13 Facts About Physicist Niels Bohr

Baron/Getty Images
Baron/Getty Images

Quantum physics might not be the most approachable topic, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard of some of its elemental parts, like atoms. In the early 20th century, Danish physicist Niels Bohr discovered the basic atomic structure—a positively charged nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons—which laid the groundwork for how we understand atoms today. Here are 13 things you might not have known about Bohr.

1. HIS FATHER WAS NOMINATED FOR NOBEL PRIZES THREE TIMES IN TWO YEARS.

Niels Bohr, born in Copenhagen in 1885, was brought up in a family that valued science. His father Christian was a physiology professor at the University of Copenhagen, and he often hosted fellow scientists at his home for lively discussions. Young Niels and his two siblings often listened in, which likely inspired the young student’s future studies. Though he never won, Christian Bohr was nominated for the Nobel Prize by one colleague in 1907 and by two in 1908, all for his research on the physiology of respiration.

2. NIELS BOHR WAS A STELLAR STUDENT BUT A MEDIOCRE WRITER.

Bohr enrolled at the Gammelholm Latin School at age 7 and did well in all of his classes except for composition. According to the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, he once turned in an essay that contained just two sentences: "A trip in the harbor: My brother and I went for a walk in the harbor. There we saw ships land and leave."

But by secondary school, he was correcting errors that he discovered in his physics textbooks. He excelled in the majority of his studies, and he graduated first in his class. Later in life, he penned a number of philosophical writings on physics, having overcome his youthful aversion to exposition.

3. HE SET OFF EXPLOSIONS IN HIS UNIVERSITY'S CHEMISTRY LAB.

Bohr began his university studies in 1903 at the same institution that employed his father, the University of Copenhagen. While he initially studied mathematics and philosophy, he won a physics competition sponsored by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences, and he soon changed his major to physics. Bohr studied other fields, including inorganic chemistry, perhaps less successfully: He earned a reputation for causing explosions in the lab, and eventually broke a record amount of glass at the school. He would, however, go on to earn a master’s degree in 1909 and a doctorate in 1911 in physics.

4. BOHR DISAGREED WITH HIS PROFESSOR’S “PLUM PUDDING” THEORY.

After graduating, Bohr continued his studies at Cambridge University under J.J. Thomson, who had discovered the electron in 1897. Thomson had turned his attention to cathode rays, which were then believed to be part of the ether—a theoretical, weightless substance found everywhere in the universe. But he eventually determined that the rays were actually particles even smaller than the atom by showing that they could be deflected by electricity. This led Thomson to propose the “plum pudding” structure of atoms, in which negatively charged electrons are embedded in a sphere of positively charged matter, like raisins in a English pudding. Bohr would later contradict the “plum pudding” structure with his atomic model.

5. BOHR NAILED THE TRUE STRUCTURE OF AN ATOM IN 1913.

After finding his work at odds with Thomson’s, Bohr joined the Manchester University lab of Ernest Rutherford, who had also studied under Thomson. Rutherford had discovered the atomic nucleus through an experiment in which he shot alpha particles at a thin sheet of gold foil. Because some of the particles bounced back instead of going through the gold, he determined the majority of the atom’s mass must be within a small, central nucleus, with the electrons orbiting around it.

This became the foundation of his work with Bohr. The pair studied the structure of the atom, and Bohr determined Rutherford’s model must not be entirely correct. By the laws of physics, the orbiting electrons should eventually crash into the nucleus and destabilize the atom. Bohr eventually tweaked Rutherford’s model by explaining that the electrons orbiting a positively charged nucleus can jump between energy levels, which stabilizes the atoms.

6. HE FOUNDED COPENHAGEN’S INSTITUTE FOR THEORETICAL PHYSICS.

Based on his atomic research, the University of Copenhagen hired Bohr as a professor of theoretical physics in 1916 when he was just 31 years old. Soon after, he began pushing for a new institute for his field, which would allow researchers from all over the world to collaborate with Danish scientists at a state-of-the-art facility. He was granted approval, and the institute opened in 1921 with Bohr serving as director. (His mathematician brother Harald, a former Olympic soccer player, would go on to open the university’s mathematical institute next door nine years later.) In 1965 the university renamed the facility the Niels Bohr Institute, and today more than 1000 staff and students work and study there.

