Place: United Kingdom, Germany
Subject: biography, physics
German-born British physicist who pioneered quantum mechanics, the mathematical explanation of the behaviour of an electron in an atom. His version of quantum mechanics had a short reign as the most popular explanation and was soon displaced by the equivalent and more convenient wave mechanics of Erwin Schrödinger, which is in use today. The importance of Born's work was eventually recognized, however, with the award of the 1954 Nobel Prize for Physics, which he shared with German physicist Walther Bothe (1891-1957). (Bothe's share of the award was for his work on the detection of cosmic rays and was not connected with Born's achievements in quantum mechanics.) Born also made important advances in the understanding of the dynamics of crystal lattices.
Born was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland) on 11 December 1882 into a wealthy Jewish family. His father was professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau, which Born later attended as well as the University of Göttingen, gaining his doctorate in physics and astronomy at Göttingen in 1907.
After periods of military service and various academic positions in Göttingen and Berlin, Born was appointed professor of physics at Frankfurt am Main in 1919. During this period, he became an expert on the physics of crystals. Following a meeting with Fritz Haber, who developed the Haber process for the synthesis of ammonia, Born became aware that little was known about the calculation of chemical energies. Haber encouraged Born to apply his work on the lattice energies of crystals (the energy given out when gaseous ions are brought together to form a solid crystal lattice) to the formation of alkali metal chlorides. Born was able to determine the energies involved in lattice formation, from which the properties of crystals may be derived, and thus laid one of the foundations of solid-state physics.
In 1921, Born moved from Frankfurt to the more prestigious university at Göttingen, again as professor. Most of his research was then concerned with quantum mechanics, in particular with the electronic structure of atoms. He made Göttingen a leading centre for theoretical physics and together with his students and collaborators - notably Werner Heisenberg - he devised a system called matrix mechanics that accounted mathematically for the position of the electron in the atom. He also devised a technique, called the Born approximation method, for computing the behaviour of subatomic particles that is of great use in high-energy physics.
In 1933, with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, Born left Germany for Cambridge, England, and in 1936 he became professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. He became a British citizen in 1939, and remained at Edinburgh until 1953, when he retired to Germany. The following year, Born received his Nobel Prize which, somewhat ironically, was for his discovery published in 1926 that the wave function of an electron is linked to the probability that the electron is to be found at any point. Born died at Göttingen on 5 January 1970.
Born was inspired by Niels Bohr to seek a mathematical explanation for Bohr's discovery that the quantum theory applies to the behaviour of electrons in atoms. In 1924 Born coined the term ‘quantum mechanics’ and the following year built on conceptual work by Werner Heisenberg to relate the position and momentum of the electron in a system called matrix mechanics. Wolfgang Pauli immediately used the system to calculate the hydrogen spectrum and the results were correct. But about a year after this discovery, in 1926, Erwin Schrödinger expressed the same theory in terms of wave mechanics, which was not only more acceptable mathematically but enabled physicists to visualize the position of the electron as a wave motion around the nucleus, unlike Born's purely mathematical treatment. Born, however, was able to use wave mechanics to make a statistical interpretation of the quantum theory and expressed the probability that an electron will be found at a particular point as the square of the value of the amplitude of the wave at that point. This was the discovery for which he was belatedly awarded a Nobel Prize.
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