Max Born

Max Born (1882-1970) was a German physicist. Over the course of his career, he made vital contributions to modern theoretical physics. His most notable achievement was demonstrating the inherently probabilistic nature of the basic laws of quantum mechanics. He wrote several classic books on physics, including The Atomic Theory and The Restless Universe, as well as making significant contributions to the science of optics.

Early Life

On December 11, 1882, Max Born was born in Breslau, Germany, now the city of Wroclaw in Poland. 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 on the stability of elastic wires and tapes.

Although Born was inducted for the one-year compulsory military service, he obtained an early discharge due to asthma. 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.


Life of Learning

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 five-year-long investigation of crystals was published as his first book, Dynamics of Crystal Lattices. Between 1919 and 1921, he was at the University of Frankfurt am Main.


Scientific Achievements

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 three 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 Principles of 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).


Later Life

Born stayed in Edinburgh for 17 years, collecting his major achievements there into three books: one on the lattice dynamics of crystals, a new enlarged version of Principles of Optics, and Natural Philosophy of Cause and Chance. The last represented the text of his Waynflete Lectures at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Born returned to Bad Pyrmont near Göttingen in 1954, where he published startling articles exploring the role of physics and the other sciences in the world at large. He would continue to publish until his death at Göttingen on January 5, 1970.

Further Reading on Max Born

In addition to the works mentioned above, Born also wrote a comprehensive autobiography, My Life and My Views, in 1968. It contains episodes from his life, an authoritative discussion of his principal contributions to physics, and reflections on the role of science in modern culture.

Other informative discussions of the development of quantum mechanics include Banesh Hoffmann’s The Strange Story of the Quantum (1947; 2nd ed. 1959) and Max Jammer’s The Conceptual Development of Quantum Mechanics (1966).

Updates by Matt Salter