Early Pioneer in Quantum Mechanics
Born was born on December 11, 1882, in Breslau, Prussia (now Wroclaw, Poland). His early interests in science and music were fostered by his parents, an anatomy professor and a musician. He enrolled at the University of Breslau in 1901, where his brilliance, eclectic interests, and independent spirit were noted and encouraged by prestigious scientists. In 1907 he received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Göttingen in Germany.
During World War I, Born began working with German physicists MAX PLUCK and ALBERT EINSTEIN, with whom he maintained lifelong friendships.
In 1921 Born returned to Göttingen as director of the university’s Physical Institute. He was soon intrigued by Danish physicist NIELS BOHR’S newly introduced quantum theory of matter, an attempt to explain the puzzling behavior and wavelike nature of subatomic particles. Born set out to formulate a new set of physical laws based on this subject, which he called “quantum mechanics.’
Born’s student, WERNER HEISENBERG, developed a mathematical approach to quantum mechanics; in 1925 Born expanded and refined the approach into a system called matrix mechanics. It described the relationship between the position and momentum of an electron within an atom and accounted for other subatomic phenomena.
The following year Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed a different system of quantum mathematics called wave mechanics, which was consistent with Born’s approach but easier to follow. Wave mechanics included an equation called the wave function that could be used to analyze the properties of subatomic particles.
Schrödinger’s wave function was purely mathematical and embodied no physical meaning, but in 1926 Born proposed a physical interpretation that solved this problem. He suggested that the wave function of an electron tells something about the probability of finding the electron at a particular location within the atom. Although difficult to conceptualize, this interpretation was consistent with what was known about quantum mechanics and was widely accepted among scientists.
For this achievement Born received the 1954 Nobel Prize for Physics. The prize was shared with German physicist Walther Bothe, in recognition of unrelated work on cosmic rays.
Forced by the Nazi regime to leave Germany became of his Jewish heritage, Born taught in England during and after World War II. He retired in 1953 and died in Göttingen on January 5, 1970.
Max Born’s Legacy
Born helped establish the modern understanding of quantum mechanics, which represents a revolutionary view of matter and is a theoretical foundation of twentiethcentury physics.
Born joined the investigation of the subatomic realm just as the central formulations of the new quantum mechanics were being made In 1900 Planck discovered that energy is emitted and absorbed in discrete packets, or quanta; this concept formed the foundation of quantum theory Planck and Einstein soon showed that waves have particle like characteristics, and in 1924 French physicist Louis de Broglie demonstrated that particles have wavelike characteristics. The mathematics of Schrödinger and Heisenberg provided the basis for Born’s probability interpretation, which was the foundation upon which Bohr finally developed the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics (presented in 1927), the leading modern approach to subatomic physics.
Further developments followed Born’s treatment of quantum mechanics. In 1927 Heisenberg introduced the uncertainty principle, which states that it is impossible to know both the position and momentum of a particle at a given time because when one is measured the other is unavoidably altered. This concept, which for the first time removed the absolute determinacy inherent in classical physics, deeply troubled some physicists (including Einstein), but has become widely accepted.
The principles of quantum mechanics were also applied to chemistry. In 1927 the properties of the chemical bond between the atoms of a hydrogen molecule were explained by quantum mathematics and later extrapolated to other molecules. During the next decade, quantum mechanics helped build the modern model of atomic and subatomic structure. The model is continually refined as more particles are discovered and as quantum theory becomes more sophisticated.
Quantum mechanics, originally an attempt to explain the results of experiments with subatomic phenomena, forced scientists to alter their views of nature and to accept theories that are not intuitively comprehensible. The development of quantum theory launched a revolution in scientific thought that continues to unfold.
Max Born – 1882-1970