Excerpts from The End of the Certain World
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- A Kind of Shell
- A Higher Desire
- Matters Physical
- A Bitter Pill to Swallow
- There is No Other Born in Germany
- Thinking Hopelessly about Quanta
- But God Does Play Dice
- Dark Future
- Seeing How Expendable You Are
- Talking of Desperate Matters
- Worse Than Imagination
- There Are So Many Ifs
- A Curse of the Age
- A Trip to Stockholm
Eight years ago, I met Irene Born Newton-John when we were both staying with her daughter Olivia in California. During a long weekend, she told of her father's discovery of quantum mechanics, the family's exile from Nazi Germany, and the personalities of her father's many famous students. Seventy years later, she could still see the Mephisto-like eyes of Edward Teller and hear the Bach concertos for two pianos performed by her father, Max Born, and his young assistant, Werner Heisenberg. She recalled Albert Einstein's visits to their home when she was young and how special they were. The story was fascinating, as was the woman; but Irene had one regret: No one had written a biography of her father, who had been so instrumental in the quantum revolution, the most important scientific advance of the twentieth century.
After I arrived home, Irene's story bounced around in my head. The first half of this century had always held a particular absorption for me: the political reverberations of World War I, the creative explosion in science, literature, and the arts during the 1920s, the global Depression, the profound change in Germany, World War II, the bomb. I realized that Max Born's life was an intimate portrait of all these events. I called Irene to ask if I could write his biography. She agreed. A few months later in London, I met her brother, Professor Gustav Born, the executor for his father's papers - who straight away became Gustav. His gracious consent for me to use the papers and write the biography gave me access to the rich trove of family documents stored at the University of Edinburgh.
The thousands of letters, diaries, and photos there, a largely untapped historical source, chronicle not only the life of Max Born and his family, but also the scientific and political developments of Germany and Europe that profoundly affected him. They are by turns fascinating and troubling. Perhaps the most disconcerting find was a letter to Born signed by Adolf Hitler, thanking him for his service to the University of Göttingen - from which the Nazis suspended him in 1933 because he was Jewish. Later I learned that the signature was by autopen, but the impact was only slightly lessened.
The Edinburgh papers reveal Born's personal side, in both relationships and thoughts, and complement the 10,000 or so letters in his professional correspondence that exist in public archives. (Max Born and his wife, Hedi, were prodigious letter-writers.) In all of these, the importance of religion, war, and scientific pursuit stand out as factors crucial to his development, but paradoxically: an assimilated German-Jew, Born had no interest in formal religion, yet it defined the direction of much of his life; a pacifist, he shaped the scientific background of many of the inventors of the atomic bomb. As for his own theoretical search for the fundamental truths, it gave him optimism for the future and escape from the present. He was dependent on his work for his strength and sense of purpose and proud and excited when he found answers. Modest about his accomplishments, Born saw former assistant Werner Heisenberg receive credit for some of his own ideas, and he saw other ones simply subsumed into the quantum mechanical theory known as the Copenhagen Interpretation.
The intimate side of his life revealed a paradox as well: a wife he desperately needed, but whom he described in his later years as the cross he had to bear. Their relationship was sometimes tortuous for him, but he chose to pursue it.
In spite of the hardships through which Born journeyed, he persisted and ultimately prevailed. In old age, when he had graciously accepted his fate, he unexpectedly received the recognition that he had striven for and that he deserved. Life does not usually resolve itself in such a way, but it is pleasing when it does.
Nancy Greenspan Bethesda MD October 2004
CHAPTER 5 - 'THERE IS NO OTHER BORN IN GERMANY'
"It is ideal here," Hedi wrote to friends in Berlin. "The people feel very much like you and the Schurs." For most Germans, including the Borns, ideal was a relative word - Frankfurt was safer than Berlin. Hedi shopped without worrying about street fighting blocking her path. The little girls climbed up the trees in their backyard. Max organized his new institute. Yet, in every small town and large city in Germany, the consequences of war threatened people's existence.
