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Position: www.dpg-physik.de  >  veroeffentlichung  >  reden  >  umbach  >  red_max_born_2007.html

Prof. Dr. Eberhard Umbach, Karlsruhe
am 11. Dezember 2007

Grußwort des Präsidenten
der Deutschen Physikalischen Gesellschaft e.V.
zum Symposium zum 125. Geburtstag von Max Born
am Max Born Institut und am MPI für Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin

Dear Born Family,
Sehr geehrte Herren Kollegen Rietschel, Briggs, and Ippen
Lieber Herr Elsässer, lieber Herr Renn,
Dear Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have the great pleasure and honour of speaking to you on the occasion of celebrating Max Born’s birthday, exactly 125 years ago. It is also my pleasure to speak within the framework of the Max Born symposium taking place at the "Max-Born-Institute" here and at the "Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science" in Berlin-Dahlem. Max Born was a great physicist, as we all know and as we will hear many times on this symposium, and therefore his name also illuminates the hosting Max Born Institute and its scientists. No problem with that, I can assure you, they deserve it.

This symposium takes place at a special time. The award of two of this year’s Nobel Prizes to the DPG members Peter Grünberg and Gerhard Ertl is of inestimable value to the natural scientists, especially the physicists, and to basic research in Germany. Why? These two Nobel Prizes clearly prove to the public that the natural sciences in Germany are excellent on international scales. No surprise, you may say, we knew that before. Those who are actively involved in research of course know it, but the public, media and politicians apparently had a completely different view of the scientific scene in Germany and its international standing since for many years they kept on claiming that German Universities and Research must drastically be improved in order to keep up with those of other nations. This is one of the reasons why the Excellence Initiative was invented. Not that I am against it, it pumps a significant amount of fresh money into the suffering universities, but I dislike its justification, namely the routinely claimed low quality and encrustation of German Universities, the lack of competitiveness of German science, and the pillarisation, "Versäulung", of the German science and educational system. Such statements simply were never correct. Since the old days of Max Born and before our science system was always working very well and very successfully, but unfortunately this is only realized if Nobel medals illuminate the public views.

Let’s look back about a hundred years. At that time, Berlin is a place that is deeply connected to history, great discoveries and Nobel Prizes. It is a place that has deep impact on physics and on many of our technical and cultural achievements of last century. From 1915-1919 Max Born was extraordinarius professor for theoretical physics at the University of Berlin, where he formed a life-long friendship with Albert Einstein. On this account we keep in vivid memory the great success of the "Einsteinjahr" in 2005, which was very important for the public perception and promotion of physics and of the natural sciences in general. The DPG celebrated Einstein’s 50th anniversary of death with a huge conference in Berlin, a DPG Jahrestagung with more than 8000 participants and an adequate ceremony. Next year, in 2008 we meet again in Berlin to have another large DPG Jahrestagung and to celebrate the 150th birthday of another famous physicist, Max Planck. For Max Born in between we could not afford another such conference because that would have been too much for our organizing colleagues in Berlin, and admittedly, 125 is not an as round number as 150. By the way, when comparing Albert Einstein and Max Planck I have a slight preference for the latter, not only because he is the older, but also because he served three two-years periods as President of the German Physical Society - I know what that means -, while Einstein served only one period.

The two sites for the Max Born Symposium could not be chosen better. Today’s site, the Max Born Institute, is located in an area steeped in history of science and technology. Berlin-Adlershof is shaped by a long tradition of cross-linking of economy and research. By the emergence of the first German airport for motor-driven airplanes, well-known companies such as Wrights, Fokker, Rumpler and Albatros settled here in 1909. After the end of the First World War the empty hangars were used as film studios - the birth hour of the media center Adlershof. Since 1991 Adlershof is one of the largest science and technology parks in Germany, hosting today 12 non-university research institutes that are located in close vicinity to the science institutes of the Humboldt University. Here, enterprises and research institutions with approximately 13,000 employees and scientists work closely together.

Tomorrow’s meeting at the Max Planck Institute in Dahlem leads us to another famous place. Dahlem, the "German Oxford", is inseparably linked to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Promotion of Science, which became the Max Planck Society in 1948. A decisive factor in the birth of the "Dahlem legend" was the fact that the technical development during the second half of the 19th century was fast, which in turn caused the sciences to become an increasingly important component of the production processes. In Berlin this meant a process of change in the organizational structure, which finally led to the foundation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1911. This society with its Kaiser Wilhelm institutes became for a while the leading research organization in Germany, nowadays not replaced but completed by the Helmholtz and the Leibniz Associations. Dahlem also hosted world-famous scientists like Lise Meitner and 12 Nobel Prize winners. Apart from Max Born we find with Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Peter Debye, Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg, Max von Laue, Ernst Ruska or Otto Warburg a "who is who" list in physics.

