Max Born

21 Nov 2017
21 Nov 2017
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Max Born ( 11 December 1882 – 5 January 1970) was a German physicist and mathematician who was instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics. He also made contributions to solid-state physics and optics and supervised the work of a number of notable physicists in the 1920s and 30s. Born won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics for his “fundamental research in Quantum Mechanics, especially in the statistical interpretation of the wave function”.

Born was born in 1882 in Breslau, then in Germany, now in Poland and known as Wrocław. He entered the University of Göttingen in 1904, where he found the three renowned mathematicians, Felix Klein, David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the subject of “Stability of Elastica in a Plane and Space”, winning the University’s Philosophy Faculty Prize.

In 1905, he began researching special relativity with Minkowski, and subsequently wrote his habilitation thesis on the Thomson model of the atom. A chance meeting with Fritz Haber in Berlin in 1918 led to discussion of the manner in which an ionic compound is formed when a metal reacts with a halogen, which is today known as the Born–Haber cycle.

In the First World War, after originally being placed as a radio operator, he was moved to research duties regarding sound ranging due to his specialist knowledge. In 1921, Born returned to Göttingen, arranging another chair for his long-time friend and colleague James Franck. Under Born, Göttingen became one of the world’s foremost centres for physics.

In 1925, Born and Werner Heisenberg formulated the matrix mechanics representation of quantum mechanics. The following year, he formulated the now-standard interpretation of the probability density function for ψ*ψ in the Schrödinger equation, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954.

His influence extended far beyond his own research. Max Delbrück, Siegfried Flügge, Friedrich Hund, Pascual Jordan, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Lothar Wolfgang Nordheim, Robert Oppenheimer, and Victor Weisskopf all received their Ph.D. degrees under Born at Göttingen, and his assistants included Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, Gerhard Herzberg, Friedrich Hund, Pascual Jordan, Wolfgang Pauli, Léon Rosenfeld, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner.

In January 1933, the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, and Born, who was Jewish, was suspended. He emigrated to Britain, where he took a job at St John’s College, Cambridge, and wrote a popular science book, The Restless Universe, as well as Atomic Physics, which soon became a standard textbook. In October 1936, he became the Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, where, working with German-born assistants E. Walter Kellermann and Klaus Fuchs, he continued his research into physics.

Max Born became a naturalised British subject on 31 August 1939, one day before World War II broke out in Europe. He remained at Edinburgh until 1952. He retired to Bad Pyrmont, in West Germany. He died in hospital in Göttingen on 5 January 1970.

Max Born was born on 11 December 1882 in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), which at the time of Born’s birth was part of the Prussian Province of Silesia in the German Empire, to a family of Jewish descent.

He was one of two children born to Gustav Born, an anatomist and embryologist, who was a professor of embryology at the University of Breslau, and his wife Margarethe (Gretchen) née Kauffmann, from a Silesian family of industrialists. She died when Max was four years old, on 29 August 1886. Max had a sister, Käthe, who was born in 1884, and a half-brother, Wolfgang, from his father’s second marriage, to Bertha Lipstein. Wolfgang later became Professor of Art History at the City College of New York.

Initially educated at the König-Wilhelm-Gymnasium in Breslau, Born entered the University of Breslau in 1901. The German university system allowed students to move easily from one university to another, so he spent summer semesters at Heidelberg University in 1902 and the University of Zurich in 1903. Fellow students at Breslau, Otto Toeplitz and Ernst Hellinger, told Born about the University of Göttingen, and Born went there in April 1904. At Göttingen he found three renowned mathematicians: David Hilbert, Felix Klein and Hermann Minkowski.

Very soon after his arrival, Born formed close ties to the latter two men. From the first class he took with Hilbert, Hilbert identified Born as having exceptional abilities and selected him as the lecture scribe, whose function was to write up the class notes for the students’ mathematics reading room at the University of Göttingen. Being class scribe put Born into regular, invaluable contact with Hilbert, during which time Hilbert’s intellectual largesse benefited Born’s fertile mind.