Cold and hunger dominated Germany's present, and many feared the same for the future. Four years of war had left the country and the people ravaged, and the terms of the Armistice stripped them of the resources to regroup. On the night of the Armistice, November 11, 1918, the British commander Douglas Haig had recorded the reaction of the French in his diary.
The Germans pointed out that if the rolling stock (which have been handed over in the terms of the Armistice) are given up, then Germans east of the Rhine will starve. Report says Foch was rather brutal to the German delegates, and replied that that was their affair!
It was time for the Allies to get revenge, especially the French who lost one-and-a-half million soldiers in battle, with another four million wounded.
The British were no more merciful. To make sure that the Germans came to the peace table ready to agree to the Allies' demands, the British blockaded the German coast for another eight months after the Armistice. With a devastated country and no imports, children starved, babies went without milk, and suicides floated down Berlin's Spree River. Everyone was cold for lack of heating fuel. Whatever relief the end of the war might have brought to Germany's people the continuation of the blockade destroyed.
The Born family was merely undernourished and chronically hungry. They had friends such as Carl Oseen, a physicist living in neutral Sweden, who would occasionally send packages of food appropriately called Lebensmittel ("means of life"). Born's worry was for the hungry people around him who, he feared, would lose "all concept of honesty and responsibility" in their bid to survive. The starvation conditions caused by the blockade became his preoccupation in every letter. Even so, he anticipated a fair treaty. He believed U.S. President Woodrow Wilson who, the year before, had enunciated his Fourteen Points for a program of world peace: "the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak."
Born knew that the animosity of the Allies towards Germany was not confined to the military. The Manifesto of the 93 had injected acrimony into the science community that persisted. With resources for research in Germany extremely limited, however, Born wanted to ask Harvard chemist, Theodore W. Richards, to measure the compressibility of a specific list of salts, which would help Born continue investigating Bohr's planar concept of the structure of matter. Wary of approaching him directly, Born turned to Carl Oseen, who agreed to write to Richards.
An inflammatory article in Science, "National Prestige in Scientific Achievement," written by the physicist P. G. Nutting about German scientists soon proved that Born's wariness was justified.
Plagiarism and piracy were common practices, and from personal knowledge I doubt whether a third of even the more eminent German scientists were free from this taint. Further, work of foreigners was taught as the work of Germans in both literature and science. Neither fairy tale nor scientific discovery, if in an obscure publication, was safe from adoption as their own while the misleading of the young student was easy and common.
Repetition of the claims by the British journal Nature increased the insult. Arnold Berliner, editor of Naturwissenschaften, wanted to reply, but Born and Einstein cautioned him not to bring more attention to the matter. Postwar animosity was not one-sided. Fiercely nationalistic Germany felt humiliated by the Allies' detention of German war prisoners, continuation of the blockade, and threats to cut off German borderlands. Highlighting the article would have further increased tension in the scientific community.
A few weeks later, Born received Theodore Richards's reply via Oseen and read that Richards did not see a renewal of ties between scientists until "far in the future." Richards could not forgive the ninety-three German scientists who had signed the manifesto declaring Germany's actions noble and intentions good when Prussian troops had overrun Belgium and instituted a "campaign of terrorism." "Until the German scientific world acknowledges its error," Richards wrote, "it will be very hard for the civilized world to accept their friendship." He wanted repentance; he did not think that he could shake the hand of a German scientist. With regard to Born, Richards would try to support his research request since Born had not signed the Manifesto.
In a letter to Oseen, Born responded with fury to Richards's remarks.
We German pacifists who fervently believed in Wilson and his principles have been completely and entirely refuted. After the publication of the peace conditions of the Entente there is no more doubt that we have fallen victim to an outrageous deception as we gave up the fight in trusting Wilson's promise of a peaceful reconciliation. Whether there will now be more or less mitigation at the negotiations in Versailles, the matter of the deception remains and will never leave our memories. … All hopes of reconciliation and forgiveness are now buried. … You write him that we will not forgive as long as the body politic exists which holds, both as a party and a judge, for its right to impose starvation on an entire people.