7. BOHR WON THE NOBEL PRIZE AT THE SAME TIME—AND IN THE SAME FIELD—AS ALBERT EINSTEIN.

Bohr and Einstein were not only contemporaries; they were good friends who partook in a series of conversations on physics over the course of decades, most notably at the 1927 Solvay Conferences now known as the Bohr–Einstein Debates. They argued two very different positions regarding the observations of electrons behaving as a particle in some experiments and a wave in others, even though an electron shouldn’t be able to be both. Bohr theorized the concept of complementarity to explain the phenomenon—that is, something can be two things at once, but we can only observe one of those things at a time. In establishing a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics, Bohr argued that the act of observation of particles brings them into existence, which is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation.

Einstein, on the other hand, argued that particles exist whether or not we actively observe them. (Imagine a very complex version of the “if a tree falls in the forest” question.) Even with their opposing theories, both were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922: Bohr for his atomic model, and Einstein for his work on the photoelectric effect (instead of his then-controversial theory of relativity). So how did the two physicists receive prizes for the same thing in the same year? Einstein was actually awarded the 1921 prize a year late, due to a technicality.

8. THE CARLSBERG BREWERY GAVE BOHR UNLIMITED FREE BEER.

Danish beer giant Carlsberg, known for having its own laboratories to promote the study of natural sciences as they related to brewing, invited Bohr to live in its honorary residence, a house near its production facilities given to a deserving artist, scientist, or writer for life. It had a tap connected directly to the brewery for free beer. In 1932, Bohr and his family moved in, and stayed for the next 30 years.

The sweet real estate deal was not Carlsberg’s first interaction with the scientist. The brewery’s foundation helped Bohr pay for his research in England and funded the Institute for Theoretical Physics.

9. BOHR HELPED JEWISH SCIENTISTS ESCAPE THE NAZIS—UNTIL HE TOO HAD TO FLEE.

As the Nazis overran Europe at the height of World War II, Bohr helped scientists escaping the regime in Germany by providing them with funding, lab space, and temporary homes in Copenhagen. Bohr himself was forced to flee in 1943 after the Nazis overtook his country—Bohr’s mother was Jewish, and his entire family was persecuted. They fled Denmark on a fishing boat bound for Sweden, then Bohr and his son Aage were smuggled to England in the empty bay of a British Mosquito bomber plane. In London, he consulted with the Canadian and British governments’ ultra-classified program to develop nuclear weapons, code-named Tube Alloys.

10. HE USED THE ALIAS “NICHOLAS BAKER.”

In 1939, American officials had learned that Germany was attempting to build an atomic bomb. Five years later, the U.S. government invited Bohr to work on the Manhattan Project, its top-secret program to develop uranium- and plutonium-based nuclear bombs with the purpose of forcing the Axis nations to surrender. For two years, Bohr collaborated with American and British physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, using the name Nicholas Baker as a cover. In 1944, he wrote to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill with a progress report:

“What until a few years ago might be considered as a fantastic dream is at present being realized within great laboratories and huge production plants secretly erected in some of the most solitary regions of the United States. There a larger group of physicists than ever before collected for a single purpose, working hand in hand with a whole army of engineers and technicians, are preparing new materials capable of an immense energy release, and are developing ingenious devices for the most effective use of these materials. […]

“One cannot help comparing the situation with that of the alchemists of former days, groping in the dark in their vain efforts to make gold. Today physicists and engineers are, on the basis of firmly established knowledge, controlling and directing violent reactions by which new materials far more precious than gold are built up, atom by atom.”

11. BOHR WANTED NUCLEAR SCIENCE USED FOR PEACE.

He was a staunch believer in sharing the science behind nuclear weapons—a view not taken by U.S. and British leaders. Returning to Denmark after the war, Bohr directed his atomic research toward developing sustainable power rather than weapons. He and several colleagues established Risø, a research laboratory with a modern particle accelerator dedicated to developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, in the 1950s.

At the same time, Bohr co-founded the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), which held conferences and conducted research at Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics for its first five years, prior to moving to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1957. The center now houses the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, which generates electrical fields to speed up the movement of atomic particles and uses magnets to direct their flow. The collisions of the particles reveal information about their properties. Using the Large Hadron Collider, a team of researchers first observed a new type of particle, the Higgs boson, in 2012.

12. HIS SON AAGE ALSO WON A NOBEL PRIZE.

Bohr’s life wasn’t just focused on his work—he was a family man, too. He married Margrethe Nørlund in 1912, and they had six sons, four of whom survived into adulthood. His son Aage would follow closely in his father’s footsteps, becoming not only a physicist, but also the director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics (after his father passed away in 1962) and winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physics for his research into the structure of atomic nuclei. The Bohrs are one of six father-son pairs to have each won a Nobel Prize (Niels Bohr’s professor J.J. Thomson and his son George Paget Thomson are another).

