Hitler’s letter to the father of quantum mechanics

Born’s work revolutionised physics. Supplied by Cambridge University
A letter from Adolf Hitler formally expelling Max Born, the “father of quantum mechanics”, from a German university has been unveiled as part of a Cambridge University exhibition of archives.

The 84 boxes of documents belonging to Born also includes photographs of his contemporaries and family, as well as a postcard from Albert Einstein.

Born, who lived from 1882 until 1970, won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the interpretation of Schrodinger’s wave function and, along with Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac, is seen as one of the key thinkers behind the theory of quantum mechanics.

“This theory is not only of fundamental interest to laboratory physicists - it is crucial to modern communication and computing technologies such as the design and operation of lasers and electronic devices and, incidentally, explains why matter is sufficiently stable for life to exist,” said Dr Michael Hall, a member of the Centre for Quantum Dynamics at Griffith University.

Born into a Jewish family in 1882, the German physicist converted to Lutheranism after marriage. However, Nazi authorities still saw him as Jewish and expelled him from his post at Göttingen University.

The official letter - stamped with Adolf Hitler’s signature - that removed Born from his university post. Cambridge University

Born moved to Cambridge University, then spent a short stint in Bangalore, after which he took up a position at the University of Edinburgh.

Among the students he taught were nine Nobel-winning physicists including Heisenberg, who researched nuclear weapons for the German government during World War Two.

The archive also includes a 1947 letter from Born to his son Gustav, describing Heisenberg as “somewhat infected by Nazi ideas… but in spite of all that we liked him immensely.” A 1952 letter from Born to his son said that Heisenberg was wrongly credited with many of Born’s discoveries.

“Born’s story is an incredible one. Although a pacifist, he was the teacher of the inventors of the atomic bomb. He was forced to flee Nazi Germany and was a friend of Einstein’s for 40 years. He provided the first self-consistent mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics and developed the concept that, at the atomic level, physical processes are determined by probabilities, a completely different perspective from that of classical physics,” said Lynsey Robertson, who has worked on the archive collection.

Born’s handwritten notes for a lecture to an academic society on the theory of quantum mechanics. Cambridge University

Born’s discoveries represented an enormous shift from the previous picture of Newtonian physics, where particles have definite properties at all times. Einstein was famously unwilling to accept this change in outlook, said Griffith University’s Dr Hall.

“However, Born gave a precise formula for the quantum probabilities, in terms of the quantum ‘wave function’, which is verified over and over every day in experiments on quantum systems,” he said.

“Born also helped create a new philosophical view of the world in general, as being a random and uncertain place to be in, rather than a neat and orderly clockwork universe.”

In his 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Born said, “The work for which the Nobel Prize has been awarded to me is of a kind which has no immediate effect on human life and activity, but rather on human thinking.”

“Perhaps that was true at the time but it certainly is not today, and wasn’t just a few years later. Born’s work in quantum mechanics has led directly to technologies that dominate our daily lives - the transistor and the laser,” said Dr. Michael J. Biercuk, a physicist from the University of Sydney.

“Born’s impact has been greater than he could have ever imagined.”

Born also helped found Pugwash, a movement of scientists and policy-makers opposing nuclear weapons and armed conflict. Olivia Newton-John is his grand-daughter.