Saturday, October 8, 2011

A geek's tale...

Nobel Prizes are all in the news right now, so here's a Nobel Prize story:

In 1922, Niels Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the structure of the atom.  Bohr’s model, where an atom is represented as a micro-solar system with electrons orbiting a central nucleus, is the one most people are familiar with.  Unlike some recent Nobel Peace Prize awards, Bohr’s Nobel Prize was well-deserved and made him quite a celebrity in his native much so that the Danish Academy offered Bohr lifetime free occupancy in the Danish House of Honor.
The Danish House of Honor was originally the palatial estate of the founder of the Carlsberg Brewery, Jacob Christian Jacobson.  When he died, Jacob left his entire estate, including the brewery, to the charitable Carlsberg Foundation.  The Foundation turned Jacob’s house into the so-called Danish House of Honor, occupancy of which was reserved for Denmark’s most distinguished citizen, and was considered to be the most prestigious address in the country, outside of the king’s palace.  An invitation to live in the House of Honor was considered a very significant honor and Bohr's being awarded lifetime occupancy is indicative of his celebrity at the time.  The House of Honor was located immediately adjacent to the Carlsberg brewery and one of its many perks was a hard-plumbed line to the brewery that provided an infinite supply of fresh-from-the-brewery beer.  Sweet.

Bohr’s tenure in the House of Honor was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of Denmark in 1940.  Although the American Embassy had guaranteed the Bohr's safe passage to the United States, Bohr decided to stay to help insure the safety of the Jewish scientists on his institute’s staff.  He also found himself in a minor dilemna - and this is the "geek" part of the story:  Max von Laue and James Franck had given him their gold Nobel Prize medals for safekeeping.  However, with the Nazi occupation, sending them out of the country was impossible as exporting gold was illegal and, since each laureate’s name is prominently engraved on the medal, could not be done without incriminating von Laue and Franck, who were both still in Germany at the time.  Keeping them was also dangerous as the Nazis, who were desperate for hard currency to finance their war effort, would confiscate them for the value of their gold if they were discovered.  Bohr came up with a physicist’s solution, in a very literal sense, to the problem.  He dissolved the medals in acid and stored the solutions in unmarked jars on his laboratory shelves.  These jars sat out the war unmolested and, afterwards, the Nobel Foundation recovered the gold and recast the medals.
Side note:  I don't doubt that some might claim that Bohr actually came up with a chemist's solution to his dilemma, but physicists have always claimed that chemistry was nothing more than the smelly part of physics.
Another side note:  Bohr remained in Denmark until 1943 when it was learned that the Nazis were about to start rounding up Jews (Bohr's mother was Jewish).  Bohr's international celebrity was such that he was able to travel to Stockholm where he convinced the Swedish government to agree to intern any Danish Jews that made their way to Sweden.  The Swedish government also sent a formal letter of protest to the Nazis, which was made public.  The publication of the letter had the effect Bohr desired; the Danes were alerted to the imminent danger to their countrymen and when the Nazis began their round-up, there were no Jews to be found.  The Danes, to their eternal credit, had hidden their Jewish citizens away and began to smuggle them into Sweden.  Of the 7,000 Jews living in Denmark at that time, only 284 were picked up by the Nazis.


  1. Yay Chemistry!
    But mostly I appreciate you getting beer worked into a post about the Nobel Prize.

  2. Wow. What a cool story about Bohr. Someone that deserved the Nobel Prize for sure!

  3. Was that a crack at our fair President or the 3 women honored for there non-violent struggle for women's rights? I can never tell w/ you.

  4. April, it was a crack at our president, current holder of both the Most People Killed in Predator Drone Strikes by a Nobel Peace Prize Winner record and the Most Acts of Violent Global Imperialism Instigated by a Nobel Peace Prize Winner record.