobel Prize winner for 2011 will be announced tomorrow. I’m sure they will be wonderful people, but not nearly as cool as Niels Bohr.

Other References

  1. S. Rozental. Niels Bohr: His Life and Work as Seen By His Friends and Colleagues.  1967

4 responses »

  1. jane says:

    And for more amazing feats of understanding that maybe Niels Bohr himself was not responsible for, but inspired, read the play _Copenhagen_. It’ll knock your socks off.

  2. David Cropley says:

    My high school English teacher (this was in Scotland in the early 80s) was a former RAF mosquito pilot. He once told us a story about transporting a passenger in the bomb bay, and about orders to dump him if they were in any danger of getting shot down and captured. I don’t recall if he said who the passenger was (i.e. Bohr), but the story at least backs up the idea that pilots were ordered to do this for high value passengers. It may have been Bohr he was flying. So I would say that your Chem Prof’s story is almost certainly true.

  3. David Cropley says:

    I forgot to add that my teacher’s story was that they were attacked and in evading a German fighter, they had to throw the plane around the sky. When they landed the passenger had been sick all over himself!

  4. […] Why Niels Bohr is Cooler Than You. Electron Cafe. [↩] […]

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