AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIV , No. 2, Fall 2002


Surprises in Writing a Biography of Max Born
by Nancy Greenspan

Max Born
Max Born, circa 1920. Photo courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Born Collection.

Max Born's life was made for chronicling. For one thing, it tells a fascinating story that covers much of western history in the first half of the twentieth century. For another, he and his friends seemingly never threw away any of the thousands of letters they received nor much else for that matter. That is not to say that the record is complete and available. The dozens of archives I have visited in Germany and Great Britain divulge some wonderful tales, but upheavals from two world wars, government secrecy policies, and the unknown whereabouts of friends' children, ensure that one does not always find the "expected." For the "unexpected," there is only hope and here I have been very fortunate.

Six years ago, I met Irene Born Newton-John when we were both staying with her daughter in California. Over the course of a long weekend, she described to me her father's role in the discovery of quantum theory, the family's exile from Nazi Germany, and the personalities of her father's many famous students, assistants, and colleagues. She could still see the Mephisto-like eyes of Edward Teller and hear the two-piano concertos performed by her father and Werner Heisenberg. Describing her father's loving nature and brilliant mind, she explained that she deeply regretted that no one had written his biography. With the approval of Irene and Professor Gustav Born, his father's literary executor, I became the biographer. (But God Does Play Dice: The Life and Science of Max Born will be published in Fall 2004 by Perseus Publishing.)

I soon found myself at the University of Edinburgh, where Born was a professor of physics for seventeen years and where the family's private archives are housed. These archives are twenty-seven boxes filled with the mundane and the extraordinary. They preserve the artifacts of a person who witnessed aerial dog fights in the Battle of the Somme, discovered the statistical interpretation of the wave function, fled Germany in 1933, and counseled his assistant Klaus Fuchs not to participate in war research. Some of the flotsam is engagingpearl cufflinks, envelopes of foreign change, a well-used slide ruleand some is disturbing.

An example is a letter I noticed one afternoon, two sentences typed in German, and then a signature boldly penned, but not immediately decipherable. The text was straightforward: a release from official duties and a thank-you for services rendered. But above the signature was "Der Fuehrer und Reichskanzler."
This was a 1935 letter from Adolf Hitler to Max Born. The impact was chilling. Research later found that it was a dismissal form letter, chosen by the Education Ministry, although one with greater civility than most. In the same box, for no particular reason, was a first edition of Lagrange's Mechanique Analytique with the name "J. Robert Oppenheimer" written on the inside cover, a present from him after he finished his Ph.D. with Born.

These uncataloged and unexamined materials are all by definition "unexpected." There is no telling what will show up next or where it will lead. One treasure is a collection of letters, 120 pages bound and typed, sent by Born to his family while he was on his 1925/26 tour of the United States, touting quantum theory à la Göttingen. In one letter from General Electric in Schenectady, New York, he mentions the scientists' constant filming of him with their new movie cameras.

Could these movies still exist? Five minutes on the Internet and two phone calls later, I experienced the thrill of locating 75-year-old moviesand, later, seeing Born "in person." There he is, for just a few seconds, modestly mugging before the camera, giving a bright smile and slight bow, as he carries skis across a frozen and snowy Lake George.

A few frames later a scientific landmark comes to lifehere is Max Born exiting from an ornately grilled door, Niels Bohr animatedly conversing with a natty Erwin Schroedinger, Werner Heisenberg flashing a youthful, cocky grin, a rumpled Albert Einstein nodding in acknowledgment to the anonymous cameraman, and a boyish Louis de Broglie looking about. It is the Solvay Congress, Brussels, 1927. In what appear to be the first days, all are smiling, determinists and non-determinists alike. The last frames of these same men leaving the conference and descending the stairs show a few pinched smiles and many aggravated looks.

Most of the witnesses to these events are gone. I have been fortunate to visit with most that are still here. But memories and perceptions being what they are, they contradicted the written record as much as they clarified it. So with all of the thousands of letters, historical research is still an elusive master, every secret divulged begetting another to solve.

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