Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was one of the most talented and fascinating physicists to ever walk the planet. On this, many eminent scientists, philosophers of science, and historians of science agree. He was a complicated man whose career took him from his homeland of Denmark to the United States and Great Britain and beyond. He had the ear of presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Ministers such as Winston Churchill. Bohr came from a rather prominent family to begin with. His father and mother were accomplished, sensitive, refined, highly intelligent people. His father, for example, was a professor of physiology at the university, and to this scientific outlook he added a deep Christian religiousness. Christian writers such as Soren Kierkegaard would come to influence Bohr Jr. in later life, though he was less orthodox in his views than his father.
Bohr received his PhD in Denmark, and then moved to England to further his studies and to begin a series of experiments that would make him famous the world over, and eventually win him the Nobel Prize. His first crucial publication came in the year 1913, when Bohr presented to the world what has come to be known as his model of atomic structure. Bohr theorized that electrons traveled in orbits around a given atom’s nucleus, and that the atom’s chemical makeup depended mainly on the amount of electrons clustered in the atom’s outermost orbits. These outermost orbits were the most highly charged, they were an atom’s main source of energy; but, said Bohr, it was possible for an electron in one of these sizzling outer orbits to drop down into a lower, less energized, less active orbit, leaving, however, a subtle and volatile trail of activity in its wake, a sort of tear which might serve as a conduit. Bohr’s early work became the foundation for quantum theory, one of the most exciting and promising fields in physics today.
When World War II came along, Bohr found himself back in Denmark; he also found himself pursued by the German Secret Service. Germany was looking for top physicists to work on weapons of mass destruction in order to further the diabolical cause of the Third Reich. Fortunately, Bohr was able to escape to Sweden and from there to the United States, where he became a member of the highly selective team of physicists which worked on the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project (Albert Einstein was another prominent member) was a top secret project devoted to the study and development of the atomic bomb. Bohr initially (and throughout the rest of his life, some contend) believed that the mysteries of atomic energy shouldn’t be allowed to escape a small circle of experts, physicists all. He was aghast at the idea that political leaders, especially in a time of war, should gain access to such potentially destructive information.
Einstein suggested that Bohr go to President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States with his concerns. Bohr told President Roosevelt that perhaps, if they were going to continue to do research into the atomic bomb, they ought to share the information with Russia, as well, as Russia was then an ally of the United States and Great Britain. Russia, Bohr contended, had many highly gifted physicists of her own, who would certainly aid the allies in obtaining their goal all the faster.
Roosevelt in turn suggested that Bohr talk to Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain. Churchill was very opposed to the idea. He thought of the Russians, especially as constituted under their present leader, Joseph Stalin, as a necessary evil; he thought that Stalin was a psychopath, and that it would be madness to share the secrets of atomic energy with him. Churchill even suggested to Roosevelt that they place Bohr behind bars for a while, but this suggestion was never acted on.
All in all, Bohr was an idealistic, somewhat mysterious, unaffected genius, and one whose life and thought yield rich reward to any reader who cares to take a closer look.