Einstein and Bohr: two Nobels, two revolutions

All sciences have their heroes, names that continually appear in conversations, formal or informal. In Physics, the list of “heroes” is headed – at least for me, but I don’t think I’m the only one – by Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

Einstein was awarded the Nobel for “his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect,” while Bohr contributed “the Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics.

The second rung of this particular ranking is occupied by physicists such as: Galileo Galilei, who rescued astronomy and physics from the heavy burden of Ptolemy and Aristotle, introducing the scientific, theoretical-experimental method in his studies of the Solar System and the movement of the bodies; James Clerk Maxwell, to whom we owe the theory that governs that great pillar of our world that is electromagnetism; Richard Feynman, admired not only for his brilliant contributions (foremost, quantum electrodynamics) but also for his folksiness; Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, with their respective quantum mechanics; Paul Dirac, a peculiar man but with a mind that is as exact as it is original (with his relativistic theory of the electron he opened the way to knowing the existence of antimatter); and also Niels Bohr.

De Bohr (1885-1962) marks, in this year of war, infection and uncertainty, one hundred years since he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, “for his services in the investigation of structure Of Atoms, and of the radiation that emanates from them”.

a model of atom

It was in 1913 that Bohr completed his most original and important contribution to physics: a model of the atom in which the electrons surrounding the nucleus – as Ernest Rutherford had established in 1911 – remained in motion in stable orbits until for some reason, then not understood, they jumped to another orbit, emitting or absorbing quanta of energy (the “particles” that constitute light).

That they “remain stable” was something that contravened the physics of Maxwellian electromagnetism, so that Bohr’s theory represented a concept leap absolutely new. The most significant advances in science, the “revolutions”, are associated with innovations of this type.

Copenhagen Interpretation

Bohr continued to make important contributions to physics – the most influential, the so-called “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics – but none reached the relevance of that of 1913. However, his influence on the development of quantum physics was great. ; he became something akin to a “father” whose blessing was longed for by the young “quantums”. A father who “received” at the Institute of Physics that was created for him in Copenhagen and that began to function in 1921; it was “the mecca” to which all ambitious physicists headed.

I confess that my sympathy for Bohr is relative; In my opinion, his “Socratic” style of reasoning did not always add clarity, and sometimes darkness, to quantum investigations and discussions. At the Institute he always chose one of the brightest physicists to serve as a sort of mentor. secretary-interlocutor, who attended, writing them down, the endless comings and goings of his arguments, articulated in a voice that was difficult to understand (the same thing that happened in his lectures).

Churchill on alert

During World War II, Bohr defended the need to share and control knowledge related to atomic weaponry, a reasonable cause in which he was not alone. Perhaps puffed up by the power he wielded in international physics, he thought that his prestige would serve the same with political leaders, and he tried to convince Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, and Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, of his ideas. , so that they act accordingly.

He managed to see Churchill on May 16, 1944, but the meeting was a failure. Bohr had little opportunity to expound his ideas, and Churchill was annoyed to learn that the Danish physicist had spoken to Felix Frankfurter, a justice of the United States Supreme Court and a valued adviser to Roosevelt, informing him of secret details of the allied nuclear project.

Deadly crimes?

It is instructive to read the note that Churchill sent a few months later, on September 20, to the British ambassador in Washington: “The President [de Estados Unidos] and I are very worried about Professor Bohr. How did he get into this business? He is a defender of advertising. He provided unauthorized information to Judge Frankfurter, who surprised the President when he told him that he knew all the details. [del Proyecto Manhattan]. He says [Bohr] who corresponds with a Russian professor, an old friend of his in Russia [Piotr Kapitza], who has written about the matter and may still be writing. The Russian professor has urged him to go to Russia to discuss some things. What is this all about? It seems to me that Bohr should be confined, or at least made aware that he is very close to committing deadly crimes. He hadn’t noticed any of this before, although I didn’t like the guy when he was introduced to me, with all that hair on his head, in Downing Street.”

Certainly, Bohr deserved the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922, the year in which it was also decided to award the prize corresponding to 1921, which had not yet been awarded. It was received by Albert Einstein (1879-1955), whom the Swedish Academy had been reluctant to award, but in 1922 socio-scientific pressure he was already too big to be rewarded.

A service to Theoretical Physics

It was not, on the other hand, by chance that Einstein was given the prize for 1921 and Bohr for 1922, but a tactic to emphasize that quantum physics was being celebrated, since Einstein was awarded for “his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”, a phenomenon belonging to the domain of quantum physics.

In fact, if you read what appears on the diploma that Einstein received, you can see that it included an unusual text in the history of the awards, warning that he was awarded “regardless of the value that (after its possible confirmation) could be awarded to the theory of relativity and gravitation”, that is, the theory of general relativity, about which they still had doubts. To the creator of the special and general theories of relativity he was awarded the Nobel Prize for a detail contained in barely one page of an article he published in 1905!

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Einstein and Bohr: two Nobels, two revolutions