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The Theme of Important People in Atoms, Molecules, and Ions

Getting Personal with Niels Bohr

Let's learn a little bit more about one of the science greats, Niels Bohr. It's easy to read about a chemist, physicist, or biologist and label them as pocket protector lovers, but there is often more to these guys than meets the eye.


Niels Bohr (1885-1962). (Image from here.)

Niels Bohr was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1885.8 He earned a Ph.D. in physics in Copenhagen in 1911. After that achievement, he worked with J. J. Thomson in Cambridge, England, and later with Ernest Rutherford in Manchester, England. Talk about having some great buddies.

It was in Manchester that he began to develop the ideas that a few years later would lead to the publication of his theory of atomic structure and his explanation of atomic structure. This work earned him the Nobel Prize in 1922 when he was 37 years old. That's a youngin' by Nobel standards. After this achievement, he returned to Copenhagen where he became the director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics. We probably would have opted to retire in Hawaii.


Niels Bohr is Not Just Another Winner of the Nobel Prize. (Image from here.)

Like we said, there's more to this guy than meets the eye. For example, Bohr was in Denmark when Hitler's army invaded the country in 1940. To avoid imprisonment in 1942, he escaped to Sweden with his family. It was there when he helped arrange the escape of nearly every Danish Jew from Hitler's gas chambers.9

He was later flown to England in a tiny plane, in which he passed into a coma and nearly died from lack of oxygen.

The United States was his next home. There, he worked with other physicists on the atomic bomb development in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He was one of the few on the Manhattan Project to insist on sharing the secret of the atomic bomb with other allies in order to permit international control and regulation over nuclear energy. This angered Winston Churchill so much so that Churchill almost ordered Bohr's incarceration.

For the rest of his years, Bohr worked long and hard on behalf of the development and use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes. For his efforts, he was awarded the first Atoms for Peace Prize in 1957.10

He died in Copenhagen on November 19, 1962. He was not only a great scientist, but a great man and humanitarian.

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