Max Born

Max Born Biography

Educator, Scientist, Physicist (1882–1970)
German-born physicist Max Born, noted for his mathematical analysis of how subatomic particles behave, shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1954.

Who Was Max Born?

Max Born was born in Breslau, Germany, on December 11, 1882, into a family of upper-class Jewish academics. He pursued his interest in science and mathematics at leading universities in Germany, England and Scotland, coming up with proofs and theories in relation to the First Law of Thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. He was forced to serve in the German army in World War I and was expelled from Germany in 1933. After WWII, he was opposed to nuclear weapons and espoused his belief in an indeterminate universe. Born shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Walter Bothe in 1954. He died on January 5, 1970, in Göttingen, Germany.


Early Life

Max Born was born on December 11, 1882, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) to an upper-middle-class family of Jewish descent. His father, Gustav Born, was a professor of anatomy and embryology at the local university, and his mother, Margarete, who died when Max was just four years old, came from a family of local industrialists. He had a younger sister, Käthe, and a half-brother Wolfgang (from his father's second marriage), who later became a professor of art history at the City University of New York.

A frail child, Born eventually attended the renowned König-Wilhelm Gymnasium after home tutelage, moving on to the University of Breslau, Heidelberg University and Zurich University, spending only a year at each institution. He settled down to get his Ph.D. and Habilitation­—the highest academic credit a scholar can achieve—at the University of Göttingen, where he wrote his dissertation on the stability of elastic wires and tapes, earning the Prize of the Philosophical Faculty.

A Life of Science

Through his peripatetic education, Born had picked up an interest in matrix calculus, higher analysis, astronomy and physics. He continued his studies under a Nobel Prize­-winning physicist at Cambridge and returned to his hometown university to work on the theory of relativity, collaborating with and then taking over for a renowned professor there, which led to his first brush with Albert Einstein (who would become a friend).

Born moved to Berlin in 1915 to work with Max Planck, but was drafted in the German army after the outbreak of World War I. During the war, he was able to continue his scientific pursuits, working on the theory of sound ranging and publishing his first book, Dynamics of Crystal Lattices. After the war, he resumed his work in a professorship in Frankfurt, where he worked in a lab with the future Nobel Prize winner Otto Stern on the latter's early molecular experiments.

During a period of extended stability, 12 years as professor of theoretical physics at Göttingen, Born did his most important work on quantum mechanics. James Franck was also there as professor of experimental physics, and together they made the university a hotspot for atomic and molecular phenomena, with soon-to-be-well-known physicists such as Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Maria Goeppert-Mayer all flocking to the institution.

In 1933, when Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany, Born was stripped of his credentials and forced to emigrate to England. After a brief stint at Cambridge, he was appointed Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, where he spent the remainder of his career. He retired in 1953, and in 1954 he was awarded the Nobel Prize, which he shared with Walther Bothe, for his contributions to theoretical physics.

Death and Legacy

Max Born died on January 5, 1970, in Göttingen, Germany. He and his wife had returned to Germany in 1954, settling in the spa town of Bad Pyrmont. He had been deeply affected by the detonation of the atomic bomb, speaking out against the dangers of nuclear weapons, and signing the "Göttingen Eighteen," a declaration by eminent scientists protesting the possible arming of the West German military with nuclear weapons.

Among Born's achievements was the first mathematically precise statement of the First Law of Thermodynamics. There is a Max Born Institute and a Max Born Award from the Optical Society. Gustav Born donated his father's letters to illuminate his scientific life, and Max Born's life and concerns are detailed in the biography The End of a Certain World.

On December 11, 2017, in honor of the 135th anniversary of Born's birth, Google honored his contributions to a field that would make advanced computing possible with one of its celebrated "Google Doodles."

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