This month marks the theatrical release of the much-anticipated biopic Oppenheimer, which details the life and work of J. Robert Oppenheimer throughout his time working on the Manhattan Project and the following events of his life. The cast of characters included in this movie is a veritable who’s who of atomic physicists from the early 20th century; one of these physicists, portrayed by Kenneth Branagh, is our beloved Niels Bohr. Much to my partner’s embarrassment, I may have attempted to get a “Niels Bohr! Niels Bohr!” chant going in the movie theater before the film began. Sadly, it did not catch on.
My excitement to see Niels in Oppenheimer got me thinking: How has Niels Bohr been portrayed in movies and television representations of 20th century physics history?
It turns out, he’s been played in a number of movies and television shows and to varying degrees of likeness. Join me as I share the results of many hours of media watching, summed up for you here in one convenient blog post, looking back through the annals of both Hollywood and physics history, with a spotlight on our namesake Niels Bohr.
This miniseries from 1987 centers on the scientific developments and then the Allied and German efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, with a focus on the work of Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Werner Heisenberg. In this series, we meet Niels in 1933 at the Seventh Solvay Conference in Brussels, where he is attempting to recruit scientists to his Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and has a conversation with Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie about Lise Meitner’s work. Later in the episode, we see Bohr speaking at the 1939 Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics, announcing the splitting of the uranium atom to a shocked audience of scientists.
Bohr appearance: Episode 1
Actor: Jean-Claude Deret
Despite the relatively low-quality version of the miniseries that I watched, I have to say that French actor Jean-Claude Deret’s Niels Bohr isn’t half-bad! The hair, eyebrows, and costumes do resemble those of the real Bohr, and his slightly disheveled paper-shuffling matches how some have described his mannerisms.
Still images taken from Race for the Bomb, 1987.
Jumping ahead 15 years, the next piece of media I watched was a 2002 BBC production of the play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. This 3-character play includes Niels Bohr, Margrethe Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg and leads the audience through a series of interpretations of Bohr and Heisenberg’s 1941 meeting.
Bohr appearance: Throughout
Actor: Stephen Rea
The timeframe of this play is a bit tricky to pin down. While most of the play is focused on Bohr and Heisenberg’s meeting in 1941, the characters are narrating the events from present-day, as spirits of themselves, interpreting the events of that day over and over again based on differing memories and historic narratives of that meeting. The crux of the play is that nobody beyond Bohr and Heisenberg really knows what happened in 1941.
For the purposes of this blog post though, let’s assume that these characters are supposed to be based on their 1941 real-life counterparts. I think that Niels and Margrethe Bohr, although looking quite a bit younger in this film than they did in 1941, are solid visual representations of the real Bohrs (with the exception of Irish actor Stephen Rea’s un-slicked-back brown hair.) Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Heisenberg is acceptable to me as well, although I will forever associate Heisenberg with Craig’s character Benoit Blanc from Knives Out now.
Still images taken from Copenhagen, 2002.
2002 was a big year for Niels Bohr in popular media. He appeared in the 13th season of The Simpsons, in episode 18: “I Am Furious (Yellow).” Niels stars in a fictional television show called The Boring World of Niels Bohr that angers Homer Simpson - his favorite show When Dinosaurs Get Drunk, is replaced by Niels’ program.
Bohr appearance: Season 13, Episode 18
Although this appearance is only a visual one, it is striking, and is maybe the only representation of Bohr on this list to get even close to an accurate head to body size ratio. I do think that the title, The Boring World of Niels Bohr is inaccurate. Bohr’s life and contributions to science were anything other than boring.
Still from The Simpsons, 2002
Season 1 of the show Manhattan was released in 2014 and went on to have 2 seasons total. It follows a fictional cast of characters who are living and working in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and mainly focuses on fictionalized versions of the teams who were simultaneously working to develop uranium and plutonium bombs. Our friends at Physics Today wrote a thorough review of the first two episodes of the show back in 2014 when it was airing.
Niels Bohr’s appearance in the show is brief, and given the characters’ fanfare at his arrival, it is safe to assume that the series is depicting Bohr’s first visit to Los Alamos in 1943.
Bohr appearance: Season 1, Episode 4
Actor: Christian Clemenson
American actor Christian Clemenson does get credit for his portrayal of Niels Bohr, if only for his personality alone. We see both the jovial, friendly Niels Bohr, who bucks norms by choosing to walk around Los Alamos instead of getting driven in a car, and the somber, advisory Bohr, who discusses the serious implications of atomic weapons with the fictional characters of this show. I would give higher marks to this version of Niels Bohr if only he had been wearing a 3-piece suit that he is almost always pictured in!
