Archive for category Science

Einstein was a refugee…

… and so were an astonishing number of the other great physicists of the first half of the twentieth century.

These famous photographs are from the 1927 and 1933 Solvay Physics Conferences, and given the dates, it is interesting to ponder what became of those gathered there, not in terms of their scientific contribution (about which I am not qualified to speak)  but how they fared as Europe was engulfed in barbarism.

A. Piccard, E. Henriot, P. Ehrenfest, E. Herzen, Th. de Donder, E. Schrödinger, J.E. Verschaffelt, W. Pauli, W. Heisenberg, R.H. Fowler, L. Brillouin;

P. Debye, M. Knudsen, W.L. Bragg, H.A. Kramers, P.A.M. Dirac, A.H. Compton, L. de Broglie, M. Born, N. Bohr;
I. Langmuir, M. Planck, M. Skłodowska-Curie, H.A. Lorentz, A. Einstein, P. Langevin, Ch.-E. Guye, C.T.R. Wilson, O.W. Richardson

Erwin Schrodinger left Germany in 1933 to work,  in the UK, but took up a post in Austria.  In 1939, after the Anschluss, Schrödinger was dismissed from the University and  fled to Italy.  Wolfgang Pauli  fled to the United States in 1940.  Leon Brillouin resigned from his post in France after the Occupation, and went to the United States.  Peter Debye left Germany in early 1940, and became a professor at Cornell.  Max Born was suspended from his post in 1933 – he emigrated to Britain, where he took a job at St John’s College, Cambridge.

Niels Bohr gave refugees from Nazism temporary jobs at the Institute, provided them with financial support, arranged for them to be awarded fellowships or found them places at various institutions around the world. Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and in 1943, fearing arrest, he fled to Sweden, where he persuaded the King  to make public Sweden’s willingness to provide asylum, helping to effect the rescue of many Danish Jews.

Albert Einstein was visiting the US when Hitler came to power in 1933 and did not go back to Germany.  He spoke at the inaugural public meeting of the Academic Assistance Committee (later CARA).


The seventh Conference, in 1933: Seated (left to right): Erwin Schrödinger, Irène Joliot, Niels Henrik David Bohr, Abram Ioffe, Marie Curie, Paul Langevin, Owen Willans Richardson, Lord Ernest Rutherford, Théophile de Donder, Maurice de Broglie, Louis de Broglie, Lise Meitner, James Chadwick. Standing (left to right): Émile Henriot, Francis Perrin, Frédéric Joliot, Werner Heisenberg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, E. Stahel, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, Paul Dirac, Peter Joseph William Debye, Nevill Francis Mott, Blas Cabrera, George Gamow, Walther Bothe, Patrick Blackett, M.S. Rosenblum, Jacques Errera, Ed. Bauer, Wolfgang Pauli, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, M. Cosyns, E. Herzen, John Douglas Cockcroft, Charles Drummond Ellis, Rudolf Peierls, Auguste Piccard, Ernest O. Lawrence, Léon Rosenfeld.

Niels Bohr. In 1922 the Nobel Prize in Physics...

Niels Bohr

Max Cosyns, from Belgium, joined the Resistance and was imprisoned in Dachau.   Enrico Fermi left Italy in 1938 to escape Mussolini’s racial laws that affected his Jewish wife, and emigrated to the United States.  Rudolf Peierls
was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came
to power – he was granted leave to remain in Britain, and worked in Manchester
under a fund set up for refugees.

Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew, escaped to the Netherlands, with help from Dutch physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker. She was forced to travel under cover to the Dutch border, where Coster persuaded German immigration officers that she had permission to travel to the Netherlands. She later said that she left Germany forever with 10 marks in her purse.  From the Netherlands she went on to Stockholm, and worked with Niels Bohr.

George Gamow worked at a number of Soviet establishments before deciding to flee Russia because of increased oppression. In 1933 he was suddenly granted permission to attend the Solvay Conference. He attended, with his wife, and arranged to extend their stay. Over the next year, Gamow obtained temporary work at the Curie Institute, University of London and University of Michigan.

