Biography of Max Born, Nobel Prize-Winning Physicist

Portrait of Max Born

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Max Born (December 11, 1882–January 5, 1970) was a German physicist who played an important role in the development of quantum mechanics. He is known for the “Born rule,” which provided a statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics and enabled researchers in the field to predict results with specific probabilities. Born won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics for his fundamental contributions to quantum mechanics.

Fast Facts: Max Born

  • Occupation: Physicist
  • Known For: Discovery of the Born rule, a statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  • Born: December 11, 1882 in Breslau, Poland
  • Died: January 5, 1970 in Göttingen, Germany
  • Spouse: Hedwig Ehrenberg
  • Children: Irene, Margarethe, Gustav
  • Fun Fact: The singer and actress Olivia Newton-John, who starred in the 1978 musical film Grease with John Travolta, is the granddaughter of Max Born.

Early Life

Max Born was born on December 11, 1882 in Breslau (now Wroclaw) Poland. His parents were Gustav Born, an embryologist at the University of Breslau, and Margarete (Gretchen) Kaufmann, whose family worked in textiles. Born had a younger sister named Käthe.

At a young age, Born attended school at the König Wilhelms Gymnasium in Breslau, studying Latin, Greek, German, history, languages, math, and physics. There, Born may have been inspired by his math teacher, Dr. Maschke, who showed the students how wireless telegraphy worked.

Born’s parents died at an early age: his mother when Born was 4, and his father shortly before Born finished school at the Gymnasium.

College and Early Career

Afterwards, Born took courses on a variety of science, philosophy, logic, and math subjects at Breslau University from 1901–1902, following his father’s advice to not specialize in a subject too soon at college. He also attended the Universities of Heidelberg, Zürich, and Göttingen.

Peers at Breslau University had told Born about three mathematics professors at Göttingen – Felix Klein, David Hilbert, and Hermann Minkowski. Born went out of favor with Klein due to his irregular attendance at classes, though he subsequently impressed Klein by solving a problem on elastic stability at a seminar without reading the literature. Klein then invited Born to enter a university prize competition with the same problem in mind. Born, however, did not initially take part, offending Klein again.

Born changed his mind and later entered, winning the University of Breslau’s Philosophy Faculty Prize for his work on elasticity and obtaining a PhD in mathematics on the subject in 1906 under his doctoral advisor Carl Runge.

Born subsequently went to Cambridge University for about six months, attending lectures by J. J. Thomson and Joseph Larmor. He went back to Göttingen to collaborate with the mathematician Hermann Minkowski, who died after a few weeks due to an operation for appendicitis.

In 1915, Born was offered a professor position at the University of Berlin. However, the opportunity coincided with the beginning of World War I. Born joined the German air force and worked on sound ranging. In 1919, after World War I, Born became a professor at the University of Frankfurt-am-Main.

Discoveries in Quantum Mechanics

In 1921, Born returned to the University of Göttingen as a professor, a post he held for 12 years. At Göttingen, Born worked on the thermodynamics of crystals, then became primarily interested in quantum mechanics. He collaborated with Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and a number of other physicists who would also make groundbreaking advances in quantum mechanics. These contributions would help lay out the foundation of quantum mechanics, particularly its mathematical treatment.

Born saw that some of Heisenberg’s calculus was equivalent to matrix algebra, a formalism that is used extensively in quantum mechanics today. Furthermore, Born considered the interpretation of Schrödinger’s wavefunction, an important equation for quantum mechanics, which had been discovered in 1926. Though Schrödinger had provided a way to describe how the wavefunction describing a system changed over time, it was unclear exactly what the wavefunction corresponded to.

Born concluded that the square of the wavefunction could be interpreted as a probability distribution that would predict the result given by a quantum mechanical system when it was measured. Though Born first applied this discovery, now known as the Born rule, to help explain how waves scattered, it was later applied to many other phenomena. Born was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum mechanics, with particular emphasis on the Born rule.

In 1933, Born was forced to emigrate due to the rise of the Nazi party, which caused his professorship to be suspended. He became a lecturer at Cambridge University, where he worked with Infeld on electrodynamics. From 1935–1936, he stayed in Bangalore, India at the Indian Institute of Science and worked with Sir C.V. Raman, a researcher who won the 1930 Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1936, Born became a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, staying there for 17 years until his retirement in 1953.

Awards and Honors

Born won a number of awards during his lifetime, including:

  • 1939 – Fellowship of the Royal Society
  • 1945 – Gunning Victoria Jubilee Prize, from the Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • 1948 – Max Planck Medal, from the German Physical Society
  • 1950 – Hughes Medal, from the Royal Society of London
  • 1954 – Nobel Prize in Physics
  • 1959 – Grand Cross of Merit with Star of the Order of Merit, from the German Federal Republic

Born was also made an honorary member of several academies, including the Russian, Indian, and Royal Irish academies.

After Born’s death, the German Physical Society and the British Institute of Physics created the Max Born Prize, which is awarded annually.

Death and Legacy

After retiring, Born settled in Bad Pyrmont, a spa resort near Göttingen. He died on January 5, 1970 at a hospital in Göttingen. He was 87 years old.

Born’s statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics was groundbreaking. Thanks to Born’s discovery, researchers can predict the result of a measurement performed on a quantum mechanical system. Today, the Born rule is considered one of the key principles of quantum mechanics.

Sources

  • Kemmer, N., and Schlapp, R. “Max Born, 1882-1970.”
  • Landsman, N.P. “The Born Rule and Its Interpretation.”
  • O’Connor, J.J., and Robertson, E.F. “Max Born.”