This Day in Jewish History

1970: Physicist Who Would Overcome Own Teacher, Nazis to Win Nobel Dies

Many feel Max Born should have won the Nobel earlier, for the discovery of quantum mechanics.

Max Born
Wikimedia Commons

On January 5, 1970, the physicist and mathematician Max Born died, at the age of 87.

Born won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1954, but many of his peers felt that he should have at least shared the prize 22 years earlier, when it went to his student Werner Heisenberg, for the discovery of quantum mechanics. Any disappointment Born might have felt, however, did not prevent from carrying on with his brilliant career, even after the Nazis forced him to leave Germany.

Frail but smart

Max Born was born on December 11, 1882, in Breslau, then part of Prussia, today, Wroclaw, Poland. His father, Gustav was a professor of embryology at the University of Breslau, and his mother Margarethe Kauffmann, was the daughter of a wealthy Silesian textile manufacturer. She died when the son was 4.

Because he was physically frail, Max was initially tutored at home, before going on to attend the Koenig-Wilhelm Gymnasium in his hometown. In 1901, Born entered the University of Breslau. Taking advantage of a system that allowed students to move between universities, he also studied at Heidelberg, Zurich and finally Goettingen.

His mathematical talents were recognized by his teachers, one of whom, Felix Klein, an expert on elasticity, wanted Born to write on that topic and to enter his thesis in a competition. When Born, whose interests lay in other areas, demurred, Klein took it personally. Later, Born changed his mind about writing the paper, but Klein refused to mentor him and even tried to foil him when he presented his findings. Nonetheless, in 1906, Born won the prize and received his doctorate, magna cum laude.

He also served briefly in the army, but was soon released because he suffered from asthma. It was enough to make him hate all things military. Still, eight years later, during World War I, he enlisted in the army again, serving in a research unit.

In 1912, Born met and married Hedwig Ehrenburg, daughter of a Leipzig law professor. Although her father was Jewish by birth, Hedi was raised as a practicing Lutheran, and two years after their marriage, Born himself was baptized, out of deference to her and a desire to assimilate.

And then he read about quantum mechanics

Partly in reaction to his encounter with Albert Einstein and his special theory on relativity, Born moved to apply his mathematical talents to questions of physics. He held a number of different positions, both in Germany and abroad, before settling down in 1921 at Goettingen, as head of its physics institute.

It was there, in 1925, that his student Werner Heisenberg had Born read his paper on quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics was a revolutionary way of predicting the location and momentum of sub-atomic particles. It was Born who intuited that these quantities could be plotted on a physical matrix , resulting in the theory of matrix mechanics. 

Later, when Erwin Schroedinger wrote his famous equation that presented quantum mechanics in terms of wave theory, it was Born who proved that both theories were compatible. It was for this accomplishment that he finally won his Nobel, in 1954.

In May 1933, Born, like all other Jews in academic positions in Germany, was dismissed from his position, and he soon left the country. After periods at Cambridge and the University of Bangalore, he took a position at the University of Edinburgh, in 1936, and would remain there until his retirement, in 1953.

Many of Born’s colleagues had participated in the efforts, both on the side of the Allies and also in the Axis, to build an atomic bomb, and he was aware that his research was critical in advancing that research. Born became a pacifist, and in 1955, he was a signatory to the Einstein-Bertrand Russell manifesto that gave rise to the Pugwash movement advocating nuclear disarmament.

Max and Hildi Born had three children, one of whom married the academic and code-cracker Brinley Newton-John, with whom she bore Olivia Newton-John, the entertainer. Another descendant is the British comedian Ben Elton.

After his retirement, Born returned to Germany, and died in Goettingen on this day in 1970.