In honouring the role of Berlin in the development of modern physics, one should not fail to mention the German Physical Society (DPG), a society that was founded in 1845, making it not only the oldest, but with its more than 53,000 members at present, also the largest physical society in the world. Besides the Physikzentrum Bad Honnef on the Rhine, the site of its headquarters, it has a second important domain in Berlin, namely the Magnus Haus, which is closely linked to the history of physics in Berlin. Gustav Magnus, after whom the house was named, set up the first physics institute in Berlin in this house in 1842 using his private funds. The institute remained in the house until 1870. It was here that students from Magnus’ seminar founded the Physical Society of Berlin in 1845, the direct predecessor of the DPG.

Let me now take a leap from Berlin and the DPG to this year’s 125th Max Born anniversary. This meeting in Berlin is dedicated to one of the most outstanding and impressing personalities among the physicists of the 20th century. It was a good decision to organize this meeting by one institution for physics research on the one hand and one for historical research on the other hand. This meets the character of Max Born, who was an outstanding person in both, science and social commitment. Far over 300 fundamental papers, 20 books, the Nobel Prize, half a dozen of chairs and 10 doctoral degree hats are the result of his scientific work. In his years of study he also heard jurisprudence, moral philosophy, literature, economy, and psychology.

Most important, he developed a completely new thinking in physics. His statistical interpretation of the wave function, better known as "Kopenhagener Deutung", was awarded with the Nobel Prize. His new thinking was quite an annoyance in science in the 20th century because it marked the end of classical physics. In co-operation with Heisenberg and Jordan Born found out that, against the general doctrine at that time, electrons do not move continuously in orbits, but may also jump between them, the so called "Bocksprünge der Natur".

On top of his research activities, Max Born was highly socio-politically engaged. If we speak of responsibility in science, then today this is closely linked with the name Max Born. His great dedication for a democratic and peaceful world had a long-lasting influence in Germany. In the year 1957 he was one of the signees of the "Göttinger Erklärung”, the declaration against an atomic armament of Federal Germany, and part of the international Pugwash movement to reduce the danger of armed conflicts and seeking cooperative solutions for global problems The stimulus for the Pugwash Movement was a "Manifesto" issued in 1955 by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein and signed also by Max Born together with other scientists. In these years the danger of atomic armament was played down by the politicians. Max Born courageously enlightened that the world stood before a "Scheideweg" – "dangerous crossroads" –, how he stated in the Physikalische Blätter in 1954, because the possible destruction and radioactive contamination of the entire earth meant a completely new kind of military conflict. With all his achievements, Max Born is hence a role model for all of us, a role model for curiosity, outstanding ideas, inspiration, and courageousness, properties that every scientist should have.

Furthermore, Max Born is also a good example for a gentle and dedicated teacher who accomplished to stimulate the enthusiasm of young people for physics. This is a particular legacy for the contemporary society and further generations because our future depends to a large degree on the discoveries and developments in natural sciences. His abilities as teacher made the list of his students long, containing many famous names like Heisenberg, Pauli, Jordan, Hund, Hückel, Nordheimer, Heitler, and Rosenfeld. All of them became great physicists, Heisenberg and Pauli even became Nobel laureates. Without his constant interest and belief in his students Max Born may not have had so much influence and may not have contributed so much to change the basics of physics. To illustrate this, I quote analogously an anecdote about Werner Heisenberg taken from Max Born’s written memories:

"At the end of his first term in Göttingen Heisenberg returned for his oral doctorate examination to Munich [his supervisor was Sommerfeld]. Only rarely it happened that a student, whose thesis was accepted, did not succeed. Thus I was surprised, when Heisenberg suddenly stood there one morning, way ahead before the agreed time with perplexed face. He explained that he had received only the lowest grade ‘rite’. The reason for this disaster was his lack of interest in the experimental work. He displayed such carelessness in his practical courses that Professor Willy Wien [one of his later examiner] noticed it. Therefore Wien asked detailed questions concerning experimental techniques during the oral exam. As Heisenberg did not answer his questions properly, Wien concluded that Heisenberg could not pass the exam. After a long and violent dispute Sommerfeld finally won recognition that the candidate had succeeded. I [Max Born] did not see any reason sending him [Heisenberg] away [because of this ‘rite’], particularly since I did not doubt a moment his outstanding abilities” (Part I, 1944/48).

What a luck for Heisenberg that he had Max Born as teacher who believed in him. Nowadays amongst hundreds of students, Heisenberg probably would have little chances to start a scientific career without sufficient knowledge in experimental physics. And as an experimentalist I must admit that this is alright. But fortunately Max Born was different and hence extremely successful in his selection of students. We learn from this that since the early days of science, confidence in young scientists, professional dedication, and cooperation have always been essential preconditions of enabling new discoveries, with the prominent example Max Born.

I would like to end my speech on that note. I thank you for your attention and wish you all many new discoveries and exciting experiences during the further course of the meeting.

 
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