The German physicist Max Born (1882-1970) made his most outstanding contribution to modern physics in showing the inherently probabilistic nature of the basic laws of quantum mechanics.
On Dec. 11, 1882, Max Born was born in Breslau. He studied at the universities of Breslau, Heidelberg, and Zurich before he settled in Göttingen. In accordance with the advice of his father, Born did not specialize but attended courses in the humanities as well as in the sciences, especially mathematics. In Göttingen he followed with great enthusiasm the lectures in astronomy by Karl Schwarzschild but found no stimulation in the physics courses. He earned his doctorate with a dissertation in applied mathematics, namely, the analysis of the stability of elastic wires and tapes.
Although Born was inducted for the one-year compulsory military service, because of his asthmatic condition he obtained an early discharge. He went to Cambridge but within a few months returned to Breslau. In the fall of 1908 Born was back at Göttingen, where he later obtained the post of privatdozent (lecturer) in physics on the merits of his paper on the relativistic aspects of the electron. This was the start of his career as a physicist.
Born's first outstanding achievement in physics came in 1912, when in collaboration with T. von Kármán he worked out the theoretical explanation of the whole range of the variation of specific heat in solids. Although the official credit for this major feat went to Peter Debye, who independently did the same work a few weeks earlier, the topic became decisive in Born's future work as a physicist. It opened to him the two main lines of his subsequent research: lattice dynamics and quantum theory.
In 1912 Born made his first trip to the United States to lecture on relativity at the University of Chicago. On his return to Göttingen he married Hedwig Ehrenberg; they had two children. Born's close relationship with Albert Einstein began in 1915, when Born went to the University of Berlin to take over some of the teaching duties of Max Planck. There Born's 5-year-long investigation of the dynamics of crystal lattices was published as his first book. Between 1919 and 1921 he was at the University of Frankfurt am Main.
In 1921 Born succeeded Debye at Göttingen as director of the physics department. The work of Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger produced the major advances in quantum theory, but it was Born who reduced these various efforts to a basic foundation. It consisted in showing that the square of the value of Schrödinger's psi function was the probability density in configuration space. This meant that quantum mechanics allowed only a statistical interpretation of events on the atomic level. The result was so fundamental and startling that such leaders of modern physics as Planck, Einstein, Louis de Broglie, and Schrödinger could not bring themselves to accept it unreservedly. Born attributed to their reluctance the fact that he did not receive the Nobel Prize until 3 decades later, in 1954.
Born further elaborated the implications of his major discovery in his guest lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the winter of 1925/1926, the text of which appeared under the title Problems of Atomic Dynamics, probably the first monograph on quantum mechanics. Born's return to Göttingen signaled the beginning of a pilgrimage of young American physicists to Göttingen. His own work, however, became handicapped by nervous exhaustion in 1928. He therefore gave up research on atomic theory and wrote a textbook on optics, which became a classic in the field. In May 1933 he had to depart from Germany only a few months after Hitler came to power.
Following a short stay in South Tirol, the Borns went to Cambridge, where he concentrated on writing two books that also became classics: The Atomic Theory (1935) and The Restless Universe (1936), the latter a popular exposition. In 1936 the Borns went to India at the invitation of Sir C. V. Raman, a Nobel laureate physicist, but half a year later they were at Edinburgh, where Born succeeded Charles G. Darwin as professor of natural philosophy (physics).
Born stayed in Edinburgh 17 years, and his major achievements there are embodied in three books: one on the lattice dynamics of crystals, a new enlarged version of his textbook on optics, and Natural Philosophy of Cause and Chance. The last represented the text of his Waynflete Lectures at Magdalen College, Oxford. It shows Max Born at his philosophical best, for he retained all his life a keen interest in the deeper aspects of physics. This also explains his well-known concern about the ethical implications of science and about the role of science in the general fabric of human culture.
Born had already taken up residence in Bad Pyrmont near Göttingen in 1954 when he began to publish his startling articles on these topics. His view of the future was rather dim, though he pleaded for the attitude of "hoping against hope." He died in Göttingen on Jan. 5, 1970.
Further Reading on Max Born
An invaluable source on Born is the autobiographical My Life and My Views (1968), which contains priceless episodes from his life, an authoritative discussion of the genesis of his principal contributions to physics, and his reflections on the role of science in modern culture. A popular but informative discussion of the development of quantum mechanics is Banesh Hoffmann, The Strange Story of the Quantum (1947; 2d ed. 1959). Max Jammer, The Conceptual Development of Quantum Mechanics (1966), will probably be for many years the standard work on the topic.