This Day in Jewish History |

1992: A Physicist Silenced by Politics Dies

David Bohm's doctoral work was so secret that his results were classified; he couldn't even write, let alone defend, his thesis.

David Green
David B. Green
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Subatomic particles, as envisioned by artist Josef Kristofoletti: The painting hangs at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Subatomic particles, as envisioned by artist Josef Kristofoletti: The painting hangs at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN).Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

October 27, 1992, is the date on which David J. Bohm, the U.S.-born physicist and philosopher, died, at age 74, in London. Although he is considered by some to be one of the most creative and intellectually profound scientists of the 20th century, Bohm is relatively unknown. That is partly because his ideas regarding the connectedness of everything didn’t quite fit into standard scientific discliplines, and partly because politics got in the way of his having a typical academic career, and instead sent him on a global odyssey during what should have been his productive years.

David Joseph Bohm was born on December 20, 1917, in Wilkes-Barre, a mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania. His father, Samuel (or Shalom) Bohm, an immigrant from the Hungarian town of Munkacs, whose original family name was “Dum,” owned a local furniture store and also was the assistant to the local rabbi. His mother, the former Frieda Popky, was Lithuanian-born, and her psychological problems meant that she was not able to function fully as a mother or homemaker.

Bohm graduated from Pennsylvania State College (today Pennsylvania State University), in 1939, and following that, studied at California Institute of Technology for a year, before moving to University of California, Berkeley, to complete his doctorate in theoretical physics with J. Robert Oppenheimer, in 1943. Oppenheimer had asked Bohm to join the team working on building an atomic bomb, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, but Bohm was denied security clearance. He was considered suspect because he had been affiliated with several different Communist organizations in Berkeley, and also because a close friend of his there had been under investigation for suspected espionage.

Bizarrely, some of the calculations carried out by Bohm in his doctoral work, which had to do with collisions of sub-atomic particles, were considered relevant to the Manhattan Project, and so his work was immediately classified. As a result, not only was Bohm not permitted to defend his Ph.D. thesis -- he wasn’t even allowed to to write it.

David J. BohmCredit: Wikimedia Commons

In the end, Bohm received his degree only after Oppenheimer had vouched that he had done the research he claimed to have done. He later did research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that was applicable to the enrichment of uranium that was used in the first atomic bomb.

The wanderings begin

Following World War II, Bohm became an assistant professor at Princeton University, where he worked closely with Albert Einstein. (Einstein called Bohm’s first book, “Quantum Theory,” from 1951, the clearest explanation of the subject he knew.) But, in May 1949, Bohm was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about his supposed Communist connections. When he refused to give evidence either about himself, pleading the Fifth Amendment, or any of his friends or colleagues, he was arrested and charged with contempt. A federal district court acquitted him, in May 1951, but Princeton, which had suspended him in the meantime, refused to reinstate him.

Bohm then traveled to Brazil, where, with the recommendations of both Einstein and Oppenheimer, he was appointed a professor of physics at the University of Sao Paolo.

Once in Brazil, he was forced to give up his American passport, and was limited in the travel he could do, so that he could meet with colleagues only when they visited him, which many did.

In 1955, Bohm moved again, this time to Haifa, where he began working at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. It was also then that he met and married Sarah Woolfson, an artist. His colleague in his research in Israel was Yakir Aharonov, today a professor at Chapman University, in California, and winner of the Wolf Prize for his work in theoretical physics.

Bohm remained in Israel for only two years; in 1957, he moved to the United Kingdom, where, after two years at Bristol University, he became a professor at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, remaining there until his retirement in 1983.

Even while he was writing “Quantum Theory,” Bohm had felt uncomfortable with the approach taken by Niels Bohr in the “old” quantum theory he was now explicating; it seemed to lack a holistic understanding of particle motion. This connected to a much broader feeling developing in him that science tended to break down its observations and subsequent theories into parts that lacked an appreciation for the continuum of all existence.

If this sounds almost spiritual, that’s because it is. Bohm found himself drawn to the work of the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti, and the two carried on a long dialogue. As physicist Will Keepin wrote in an essay about him, for Bohm, “there really is no such thing as a thing; all objects are dynamic processes rather than static.” Bohm even warned that “thought,” the manner in which human beings understand reality, was an illusion, and that it serves to control us, rather than the opposite. “Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally,” he wrote.

As B.J. Hiley, a student and colleague of Bohm’s at Birkbeck, wrote about his own work with him, in an obituary in The Independent, “The search for new concepts led us to look … into language structure, the nature of thought, the mind-matter question and, ultimately, into the nature of consciousness.”

Bohm continued working at Birkbeck College even after his retirement, up to the very day he died, when he was there putting finishing touches on his final book, “The Undivided Universe,” published in 1993.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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