The British lifted the blockade two weeks after the Germans signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. The treaty gave Germany's northeastern borderlands to Poland, blamed Germany for the war, imposed large reparation payments, and deeded the Saar coal mines to France.
Born had been a tangle of conflicting beliefs at the beginning of the war, but he felt no confusion about the peace terms. He was devastated. He believed that the Treaty of Versailles would "greatly weaken if not destroy the germs" of democracy and socialism he had hoped the German people would embrace. In one particularly low moment, he wrote a letter to Einstein, a phrase from which Einstein repeated back to him in reply. Einstein wondered if Born should be allowed to say "with tears in his eyes that he has lost his faith in humanity?" Einstein counseled optimism. "Conditions [of the treaty] are hard, but they will never be enforced. They are more to satisfy the enemy's eye than his stomach." He believed in the 'slovenliness' of the French and eventual disunity among the Allies to undermine the intent of the treaty. His reaction was unusual: Most Germans were furious, not only at the Allies but also at their new government that signed this treaty - a five-month-old democratic republic led by Friedrich Ebert.
For all of the hardship in Germany, Hedi's enthusiasm did not vanish. Frankfurt had a small pocket of the "ideal", and the Borns enjoyed it, even when cold and hungry. They settled into a spacious house at Cronstetten Strasse 9 that was surrounded by a large garden of peach and pear trees and gooseberry bushes - the luscious fruit a delight to their daughters, Irene and Gritli. The house was located on the northern edge of the city, and from their back window, they could see the Taunus Mountains, about twenty miles away. In front of them lay a bustling, cultured city.
Frankfurt am Main was both an old town and a new city. The center next to the Main River was a medieval mélange, anchored by a Gothic town hall called the Römer, fountains, a Gothic cathedral, and half-timbered houses with painted farming scenes and window boxes adorning the facades. Beyond was the modern city, a hub for the banking and chemical industries that were the foundation of the city's great wealth.
Five hundred ninety-nine millionaires lived in Frankfurt in the prewar era. Jewish businessmen, who had flourished there for the hundred years since Napoleon had literally unlocked the gates to their narrow, crowded ghetto, were a large part of this wealth. Their fortunes furnished 80 percent of the 8 million marks needed to endow the University of Frankfurt, which opened in 1914. The number of postwar millionaires in Frankfurt had shrunk by 90 percent, but the donor who supported Born's chair of theoretical physics, one Herr Oppenheim, a dealer in precious stones, was still among the remaining 10 percent.
Arthur von Weinberg, co-owner of the chemical company Casella, was another generous benefactor to Born's institute. The Weinbergs "lived in a princely style," with footmen, personal waiters, works of art, polo, and stables for dozens of horses. Born was friendly with them but found their extravagance uncomfortable, preferring the plain elegance of the Oppenheims. The Oppenheims opened up Frankfurt's thriving life of operas and concerts to the Borns and entertained them at parties, where Born and Frau Oppenheim sometimes played four-handed pieces for the other guests. At home, Born assembled a quartet of the most superb musicians with whom he would ever play. One guest, listening to Brahms, Reger, and Bach fill the room, rated the results "extraordinarily beautiful."
Born's research ambitions may have been, as he had said, to keep "an entire institute" busy, but he first had to tackle an institute that wartime and the unhappiness of his predecessor, Max von Laue, had left "little established." Born organized the institute's lecture series for the different areas of physics and drew up a weighty list for his own first-semester courses: analytic mechanics, quantum theory, introductory theoretical physics for war participants, and an evening colloquium in conjunction with the head of the department, the experimentalist Richard Wachsmuth. He hired a young assistant with good experimental skills, Fräulein Elisabeth Bormann, and a highly capable mechanic, Meister Schmidt, to construct the equipment needed for experiments. (The staff encouraged Schmidt's industry with that scarcest of goods in postwar Germany - cigarettes.)
