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Distinguished scholar introduces new historical material on Niels Bohr

John Heilbron illuminates "the path to the quantum atom" in Nature's celebration of the Bohr atom's centennial.

This summer, Oxford University Press will publish Love, Literature, and the Quantum Atom: Niels Bohr's 1913 Trilogy Revisited, by Finn Aaserud and John Heilbron, the UC Berkeley historian of science who focuses extensively on physics. On 6 June, Nature published a special issue exploring the Bohr atom's "legacy—and how much there is still to learn about atomic structure." There Heilbron proposes that much remains to be understood about Bohr and his research.

Oxford University Press distills the forthcoming book in bullet points:

* Presents important new biographical material.
* Juxtaposes literary interests with scientific invention.
* Exhibits an unusual, perhaps unique, case of family support for intellectual work.
* Provides a rich account of science in the making.
* Attempts a new approach to scientific creativity.

Heilbron's essay in Nature's special issue begins, "In the autumn of 1911, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr set sail for a postdoctoral year in England inflamed with 'all my stupid wild courage,' as he expressed his state of mind in a letter to his fiancée, Margrethe Nørlund. Bohr would need that courage on his route to his revolutionary quantum atom of 1913."

Citing "family letters hitherto unavailable," Heilbron traces Bohr's progress, including interactions with J. J. Thomson (1906 Nobel laureate) and Ernest Rutherford (1908 Nobel laureate). Recurring themes in the essay are intellectual audacity and scientific ambiguity:

The successful computation of the Rydberg constant demanded serious sacrifices from physicists. It made a Balmer line originate in a jump of an electron to the second orbit from a higher one, and put the explanation of such jumps beyond the reach of physics. Rutherford spotted this immediately: in order to "vibrate" at the appropriate frequency, an electron would have to know where it would stop before it leapt. He was unwilling to concede foreknowledge to electrons or admit frequencies without vibrations.

Bohr replied that physicists must "renounce"—a word he came to use frequently—the possibility of exact descriptions of certain processes in the microworld.

Heilbron later adds:

Bohr's ability to entertain several conflicting ideas, and his courage in demanding sacrifices of physicists like Einstein, Planck and Lorentz, are breathtaking. We know that he did not lack confidence. Blazing courage is one thing, but tolerance of ambiguity is quite another.

Correspondence with his immediate family, especially Margrethe, suggests sources for this tolerance.

Calling that ambiguity to mind a century later, Nature's special issue also includes a commentary in which Frank Wilczek of MIT considers the "enigmatic electron." He concludes that "it is ideally simple and unimaginably complex; it is precisely understood and utterly mysterious."

The special issue includes as well a news feature about "stretching, stripping and contorting atoms to new and bizarre limits" and a discussion by theoretical physicists Paul Indelicato and Alexander Karpov on the limits of atomic and nuclear size.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.


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