Niels Bohr Institute

A tan building with a reddish roof.
The Niels Bohr Institute at University of Copenhagen. Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

The Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen is one of the most historically-significant physics research sites in the world. Throughout the early twentieth century, it was home to some of the most intensive thinking related to the development of quantum mechanics, which result in a revolutionary rethinking of how we understood the physical structure of matter and energy.

Founding of the Institute

In 1913, Danish theoretical physicist Niels Bohr developed his now-classic model of the atom.

He was a graduate of Copenhagen University and became a professor there in 1916, when he pretty much instantly began lobbying to create a physics research institute at the University. In 1921, he was granted his wish, as the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen was founded with him as the director. It was often referenced with the short-hand name "Copenhagen Institute," and you'll still find it referenced as such in many books on physics today.

The funding to create the Institute for Theoretical Physics largely came from the Carlsberg foundation, which is the charitable organization affiliated with the Carlsberg brewery. Over the course of Bohr's lifetime, the Carlsberg "forked out well over a hundred grants to him in his lifetime" (according to NobelPrize.org). Beginning in 1924, the Rockefeller Foundation also became a major contributor to the Institute.

Developing Quantum Mechanics

Bohr's model of the atom was one of the key components of conceptualizing the physical structure of matter within quantum mechanics, and so his Institute for Theoretical Physics became a gathering point for many of the physicists thinking most deeply about these evolving concepts.

Bohr went out of his way to cultivate this, creating an international environment in which all researchers would feel welcomed to come to the Institute to assist in their research there.

The major claim to fame of the Institute for Theoretical Physics was the work there in developing an understanding of how to interpret the mathematical relationships that were being demonstrated by the work in quantum mechanics.

The main interpretation that came out of this work was so closely tied to Bohr's Institute that it became known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, even well after it had become the default interpretation the world over.

There have been a number of occasions where people directly affiliated with the Institute received Nobel Prizes, most notably:

  • 1922 - Niels Bohr for his atomic model
  • 1943 - George de Hevesy for work in nuclear medicine
  • 1975 - Aage Bohr and Ben Mottelson for work in describing the structure of the atomic nucleus 

At first glance, this might not seem particularly impressive for an institute that was at the center of understanding quantum mechanics. However, a number of other physicists from other institutes throughout the world built their research on the work from the Institute and then went on to receive Nobel Prizes of their own.

Renaming the Institute

The Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen was officially renamed with the less-cumbersome name Niels Bohr Institute on October 7, 1965, the 80th anniversary of Niels Bohr's birth. Bohr himself had died in 1962.

Merging the Institutes

The University of Copenhagen of course taught more than quantum physics, and as a result had a number of physics-related institutes associated with the University.

On January 1, 1993, the Niels Bohr Institute joined together with the Astronomical Observatory, the Orsted Laboratory, and The Geophysical Institute at the University of Copenhagen to form one large research institute across all of these diverse areas of physics research. The resulting organization retained the name Niels Bohr Institute.

In 2005, the Niels Bohr Institute added the Dark Cosmology Centre (sometimes called DARK), which focuses on research into dark energy and dark matter, as well as other areas of astrophysics and cosmology.

Honoring the Institute

On December 3, 2013, the Niels Bohr Institute was recognized by being designated an official scientific historical site by the European Physical Society. As part of the award, they placed a plaque on the building with the following inscription:

This is where the foundation of atomic physics and modern physics were created in a creative scientific environment inspired by Niels Bohr in the 1920s and 30s.