How Famous Researchers Work: Niels Bohr

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was one of the pioneers of nuclear physics, winning the Nobel prize in 1922. At his research institute in Copenhagen, he gathered a community of international physicists. Bohr availed himself of his colleagues to develop his ideas and theories. He talked to them about problems for hours or even days; his discussion partners took notes. While talking, he could spend a long time on a single statement, refining it more and more. He never seemed to be satisfied with his thoughts, which led to more discussions and more refinements. His texts suffered from this process, because they became complicated and laborious. Biophysicist Max Delbrück, a colleague of Bohr, seems to have said that Bohr’s texts were a “crime for the readers”.

After talking to his colleagues, Bohr used to dictate his texts to his wife Margrethe. It is likely that while taking the dictation his wife revised the text. Bohr seemed to have accepted her revisions, without revising the text again himself. In contrast, however, he did not accept suggested revisions from other physicists, such as Ernest Rutherford.

In one case, when presenting a paper, Bohr apologized for his convoluted prose. He hadn’t been trying to present facts, he told his audience, but intended to pose questions, which could be pondered further. Despite this apology, the audience likely still had a hard time understanding Bohr.

Fischer, Ernst Peter (2012): Niels Bohr. Physiker und Philosoph des Atomzeitalters. München: Siedler Verlag.


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