13. AN ELEMENT IS NAMED AFTER HIM.

Bohr still contributed to physics after his death—in a way. In 1981, German researchers succeeded in creating a single atom of Element 107, isotope 262, the result of bombarding bismuth atoms with chromium atoms. They named it Bohrium. The highly radioactive element does not occur in nature and, so far, only a few atoms of it have ever been created in a lab.

11 Things You Might Not Know About Neil Armstrong

NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

No matter where private or government space travel may take us in the future, NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) will forever have a place as the first human to ever set foot on solid ground outside of our atmosphere. Taking “one small step” onto the Moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired generations of ambitious people to reach for the stars in their own lives. On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, we're taking a look back at the life of this American hero.

1. Neil Armstrong knew how to fly before he got a driver's license.

Neil Armstrong poses for a portrait 10 years before the 1969 Apollo mission
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born August 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong became preoccupied with aviation early on. At around age 6, his father took him on a ride in a Ford Trimotor airplane, one of the most popular airplanes in the world. By age 15, he had accumulated enough flying lessons to command a cockpit, reportedly before he ever earned his driver’s license. During the Korean War, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions before moving on to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA.

2. Neil Armstrong's famous quote was misheard back on Earth.

When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the Moon, hundreds of millions of television viewers were riveted. Armstrong could be heard saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But that’s not exactly what he said. According to the astronaut, he was fairly sure he stated, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The “a” may have broken up on transmission or it may have been obscured as a result of his speaking patterns. (According to First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, Armstrong said, “I’m not particularly articulate. Perhaps it was a suppressed sound that didn’t get picked up by the voice mike. As I have listened to it, it doesn’t sound like there was time for the word to be there. On the other hand, I think that reasonable people will realize that I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement, and certainly the ‘a’ was intended, because that’s the only way the statement makes any sense. So I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn’t said—although it actually might have been.”) Armstrong claimed the statement was spontaneous, but his brother and others have claimed he had written it down prior to the mission.

3. We don't have a really good picture of Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

Buzz Aldrin is seen walking on the moon
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the most celebrated human achievements of the 20th century came at a time when video and still cameras were readily available—yet there are precious few images of Armstrong actually walking on the surface of the Moon. (One of the most iconic shots, above, is Aldrin; Armstrong only appears as a reflection in his helmet.) The reason, according to Armstrong, is that he really didn’t care and didn’t think to ask Aldrin to snap some photos. “I don't think Buzz had any reason to take my picture, and it never occurred to me that he should,” Armstrong told his biographer, James R. Hansen. “I have always said that Buzz was the far more photogenic of the crew."

4. A door hinge may have made all the difference to the Apollo 11 mission.

Theories abound as to why it was Armstrong and not Buzz Aldrin who first set foot on the Moon. (On the Gemini missions, the co-pilot did the spacewalks, while the commander stayed in the craft. For Apollo 11, Armstrong was the commander.) The answer may have been the simple logistics of getting out of their lunar module. The exit had a right hinge that opened inwardly, with the man sitting on the left (Armstrong) having the most unobstructed path to the outside. Aldrin would have essentially had to climb over Armstrong to get out first.

5. Neil Armstrong was more concerned about landing on the Moon than he was walking on it.

The lunar module that took NASA astronauts to the moon
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The romantic notion of a human stepping foot on space soil captured imaginations, but for Armstrong, it was getting there in one piece that was the real accomplishment. The lunar module Armstrong controlled had to be brought down on the Moon’s surface from 50,000 feet up, avoiding rocks, craters, and other obstacles as it jockeyed into a position for landing. Because there is no air resistance, nothing could slow their descent, and they used thrusters to guide the craft down. That meant there was only enough fuel to attempt it once. The “business” of getting down the ladder was, in Armstrong’s view, less significant.