Born filled out the small professional staff just as he had at the Artillerie-Prufüngs-Kommission - with the Breslau-Göttingen circle. Otto Stern, an acquaintance whom Born had helped find safe haven in Berlin, was the lecturer, a position he had held at the beginning of the war. Alfred Landé, who completed his Habilitation in the summer, became his assistant. After the Armistice, Landé "had thrown away" his uniform, staying in Berlin only long enough to lecture with Born on December 13 at the Physical Society on their lattice research. Landé then took a job teaching music at the Odenwaldschule, a private school thirty-five miles away from Frankfurt. He came to Frankfurt to lecture once a week, keeping his job at the Odenwaldschule since he had no regular income from his lecturer duties.
Born and Landé had worked together on and off for almost ten years. In the postscript of his first letter after Landé left Berlin, Born instructed him to stop addressing letters to "Herr Professor" but instead, "lieber B. or some such." It was a rare relaxation of the formalities between German student and professor.
Ernst Hellinger returned to the chair in mathematics he had had before the war, completing the circle of old friends. Because of the tight housing market, the Borns rented their attic apartment to him and his sister. Gritli and Irene adored "Uncle Ernst," the patter of little feet on the stairs announcing their frequent visits.
Unlike many mathematicians, Hellinger was interested in application, a trait that led Born to think of him affectionately as "a 'tame mathematician' whom I could consult whenever I had a problem beyond my own resources." Born, who attributed his creativity in physics to mathematics, did not like to stray too far from his muse.
Born's institute was tucked into two rooms, a large and neat workroom for experiments and a small office for thinking. Within "this tiny, restful department," as Born called it, ideas were stirring. A walk through the institute would find Otto Stern in the lab fiddling with equipment to measure the properties of atoms and molecules; Landé in the small office working on one of nine papers he wrote in eighteen months on the cubic-atom research begun in Berlin; and Born across the desk from Landé focusing on the mobility of ions during electrolysis, a topic he pursued as a result of gentle nagging from faculty member Richard Lorenz. A few graduate students might be working on experiments.
Using beams of silver atoms, Stern wanted to verify that the distribution and the mean of the velocities of atoms followed the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. Except for being a good glass blower, Stern had no more manual ability than Born did to assemble the needed equipment, but he had great ingenuity in designing the experiment. Herr Schmidt followed Stern's instructions for constructing a special cylindrical vacuum tube through which atoms could travel from one end to the other. Stern invented this molecular beam method, which would prove crucial for his future examination of properties of atoms and molecules.
In the summer the bustle began to slow as Born helplessly watched creeping inflation eat up research funds, undermining Stern's expensive experimental work. Born wrote to Einstein listing the institute's five experimental research tasks, beginning with Stern's. Einstein, who was director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, said that he would do his best "to squeeze some funds out," but nothing came. As November arrived, Born's 3000-mark budget ran out. The University had kept it at the same level, even though the mark was at that time one-tenth to one-twentieth of its former value. Born wrote to a colleague, "My institute is completely frozen; temporarily I can see no prospects whatsoever for experimental work."
Two days later, Einstein had something to offer besides money - his new-found celebrity. On November 6, the news went out that British astronomer Arthur Eddington had confirmed Einstein's general theory of relativity. Standing on Principe Island in the Gulf of Guinea on May 29, 1919, he had measured the deflection of light through the gravitational field of the sun during an eclipse. The world became enthralled with Albert Einstein and his new universe. On November 23, Born celebrated Einstein's triumph in a lengthy article in the Frankfurter Zeitung. He began with drama and exultation.
On May 29th of this year, a solar eclipse took place that, although invisible in Europe, darkened a narrow strip in the southern half of the globe for a few minutes. To this unspectacular event is linked one of the greatest victories of the human spirit over nature, not a triumph of roaring technology, but of pure insight: the confirmation of Einstein's theory of gravitation and general relativity.
Threading the reader deftly through Einstein's initial insights into time and space and his thought experiments, Born ended by debunking Kant. Kant had proved why and how, based on a priori reasoning, "the human spirit" invented such ideas as Euclidian geometry, he explained, but Einstein's measurement of time and space reduced them to "ordinary empiricism." For Einstein, he said, "things are only real if they can be measured."