In addition -

Ugo Fano left Italy for the US in 1939 because of anti-Semitism.  Liviu Librescu was born in 1930 to a Romanian Jewish family, and was deported first to a labour camp and then a ghetto in Focsani.   Walter Kohn came to England with the Kindertransport after the annexation of Austria.  Both of his parents were killed in the Holocaust.  Svein Rosseland fled Norway after the German occupation and went to the US.  Otto Stern resigned his post at the University of Hamburg in 1933 and became Professor of Physics at the Carnegie Institute.  Guido Beck  studied physics in Vienna.  Jewish born, he travelled in the 1930s to avoid persecution in Germany, but was imprisoned in France in 1937 at the start of the war – in 1941 he fled to Portugal and then in 1943 to Argentina. Felix Bloch  left Germany immediately after Hitler came to power, and emigrated to work at Stanford University.  James Franck left his post in Germany and continued his research in the United States. Otto Robert Frisch left Vienna for London to work at Birkbeck College.  Hilde Levi fled Denmark when the round-ups of Jews began, moving to Sweden, where she worked at the Wenner-Gren Institute for Experimental Biology in Stockholm.  Edward Teller  left Göttingen in 1933 through the aid of the International Rescue Committee, worked in the UK and then in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, before being invited to the United States in 1935.  Arthur von Hippel left Germany in 1933, mainly because his wife was Jewish, but due also to his political stance against the new regime – he was able to secure a position in Turkey, then spent a year in Denmark before moving to the US to work at MIT.  Viki Weisskopf was born in Vienna, and worked with Bohr at his institute in Copenhagen – Bohr then helped him find a position in the US.

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Uncertainty – physics, ethics and politics

Once you start thinking about labyrinths they crop up everywhere.  Just recently the context was crime fiction, particularly of the noir variety (to be another blog, soon).   The other night, it was memory, memories of a specific encounter, that between Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his former protege Werner Heisenberg, in September (or was it October?) 1941.   As the protagonists, aided and challenged by Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, try to ‘follow the threads right back to the beginning of the maze’ (p.56), the answers they seek elude them as soon as they seem to be within reach.   Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, just ended at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield (part of a season of his work), entwines physics, philosophy and politics (and is the only evening at the theatre I can recall when interval chat in the bar concerned semiconductor-based quantum optical memories).

Henry Goodman and Geoffrey Streatfeild in Copenhagen

The play starts with a question – why did Heisenberg visit Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 – and the possible answers put forward by all three protagonists are diverse and contradictory, but not mutually exclusive (complementarity theory at work).  Did H, then working in Nazi Germany, want to recruit B to help with their atomic weapons programme?  To pump him for information about either the science or the progress being made by British and American scientists working in the field?  To warn or offer him some sort of protection from Nazi racial policies?  To seek absolution and forgiveness? Perhaps all of the above.  But as they re-run and redraft the encounter, the moral certainties become muddied, and clear again, repeatedly.

The play has been criticised for leaving us with these questions unanswered.  For some, there’s no ambiguity at all – Heisenberg was a German patriot, who supported Hitler’s war aims, and his nuclear programme.  Frayn’s human and conflicted portrayal is therefore a form of revisionism.   I didn’t read it like that.  The play allows Heisenberg to present a variety of self-justifications – his patriotism, arising out of the humiliation and deprivation that followed the first war, the fact that he did not tell Albert Speer how a bomb could have been made, the fact that he ‘never managed to contribute to the death of one single solitary person’. Unlike Bohr, who did make some contribution to the Allied nuclear programme, and thus played a ‘small but helpful part in the deaths of a hundred thousand people’ (p.91) at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  However, that Heisenberg presents those self-justifications, or allows them to be presented by the generous-spirited Bohr, does not mean that the audience accepts them, any more than we accept Heisenberg’s equation of the ‘impossibly difficult situation’ faced by Bohr with his own (p.21).

When Heisenberg speaks of the hardships and devastations visited on his country after the first war,  we surely cannot help but think of the hardships and devastation currently being visited by his country on occupied Europe.  When he ducks the occasional challenges about the expulsion of Jewish scientists, about the deaths of fellow-scientist Goudsmit’s parents in Auschwitz (‘He thought I should have done something to save them.  I don’t know what.   So many hands stretching up from the darkness for a lifeline, and no lifeline that could ever reach them’), about the possibility of resistance (‘You think I should have joined the plot against Hitler and got myself hanged like the others. …What would it have achieved?’) do we let him off the hook?  Hardly.   And nor do Bohr and Margrethe.