6. Neil Armstrong was carrying a bag worth $1.8 million.

When Armstrong surveyed the surface of the Moon, he collected a bag of dust for NASA scientists to examine. Apollo moon samples are illegal to buy or sell, but that apparently wasn't the case with the “lunar collection bag” Armstrong used to hold the samples. In 2015, the bag was purchased by Chicago resident Nancy Lee Carlson from a government auction site for $995. But its sale was, apparently, an accident: When Carlson sent the bag to NASA to confirm its authenticity, NASA said it was their property and refused to send it back—so Carlson took the agency to court. A judge ruled it belonged to Carlson, and in 2017, she sold the bag for a whopping $1.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

7. Neil Armstrong and his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts had to spend three weeks in quarantine.

Richard Nixon greets the returning Apollo 11 astronauts
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins (who remained behind in the command module while the other two touched down on the Moon) returned to Earth and were fetched by the USS Hornet, they got a king’s welcome. The only asterisk: They had to bask in their newfound fame from inside a sealed chamber. All three men were quarantined for three weeks in the event they had picked up any strange space virus. When President Richard Nixon visited, he greeted them through the chamber’s glass window.

8. Neil Armstrong's space suit was made by Playtex.

Yes, the undergarment people. In the early 1960s, NASA doled out contract work for their space suits to government suppliers, but it was Playtex (or more properly the International Latex Corporation) and their understanding of fabrics and seams that led to NASA awarding them responsibility for the Apollo mission suits. Their A7L suit was what Armstrong wore to insulate himself against the harsh void of space when he made his famous touchdown. The astronaut called it “reliable” and even “cuddly.”

9. Neil Armstrong became a university professor.

Newil Armstrong sits behind a desk in 1970
AFP/Getty Images

Following his retirement from NASA in 1971, Armstrong was reticent to remain in the public eye. Demands for his time were everywhere, and he had little ambition to become a walking oral history of his singular achievement. Instead, he accepted a job as a professor of engineering at the University of Cincinnati and remained on the faculty for eight years.

10. Neil Armstrong once sued Hallmark.

Hallmark was forced to defend itself when Armstrong took issue with the company using his name and likeness without permission for a 1994 Christmas ornament. The bulb depicted Armstrong and came with a sound chip that said phrases like, “The Eagle has landed.” The two parties came to an undisclosed but “substantial” settlement in 1995, which was, according to First Man, donated to Purdue University (minus legal fees).

11. Neil Armstrong was a Chrysler pitchman.

Armstrong’s preference to lead a private life continued over the decades, but he did make one notable exception. For a 1979 Super Bowl commercial spot, Armstrong agreed to appear on camera endorsing Chrysler automobiles. Armstrong said he did it because he wanted the struggling U.S. car maker to improve their sales and continue contributing to the domestic economy. The ads never mentioned Armstrong was an astronaut.

Pioneering Heart Surgeon René Favaloro Is Being Honored With a Google Doodle

Dr. René Favaloro (left) pictured with colleague Dr. Mason Sones.
Dr. René Favaloro (left) pictured with colleague Dr. Mason Sones.
The Cleveland Clinic Center for Medical Art & Photography, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Argentinian heart surgeon René Favaloro is the subject of today’s Google Doodle, which features a sketched portrait of the doctor along with an anatomical heart and several medical tools, The Independent reports.

The renowned doctor was born on this day in 1923 in La Plata, the capital of Argentina’s Buenos Aires province, and pursued a degree in medicine at La Plata University. After 12 years as a doctor in La Pampa, where he established the area’s first mobile blood bank, trained nurses, and built his own operating room, Favaloro relocated to the U.S. to specialize in thoracic surgery at the Cleveland Clinic.

In 1967, Favaloro performed coronary bypass surgery on a 51-year-old woman whose right coronary artery was blocked, restricting blood flow to her heart. Coronary bypass surgery involves taking a healthy vein from elsewhere in the body (in this case, Favaloro borrowed from the patient’s leg, but you can also use a vein from the arm or chest), and using it to channel the blood from the artery to the heart, bypassing the blockage. According to the Mayo Clinic, it doesn’t cure whatever heart disease that caused the blocked artery, but it can relieve symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath, and it gives patients time to make other lifestyle changes to further manage their disease.

Favaloro wasn’t keen on being called the “father” of coronary bypass surgery, but his work brought the procedure to the forefront of the clinical field. He moved back to Argentina in 1971 and launched the Favaloro Foundation to train surgeons and treat a variety of patients from diverse economic backgrounds.

Favaloro died by suicide on July 29, 2000, at the age of 77, by a gunshot wound to the chest. His wife had died several years prior, and his foundation had fallen deeply into debt, which Argentinian hospitals and medical centers declined to help pay, The New York Times reported at the time.

“As a surgeon, Dr. Favaloro will be remembered for his ingenuity and imagination,” his colleague Dr. Denton A. Cooley wrote in a tribute shortly after Favaloro’s death. “But as a man ... he will be remembered for his compassion and selflessness.” Today would have been his 96th birthday.

[h/t The Independent]

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