Not everyone in the physics community was ready to accept Einstein's theory. A couple of weeks later, Munich physicist William Wien, unsure about the theory even with Eddington's evidence, wrote to his colleague Arnold Sommerfeld that Born's article was "unfortunate and damaging."
In January 1920, for three consecutive Tuesday evenings, Born held lectures on general relativity in the large auditorium at the university. The admission he charged the general public raised almost 7,000 marks, enough "to get the institute off the ground" and allow Stern to finish his experiment. Born became so enthused by Stern's work that he and Fräulein Bormann began a related project - to measure the free path of silver atoms in order to look at molecular collision cross sections. It was Born's first and only successful experiment.
Einstein was impressed with Born's industry and teased admiringly,
And you, Max, are giving lectures on relativity to save the institute from penury, and writing papers as if you were a single young man living in splendid isolation in his own specially heated apartment, with none of the worries of a paterfamilias. How do you do it?
In fact, Born at times felt as though he were barely surviving. He struggled with asthma, as he did most winters. Hedi and the children were constantly ill with flu, measles, and colds. In between conducting his research and running the department, he cared for them, often alone because their maids Lina and Minna left to be married and those newly hired seemed to run off on a regular basis. One of the few bright moments was Hedi's birthday in December, when he wrote her a poem that began
You have wrestled yourself from the heavens Have broken yourself from the pious You have overcome the heart's thirst And have come down to me.
As an early spring beckoned, things looked up. Hedi was strong enough to start gardening; the girls were well; and Max signed a contract for two books with Springer Publishers - the first was based on his relativity lectures, and the second on the structure of matter. On the same day -approximately nine months after receiving Richards's letter - he wrote to an American scientist for the first time.
His correspondent was Gilbert N. Lewis, a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. Born had first met Lewis in Pontresina with the Neissers one summer before the war. Lewis had been in Europe looking for Fritz Haber, who was also with the Neissers. Born always remembered the day when, relaxing in a mountaineering outfit, he saw Lewis walking up a path in the Alps wearing "a black suit, gray striped pants, shiny black shoes and a bowler." Lewis and Born's friendship quickly developed from discussions on the theory of special relativity and was renewed when Born visited Berkeley in 1912.
Born asked Lewis to help rescue Paul Epstein, a young physicist whom Born knew only slightly, from the effects of postwar nationalism. His letter bristled with defensive sarcasm, but beneath it was the same anger and despair over the conditions in Europe and the Allies' attitudes towards German scientists.
The unfortunate rupture with the States makes it difficult for us Germans to write to an American. In my own case, I have not done that. But I am forced to because a member of one of the states who belongs to the 'Allies', a Pole, asked me to make a connection for him in America. … The splendid war of the Entente [Allies] for 'justice and civilization' which has been won through American help has transformed all of Europe into a field of ruins in which hunger and misery are at home. The Poles… suffer the same need as we, if not worse. I hold it as my duty to help each person whatever nationality he is. That's why I am fulfilling the request of this man and write to you on the assumption that you also place humaneness above nationality.
The outcome of the war had placed Epstein in the unusual situation of a person with too many national identities and no place to go. Born explained that Epstein had been born and raised in Russia. He had studied physics with Sommerfeld in Munich. With the recreation of a Polish state after the war, his home district in Russia had become part of Poland. So now, for passport purposes, he was Polish. Epstein could not teach in Poland because the country's nationalism was too strong to accept a German-educated professor on the faculty. He could not teach in Germany because the Germans considered him a Pole and, therefore, a citizen of a country that had just stripped Germany of its northeastern border. Russia was dangerous because of its disorder: He had already lost almost all his money through the Bolshevik revolution. He had tried for a position in Switzerland with no success. Since French, Belgian and English scientists had no official contact with Germany, they could not sponsor him.
Having been stung deeply by Richards's rejection of German scientists, Born's conclusion to the letter girded him for more of the same.
Should you not take the view of so many Americans that we Germans are Huns, I would be pleased by a sign of life from you. Unfortunately a highly esteemed man such as your colleague Richards appears to have fallen apart from war psychosis. I possess a letter from him to my friend Oseen in Sweden which I keep as a document of human foolishness.