The only possible claim for absolution would rest in the suggestion that Heisenberg chose not to consider doing a particular calculation knowing that it would have shown the possibility of using fission to create a weapon.   Everything we are told about Heisenberg’s character seems to make this unlikely. David Lindley, in his fascinating book Uncertainty, concludes that Heisenberg was ‘not the man to do practical nuclear physics or engineering’, and had genuinely never figured out how a bomb would work.   He says that ‘this failure transmuted into a story that the Germans, meaning in particular Heisenberg, had turned away from the moral repugnance of building atomic weapons, or had even deliberately misled their political superiors about the feasibility of doing so.  Heisenberg never exactly said this.  He never exactly denied it’ (pp. 221-2).  That he was prepared to allow this suggestion to remain in the air, perhaps even in preference to the suggestion of a scientific failure, scarcely redeems him.  Similarly, when the possibility occurs to Bohr that Heisenberg had directly or indirectly enabled his own escape from Denmark, and those of thousands of Danish Jews – Heisenberg doesn’t confirm or deny this, not exactly.  He says ‘Nothing to do with me, by that time.  I regret to say’, but has earlier claimed Duckwitz from the German Embassy, the man who forewarned the Resistance of the timing for the SS roundup, and reported the entire patrol boat squadron unseaworthy on the night of the escape, as one of ‘his’ men.   Strangely, Heisenberg (in the play) credits Duckwitz with having persuaded the Swedish government to accept the refugees, whereas other sources claim that it was Bohr himself who did so, delaying his own departure from Sweden to the US until he had won that concession.  Uncertainty piled upon uncertainty. In the end, Frayn trusts the audience to draw its own moral conclusions.

From an arts & humanities viewpoint, we tend to see science as a realm of certainties, of clarity and precision.   But, to quote a physicist friend, science is not an exact science.  However, what Heisenberg means by uncertainty is not the fuzzy thing that I might mean by it, even though one of the words he used – Unscharf – does mean blurredness or fuzziness.   It’s about the limitations of measurements – the way in which precision in the measurement of one variable implies a reduced precision in measurement of the related variable, but ‘this ratio, the uncertainty relationship, is itself precisely formulable’ (Frayn, p.98).  In relation to human memories and motivations, obviously, there isn’t a precise ratio.  However, the basic principles that the observer changes the thing observed, that the act of observation determines what is and isn’t observed, lend themselves readily to wider application, and the uncertainty of thoughts is ‘a systematic limitation which cannot even in theory be circumvented’ (Frayn, 99).   Heisenberg and Einstein clashed bitterly over uncertainty – the former insisted that we could not construct ‘an absolute, God’s eye view into the inside of an item’ but merely observe its behaviour, in various ways, and infer what we could from that, whilst the latter maintained that whilst observers might disagree, ‘events retain a distinct and unarguable physicality’ such that a consensus could be arrived at between apparently conflicting accounts and an underlying objectivity persists. (Lindley, 132).  Bohr brought a particular perspective to this ‘inexactness’ – complementarity, the mixing of incommensurable concepts, which have necessary but contradictory roles to play – ‘an unavoidable disharmony’ (Lindley 148).

Bohr and Heisenberg are incommensurable concepts themselves – Heisenberg who skis at speed down the slope, caring only that he gets there, that it works, never caring ‘what got destroyed on the way’, whilst Bohr does ‘seventeen drafts of every slalom’ (pp 24-5).  Bohr revels in the contradictions, whilst Heisenberg lives and breathes paradox and contradiction but ‘can no more see the beauty of them then the fish can see the beauty of the water’ (pp 65-6).

It’s often said that for evil to triumph all that is required is for good men to do nothing.  In this case, just possibly, evil was thwarted by inaction rather than action.   Had Bohr argued the science with Heisenberg in 1941, the latter might have realised the crucial calculation that would enable the bomb to be built in time for Hitler to use it.   Margrethe suggests that this was ‘the last and greatest act of friendship’, to leave Heisenberg misunderstood.   In the Lyceum production, as the final redraft takes place, and this time Bohr doesn’t walk away, but asks him why he is so confident that building a bomb would be ‘reassuringly difficult’, in the background we hear a low booming sound, increasing in volume as Heisenberg stops and says ‘Hold on’ and  ‘a very different and very terrible new world begins to take shape’ (p.89).

The Lyceum production was wonderfully performed by Henry Goodman, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Barbara Flynn, and, as Jonathan Brown said in the Independent, ‘the sheer intelligence of the drama and its subject matter is a thing of beauty’ (9/3/12).  It makes demands on its audience, it challenges, but it’s also moving and haunting, and terribly hard to forget.

If I’ve misrepresented science in any of the above, I humbly beg its forgiveness.

Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (London: Methuen, 2003)

David C Cassidy, ‘A Historical Perspective on Copenhagen’,

David Lindley, Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science (NY: Doubleday, 2007)




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