Born unto Trouble
The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born:
The Nobel Physicist Who Ignited the Quantum Revolution.
Nancy Thorndike Greenspan. x + 374 pp. Basic Books, 2005. $26.95.
The distinguished German and British theoretical physicist Max Born
(1882-1970) was in the forefront of the two great revolutions in
20th-century physics—relativity theory and quantum mechanics.
He was among the small number of mainly European theorists who
created quantum mechanics during the 1920s. He contributed to the
statistical, probabilistic, uncertain interpretation of quantum
experiments known as the Copenhagen Interpretation. As the head of
the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of
Göttingen in Germany, Born helped to train a generation of the
world's leading physicists, among them Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang
Pauli, Pascual Jordan, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller.
Yet Born was among the last of those who led the quantum revolution
to receive a Nobel Prize for his work; and he was, until now, among
the last to receive the attention of a full-scale biography. Nancy
Thorndike Greenspan has more than made up for that deficiency with
The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max
Born. With the support of Born's family, Greenspan has drawn on
Born's correspondence, his wife's diaries and a host of memoirs and
secondary historical studies to provide an admirable, informative,
highly readable account of this remarkable man and his extraordinary times.
The biography begins and ends with the Nobel Prize. Although Born
did not, as the book's subtitle claims, "ignite the quantum
revolution," he built the fire after Heisenberg provided the
initial spark in 1925 with the discovery of a multiplication rule
that Born recognized as matrix multiplication. Together with his
assistants Jordan and Heisenberg, Born formulated the matrix version
of quantum mechanics, which, when combined with Erwin
Schrödinger's wave mechanics, provided the unified formalism of
quantum mechanics. Born was the first to discover a fundamental
component of quantum physics, the so-called commutation relation. He
also formulated the statistical interpretation of Schrödinger's
wave function, with the profound implications for causality and
determinism so characteristic of quantum mechanics. "The motion
of particles follows probability rules," he declared, "but
the probability itself propagates in conformity with the law of
causality." This view became a fundamental tenet of the
successful Copenhagen Interpretation.
But the contributions of Born, who was shy and retiring, were soon
forgotten, as Heisenberg and others eagerly promoted the new
interpretation as an expression of the "Copenhagen spirit"
cultivated by Niels Bohr. Reviewing the archival records, Greenspan
found that Born did not receive strong support for a Nobel Prize. He
was forced to watch in hurt dejection as the Nobel Committee awarded
the 1932 and 1933 prizes to Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Paul
Dirac for the creation of quantum mechanics. The oversight was
finally corrected in 1954.
Born's darkening mood during the 1930s reflected the darkening world
situation. It is here that "the end of the certain world"
of the title finds its clearest expression (whether that was
Greenspan's intention or not). It is especially in the personal life
and tragic existence of this great man that this biography rises to
heights of excellence. Although Greenspan's focus strays little from
Born and his family, their story, pervaded by the same mood of
sadness that pervaded their lives, is representative of countless
others at that time.
Max Born was the son of a wealthy, highly cultured family of Jewish
descent in the then-German city of Breslau. His mother died when Max
was four, and his father, a physician and medical researcher, died
when he was 17. An asthmatic, Max was physically and emotionally
frail his entire life. His interests in mathematics and astronomy
eventually brought him to Göttingen, a world center for
mathematical research, where he discovered that his talent lay in
the application of sophisticated mathematics to emerging problems in
physics. He was among the first of a new generation of theoretical physicists.
With the advent of relativity theory, Born was the first to develop
a relativistic theory of the rigid electron. The theory brought him
into contact with Albert Einstein, first in 1909 and then again in
Berlin during World War I. Born and his wife, Hedwig (Hedi), whom he
married in 1912, remained close friends of the Einsteins. Their
correspondence, frequently cited by Greenspan, is one of the
treasures of 20th-century history.
By 1921, with Born head of theory and James Franck and Robert Pohl
heads of experiment, Göttingen had become an important center
for research in quantum physics. Under Born, intuitive young
scientists such as Heisenberg, Pauli and Oppenheimer learned to
apply mathematical rigor to atomic problems. Greenspan states
repeatedly that this instruction was Born's greatest professional
strength. Without that lesson from the master, the quantum
revolution might well have arisen elsewhere.
But as quantum mechanics went on to success, Born grew ever more
depressed, as was his inclination. He had good reasons: His family
had lost its wealth to war and inflation, anti-Semitism was on the
rise, and he was a target—even though, at Hedi's insistence,
he had been baptized a Lutheran. And Hedi, as her diaries make
clear, was carrying on a long-term affair, of which Born was aware,
with a Göttingen mathematician, Gustav Herglotz. Matters grew
worse on Hitler's rise to power. Born, now in his fifties, was
eventually forced to resign his position. Göttingen revoked his
doctorate, and the Reich revoked his citizenship.
Stateless and without an income, he found a temporary teaching
position at the University of Cambridge. From there, he tried to
help his students and others escape to safety. Amid all this, a
miserable Hedi found it necessary to return periodically to Herglotz
and Nazi-infested Göttingen for months at a time. Greenspan
does not tell us how the frail Born managed to survive. But he did,
eventually gaining British citizenship and a professorship in
Edinburgh, one of only three permanent positions that went to German
refugees in Britain during the 1930s.
Greenspan informs us that Born was disturbed to learn of British
atomic-bomb research. He was not asked to join the work, and he
counseled his brilliant former student Klaus Fuchs against such a
step. Fuchs, of course, did join, becoming one of the most damaging
Soviet spies of the era—another highly troubling event in
Born's life. But Greenspan, after quoting Hedi's remark in her diary
that she was upset about Fuchs, states only that "Max too was shaken."
Max was also shaken by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. He
worked tirelessly with Einstein, Bohr and other leading scientists
for the control of nuclear energy and against what he saw as the
perversion of noble science in the pursuit of hatred and destruction.
Born's attitude toward the Germans after the war was more
ambivalent. After what the Nazis had done, including murdering some
of his relatives, writes Greenspan, "he had a mountain of
sorrow and anger to resolve." At first, he refused invitations
to return to Germany, and his relations with Heisenberg and other
German scientists remained cool. But Hedi insisted on
returning—alone, if need be. Max finally relented. The promise
of a German pension helped ease the decision. Despite Einstein's
objections, Born became more forgiving of the German people. Hedi,
now a Quaker, selected Bad Pyrmont, where German Quakers held their
annual meeting, for their retirement.
Soon endowed with a Nobel Prize, Born continued for the next 27
years to work on quantum physics, prepare popular essays and oppose
the use of science for weaponry. His life had come, at last, full
circle. It is a powerful story, one that was repeated many times
over (often with a less happy ending). It is well told by Nancy