This letter was cathartic for Born. Not waiting for a reply, he wrote to another American, chemist Irving Langmuir, a friend from the early Göttingen years. Again he described the hunger and inflation, but this time he shared the frustrations of not knowing what the Americans were working on and of not being able to collaborate with them. "Several days ago, Niels Bohr was in Berlin," he wrote to Langmuir. "I discussed much with him about quantum theory and atomic structure. It is a pity that American scholars cannot participate in the discussion; otherwise one would reach agreement quickly."
Born then received Lewis's reply. Born's return letter changed tone dramatically.
I hurry to answer your letter because it really caused me great joy. In the misfortune that haunts our land, it is the greatest bitterness that the bands of art and science that should connect all men are now in tatters. It pleases me so much that you have kept your personal friendship towards me and are prepared to take part in the reproduction of intellectual collaboration of researchers of all countries. I myself see in each person the good will to love instead of hate, the friend and companion indifferent to which nation he belongs. To assign right and wrong is not our affair; but to alleviate the misfortune that human passion has produced can be helpful for everybody. Your letter is the first from the other side of the sad separation, it gives me hope for a better future for mankind for which I thank you heartily and assure you of my heartfelt friendship.
From Lewis and Langmuir, he also pleaded for scientific reprints. With the inflation, the Germans could not afford American publications. Both men complied.
The political situation in Germany was worsening. Right-wing extremist Wolfgang Kapp attempted a coup to unseat the new government under Ebert. The military, sympathetic to Kapp, refused to intercede. In turn, workers supportive of Ebert called for a general strike that paralyzed Berlin to such a degree that the rebels' attempt failed. The strike grew throughout the country. The Borns watched and waited as the strike unfolded in Frankfurt. They regarded the little "shoot-outs" that resulted from the strike as rather minor after the turmoil they had lived through in Berlin. As that threat receded, French troops marched into Frankfurt and the surrounding area in response to German troops going into Ruhr mining towns to quash left-wing agitation. Once, when Max was taking the two girls to a party, they just missed an incident in the center of the city where French Algerian troops shot into the crowd, killing or wounding nine onlookers.
Germany was vulnerable and demoralized. The results of the national elections in June reflected the population's insecurity and their increased radicalism: as people became more polarized, the middle lost out, with increasing power going to advocates of force and violence.
In the midst of the turmoil, Hedi's mother visited and came down with the flu. It was a particular virulent strain that killed twenty million people worldwide. Max and Hedi worried about the girls getting it and kept Helene isolated. This quick and lethal strain favored the elderly, and Helene became one of its victims. Hedi, twenty-eight-years-old, collapsed. She wrote to Einstein that "the further the hour of her death lies behind us, the stronger is my longing for the departed; the darker and more incomprehensible seems the enigma of death." Max too felt the loss deeply. Helene Ehrenberg had been "a real mother" to him.
Another stress was added to their environment of loss and political instability. Göttingen's Philosophy Faculty had been looking for a replacement for physicist Peter Debye, who had taken a chair in Zurich. Hilbert, working behind the scene for Born, wrote to Einstein for a recommendation. Einstein's reply called Born "the most important (with Debye) of theoretical physicists" and praised his scientific contributions and "his noble and courageous character." Even so, the faculty's initial list was Arnold Sommerfeld first, Born second, and Gustav Mie, third. Sommerfeld refused the offer.
Born was aware of the developments. On the same day that the Göttingen faculty received Sommerfeld's refusal, Einstein was answering Born's request for advice.
"It is difficult to know what to advise you," he wrote. "Theoretical physics will flourish wherever you happen to be; there is no other Born to be found in Germany today. Therefore the question really is: where do you find it more pleasant?" Einstein's personal recommendation, though, was not to take the offer. He viewed Göttingen's academic personae as "self important," "unfeeling," and "narrow-minded." They were the people, he reminded Born, who had made life difficult for Hilbert.
