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Monday, October 1, 2012

Max Born

Max Born, the son of an eminent physician and medical researcher, was born on December 11, 1882, in Breslau, then a part of Prussia, now known as Wroclaw, Poland. The senior Born was the first to recognize that sex hormones are produced in the corpus luteum. Born's mother died when he was four years old, and his father died in Born's last year of school. Born was married in 1913 to Hedwig Ehrenberg. The pair had three children.
Born attended the universities of Breslau, Heidelberg, Zurich, Cambridge, and Göttingen. He received his doctorate from Göttingen in 1907. After graduation, Born studied with Joseph J. Thomson at Cambridge and lectured at the University of Chicago. He then taught at Göttingen, until 1915, and Berlin and Frankfurt before returning to Göttingen as head of the physics department. During World War I, he served in the German army as an artillery research specialist.
Born received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1954 for research done 30 years earlier on quantum mechanics. The early 1920s were a period of transition between classical approaches to physics and modern uses of quantum mechanics. A problem of special importance at the time was atomic structure. Niels Bohr's " planetary" model of the atom (1913) had been a giant step forward in explaining many phenomena. His concept of the energy level of an electron provided a satisfactory general explanation for the spectrum of hydrogen. But his model was less than satisfying in other respects. It could not, for example, be used with any atom more complex than that of hydrogen.
Other theorists, including Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Louis de Broglie, Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, and Born, tried to find more precise ways of describing the character of subatomic particles. Born's contribution was to reinterpret de Broglie's wave equations for electrons as statements of probability. Changes in magnitude in the de Broglie equations, Born said, could be understood as changes in the probability of finding an electron in one or another location. The implication was that one could never state specifically where an electron would be found at any one point in time, but one could predict the probability of finding the electron at any given movement.
Born's new nondeterministic view of particles was rejected by many illustrious colleagues. Eventually, however, his interpretations were confirmed, and it is as a pioneer of this new way of looking at particles that he is most honored.
The rise of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) convinced Born to leave Germany. He moved to England and eventually became Tait Professor of Physics at the University of Edinburgh. After seventeen years there, he retired to Bad Pyrmont, Germany, a short distance from Göttingen, where he died on January 5, 1970.