Monday, 13 October 2008

Quantum Lives 2: Niels Bohr & Ernest Rutherford

Niels Bohr (1885–1962) had six sons. The eldest, Christian, was only seventeen when in July 1934 he drowned in a sailing accident. Bohr had to be restrained by his friends from attempting an impossible rescue. His fourth son, Aage, succeeded him as director of the institute and received the Noble Prize for physics in 1972 for his work in nuclear physics. Niels Bohr was a father figure to many who passed through the doors of his institute. Some of the most famous explained Bohr’s contributions to physics and recollected their experiences of working with him in Stefan Rozental (1967) Niels Bohr: His Life and Work as seen by his Friends and Colleagues. A.P. French and P.J. Kennedy (1985) Niels Bohr: A Centenary is another highly readable collection essays that covers various periods and aspects of Bohr’s life from his work on the quantum atom to his later contributions to nuclear physics, from his political influence to his stance on nuclear weapons. Ruth Moore (1966) Niels Bohr: The Man, His Science, and The World They Changed and Niels Blaedel (1985) Harmony and Unity: The Life of Niels Bohr are both excellent introductions to the life and work of the great Dane. The definitive biography is Abraham Pais (1991) Niels Bohr’s Times, in Physics, Philosophy, and Polity. A less mathematical treatment than his acclaimed scientific biography of Einstein, Pais manages to reveal the man while tracing in detail Bohr’s impact on physics.

Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) was Bohr’s role model. When he heard the news that Rutherford had died, Bohr was at a conference in Bologna, Italy. The following day, in tears, Bohr made the announcement and honoured Rutherford as he delivered a moving tribute to his mentor. David Wilson (1983) Rutherford: Simple Genius is the story of a remarkable life that began in a small, single-storey wooden house in New Zealand and ended on the other side of the world in a resting place near Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey as Lord Rutherford of Nelson. The father of nuclear physics, whose greatest achievements came after he won the 1908 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances, Rutherford hoped ‘that no one discovers how to release the intrinsic energy of radium until man has learned to live in peace with his neighbour.’

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