Love, Literature, and the Quantum Atom

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By Savannah Gignac, Assistant Photo Librarian


In August of 1910, Niels Bohr proposed marriage to Margrethe Nørlund. After completing his doctoral work in 1911, Bohr went to Cambridge and Manchester to continue his studies with J.J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. Niels and Margrethe married on Niels's return to Copenhagen in August 1912. During Bohr's stay in England, he faithfully wrote to his fiancée, who was living in Denmark.

The book, Love, Literature and the Quantum Atom, by Finn Aaserud and J.L. Heilbron looks at the letters between Bohr and his family during his studies.  The reader receives a glimpse of what Bohr was experiencing while involved in his studies in England, which would lead him to apply quantum theory to Rutherford’s atomic structure in 1913. The letters also reveal another side of Bohr, documenting the influence Margrethe and his family had on him during his early development as a scientist.

Here is a Johann Goethe poem Niels Bohr quoted in a letter to Margrethe, followed by his own writing:

“Weite Welt und breites Leben,

Langer Jahre, redlich Streben,

Stets geforscht und stets gegründet,

Nie geschlossen, oft geründet,

Ältestes bewahrt mit Treue,

Freundlich aufgefasstes Neue,

Heitern Sinn und reine Zwecke:

Nun, man kommt wohl eine Strecke.

Bohr_Niels_G6English translation:

Spacious world, capacious life,

Years with honest effort rife,

Tireless searching, firmly founded,

Never ended, often rounded,

Old traditions, well respected,

innovations not rejected,

noble aim, with cheer professed:

Well, we’re sure that we’ve progressed.

My own little darling, while you are here, then I would so much like to ask you whether you will help me, whether you will help me try to lead a great and active life. My head is so full of plans, and they are all, all of them, based on you.”

Niels and Margarethe were married for 50 years until Niels' death in 1962. To find out more about this incredible love story the book is available in the reading room at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives or find it at your local library.