Hilbert became Born’s mentor after selecting him to be the first to hold the unpaid, semi-official position of assistant. Born’s introduction to Minkowski came through Born’s stepmother, Bertha, as she knew Minkowski from dancing classes in Königsberg. The introduction netted Born invitations to the Minkowski household for Sunday dinners. In addition, while performing his duties as scribe and assistant, Born often saw Minkowski at Hilbert’s house.

Born’s relationship with Klein was more problematic. Born attended a seminar conducted by Klein and professors of applied mathematics, Carl Runge and Ludwig Prandtl, on the subject of elasticity. Although not particularly interested in the subject, Born was obliged to present a paper.

Using Hilbert’s calculus of variations, he presented one in which, using a curved configuration of a wire with both ends fixed, he demonstrated would be the most stable. Klein was impressed, and invited Born to submit a thesis on the subject of “Stability of Elastica in a Plane and Space” – a subject near and dear to Klein – which Klein had arranged to be the subject for the prestigious annual Philosophy Faculty Prize offered by the University. Entries could also qualify as doctoral dissertations. Born responded by turning down the offer, as applied mathematics was not his preferred area of study. Klein was greatly offended.

Klein had the power to make or break academic careers, so Born felt compelled to atone by submitting an entry for the prize. Because Klein refused to supervise him, Born arranged for Carl Runge to be his supervisor. Woldemar Voigt and Karl Schwarzschild became his other examiners.

Starting from his paper, Born developed the equations for the stability conditions. As he became more interested in the topic, he had an apparatus constructed that could test his predictions experimentally. In 13 June 1906, the rector announced that Born had won the prize. A month later, he passed his oral examination and was awarded his PhD in mathematics magna cum laude.

On graduation, Born was obliged to perform his military service, which he had deferred while a student. He found himself drafted into the German army, and posted to the 2nd Guards Dragoons “Empress Alexandra of Russia”, which was stationed in Berlin.

His service was brief, as he was discharged early after an asthma attack in January 1907. He then travelled to England, where he was admitted to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and studied physics for six months at the Cavendish Laboratory under J.J. Thomson, George Searle and Joseph Larmor. After Born returned to Germany, the Army re-inducted him, and he served with the elite 1st (Silesian) Life Cuirassiers “Great Elector” until he was again medically discharged after just six weeks’ service.

He then returned to Breslau, where he worked under the supervision of Otto Lummer and Ernst Pringsheim, hoping to do his habilitation in physics. A minor accident involving Born’s black body experiment, a ruptured cooling water hose, and a flooded laboratory, led to Lummer telling him that he would never become a physicist.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published his paper On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies about special relativity. Born was intrigued, and began researching the subject. He was devastated to discover that Minkowski was also researching special relativity along the same lines, but when he wrote to Minkowski about his results, Minkowski asked him to return to Göttingen and do his habilitation there.

Born accepted. Toeplitz helped Born brush up on his matrix algebra so he could work with the four-dimensional Minkowski space matrices used in the latter’s project to reconcile relativity with electrodynamics. Born and Minkowski got along well, and their work made good progress, but Minkowski died suddenly of appendicitis on 12 January 1909. The mathematics students had Born speak on their behalf at the funeral.

Born attempted to present their results at a meeting of the Göttingen Mathematics Society a few weeks later. He did not get far before he was publicly challenged by Klein and Max Abraham, who rejected relativity, and forced to terminate the lecture. However, Hilbert and Runge were interested in Born’s work, and after some discussion with Born they became convinced of the veracity of his results, and persuaded him to give the lecture again. This time he was not interrupted, and Voigt offered to sponsor Born’s habilitation thesis.

Born subsequently published his talk as an article on “The Theory of Rigid Bodies in the Kinematics of the Relativity Principle” German: Die Theorie des starren Elektrons in der Kinematik des Relativitätsprinzips, which introduced the concept of Born rigidity. On 23 October Born presented his habilitation lecture on the Thomson model of the atom.

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