Still images taken from Manhattan, 2014.
Norwegian television show Kampen om tungtvannet (titled The Saboteurs in the UK, and The Heavy Water War in the US) was originally released in 2015 and centers on the use of heavy water in Germany’s WWII atomic program and the allied missions to sabotage a heavy water plant in Norway. In Episode 1, we meet Bohr at the 1933 Nobel ceremony where Heisenberg has just been awarded his prize. It’s clear that there is a mentor/mentee relationship between these two scientists. In Episode 2, we see the two men 8 years later, during Heisenberg’s visit to Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 and the atmosphere is arguably less friendly. Bohr urges Heisenberg to remove himself from the German efforts to build the bomb, and Heisenberg urges Bohr to join him in Germany. As mentioned earlier while discussing Copenhagen, we do not know with certainty what happened or was said at this real-life meeting, but it is interesting to compare this show’s interpretation with those in Frayn’s play.
Bohr appearance: Episodes 1 and 2
Actor: Søren Pilma
Finally! A Dane! Søren Pilma gets a lot of Bohr credibility here purely because he is one of the two Danish actors in this list to depict Niels Bohr. I’ll forgive him for not wearing a 3-piece suit because in his first scene, he is in a tuxedo, which is arguably not Bohr's normal attire. Pilma also seems to be around the same age as Bohr would have been in these two meetings with Heisenberg. I’m not entirely sure about that scarf in the Copenhagen scene, though. It seems a bit out of character for the real-life Bohr.
Still images taken from The Heavy Water War, 2015.
Season 1 of the National Geographic show Genius is about the genius we all know and love: Albert Einstein. This 2017 television show takes the audience through Einstein’s life, from childhood to his death in 1955. Bohr and Einstein overlap quite a bit in this show, and are portrayed as scientific counterparts to each other, allowing the show to give the audience some quick science exposition when needed. We see Bohr and Einstein paired first in 1927 Berlin, discussing Heisenberg's newly-debuted uncertainty principle; in the mid-30s at Princeton discussing uncertainty again, and we get to hear Einstein utter his "spooky action at a distance" line; in the late 40s discussing the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists with J. Robert Oppenheimer; and then, finally, in 1955 working together on a unified field theory equation in Princeton. Three decades of scientific progress all in 3 short episodes of this show. For a more thorough review of the show, read this Physics Today interview with Daniel Kennefick and Alberto Martínez, two Albert Einstein historians.
Bohr appearance: Season 1, Episodes 8, 9, 10
Actor: David Dencik
Swedish-Danish actor David Dencik has a lot of time as Bohr in this series, maybe not as much as Rea in Copenhagen, but still, it gives the actor more screentime to flesh out the character than in the other on-screen depictions of Bohr. In this series, I felt that they did a good job showing Einstein and Bohr aging and their relationship growing over time. Although a bit slight in stature compared to the real man, Dencik’s Bohr gets top marks in the 3-piece suit department, and I loved that he is wearing the same hat in his first and last appearances.
Still images taken from Genius, 2017.
And, lastly, the most recent depiction of Niels Bohr is in Oppenheimer, where Bohr is presented as a mentor and role model to J. Robert Oppenheimer. I won’t spoil all of Bohr’s scenes for those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet, but he does appear in some pivotal moments during the movie’s three hours.
Bohr appearance: throughout
Actor: Kenneth Branagh
Full marks to British actor Kenneth Branagh’s Bohr for the slicked back gray hair, 3-piece suit, and the power he brings to Bohr’s few scenes in the movie. What did you think of his portrayal?!
Still image taken from Oppenheimer: Exclusive Behind The Scenes © 2022 Universal Studios
There are two additional examples of actors portraying Niels Bohr, but unfortunately, I could not get my hands on streaming or DVD copies of either of these to review them - they are:
Bohr appearance: Season 1, Episodes 1, 2, 3, 4
Actor: Fred Personne
Bohr appearance: throughout
Actors: David Bateson and Troels II Munk
Editor's Note: This post has been corrected to include the correct date of the Einstein Albert C22 image; we had stated that this photograph was taken in 1934; it was in fact taken in 1930. The caption and photograph metadata has been edited to reflect this accurate date.