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The Behind the Scenes Story of Niels Bohr


By Susie Davidson

Advocate Correspondent


CAMBRIDGE - On May 13, MIT’s Office of the Arts and Boston’s Goethe Institute hosted “New Thoughts on Interpreting ‘Copenhagen’”. The play by Michael Frayn, currently at the Colonial Theatre, portrays the 1941 visit of Werner Heisenberg, who supervised the Nazi nuclear power program, to former colleague and mentor Niels Bohr. Following the mysterious meeting, the men, who together created quantum mechanics, complementarity and the uncertainty principle, were never again allied.


Historians have questioned what happened, and why Heisenberg and the Nazis never produced an atom bomb. However, this eerie question is only part of Bohr (1885-1962)’s tale. “A Danish citizen,” explains Lynn Heinemann of MIT’s Office of the Arts and an observant Jew, “he was half Jewish on his mother’s side, and ultimately had to flee Copenhagen during the Nazi era.


“Bohr's father, Christian Bohr,” she continues, “was professor of physiology at the University of Copenhagen. Ellen Adler Bohr was from a wealthy Danish Jewish family prominent in banking and parliamentary circles. Their other son, Harald, became a renowned mathematician. “When Denmark was occupied in 1940, Bohr continued his work until 1943, when threat of immediate arrest due to his Judaic ancestr, and his openly anti-Nazi views, led to a nighttime Danish resistance movement fishing boat transport with his wife Margrethe and family to Sweden. Later escaping to England, he and a son, Aage (later to become a theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner) conducted nuclear fission bomb research. They moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico along with a British research team, and worked on the Manhattan Project, a response to 1939 news that German scientists were working to split the atom.”


In 1944, Bohr attempted to sway Winston Churchill and FDR to establish international cooperation on the dangers of atomic weapons, and in a 1950 letter to the UN, he argued for an “open world” incorporating policies of reason and peace. He organized the 1955 First International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva, and helped create the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN). He received the first U.S. Atoms for Peace Award in 1957.


“He also helped fellow Jewish scientists to escape Nazi Europe,” says Heinemann. “He offered a housing and employment for many escaping Jewish scientists, and later donated his gold Nobel medal to the Finnish war effort.” On May 7, MIT professor Ulrich Becker gave the play’s cast a tour of MIT’s cyclotron, an experimental magnet built in 1938 to aid the development of nuclear physics. “The importance of cyclotrons in atomic research is constantly cited through the course of the play,” says Heinemann. “Especially noted was the fact that in all of Germany there wasn't a single cyclotron.”


At the symposium, where 560 attendees filled twice the room’s capacity, panelists included Jochen Heisenberg, professor of physics at UNH; Gerald Holton, professor of physics emeritus at Harvard; Hank Stratton, who plays Heisenberg in the play; Mariette Hartley, (Margrethe); Len Cariou (Bohr) and MIT professor Emeritus Laszlo Tisza, who studied under Heisenberg in 1930 in Leipzig and met Bohr. Letters Bohr wrote but never sent to Heisenberg, released by Bohr’s family in February, were also  discussed.