Born's name headed the next list that the Göttingen faculty sent to the Ministry. Born was in a quandary: Did he really want to exchange the cultural pleasures of Frankfurt for the backwaters of Göttingen, or sacrifice a real home for whatever he could find in a town with no available housing? The mere idea of the physical move daunted him, considering the difficulties with disrupted service and overfilled cars from taking a train from point A to point B.
Yet he also knew that the position in Göttingen was "a real honor" - and Göttingen, one of the major mathematical centers of the world, was where he had been academically nurtured and disciplined. Now he was being invited back to be the head of the family, certainly an emotionally powerful offer.
Born was sufficiently drawn to the offer to go to Berlin to negotiate with Herr Geheimrat Wende, the Ministerial Councillor for Art, Science, and Education. And for all of his ambivalence about whether to accept, Born knew exactly what he wanted, as he explained to Wendt. For him to accept the call to the theoretical chair, the Ministry had to call a second physicist - an experimentalist to work closely with him. He could not and would not teach experimental physics as the position required. He proposed that a chair available in an associated department be redefined for this purpose. He also asked for an Extraordinarius professor of theoretical physics who would carry some of his teaching load.
Wende agreed to create an experimental chair, unusual as it was. With regard to Born's second request, he handed him the Ministry's budget estimates so Born could see for himself the insurmountable financial constraints to creating another position. Born was not good at this kind of detail; yet there, amidst all the budgetary columns, he discovered a clerical error: the termination conditions of a certain position had been assigned to the wrong one. In a game of musical chairs that exploited this error, Born proposed a way to get each of his requests, and Wende's superior, who was called in, agreed, invoking the spirit of the revolution.
In his head, Born had already filled the chairs - his old friend James Franck as the experimentalist and Otto Stern as the theoretician. Franck was still the director of the physics division of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin, and before departing for negotiations in Göttingen, Born got his assurance of accepting the offer. Franck liked the prospects both of living in a small town to raise his children and of having his own laboratory.
After visiting Göttingen, Born wrote Wende a thirteen-page letter telling of his successful discussions with the Göttingen faculty, including his agreement with the other experimental physics professor, Robert Pohl, and his elaborate plan to re-organize the department. Yet, throughout the month of June, Born's apprehension increased in spite of these accomplishments. At the end of the month, he wrote to Elsa Einstein, "The question 'Göttingen, yes or no?' worries us a great deal. We are still undecided."
Pohl, a well-respected experimentalist in solid-state physics, had been an Extraordinarius professor on the Göttingen physics faculty since 1916. He was opinionated, feisty, and concerned that the arrival of Born and Franck would negatively affect his status. Who, Pohl wanted to know, would teach the beginning course, who would be Ordinarius professors, who would use which lecture rooms? Peter Debye had warned Born about the constant squabbles with Pohl over the use of the large lecture hall. Born's anxiety over dealing with Pohl was one of the main reason for his insistence on recruiting Franck.
In June, Franck's call began to unravel. The Göttingen faculty had decided that the chair Born planned to appropriate for Franck could not be transferred to Born's department. Born started a new round of negotiations in Berlin and Göttingen. Ultimately, the Ministry and faculty agreed to provide a chair for Franck if Born gave up bringing Stern and being head of the entire department. Born agreed. More important to him was gaining "a collaborator to whom I feel connected because we have a shared view on basic scientific concepts. From this I expect great advantages for teaching and research." David Hilbert, extremely pleased with the outcome, wrote to Richard Courant, now head of the mathematics faculty, "Franck + Born are the best imaginable replacement for Debye!…We have Born's energy to thank for it!"
As Born waited for written confirmation from the Ministry - which arrived in the beginning of August - the University of Frankfurt tried to woo him to stay. Benefactor Artur von Weinberg made it possible for the university to match Göttingen's financial offer. Money, however, had not been Born's main condition for staying: He had asked the university - and, therefore, the Ministry - to promote Stern from lecturer to Extraordinarius professor. The Ministry rejected that condition.
Born began working on Stern's future. He wrote to Einstein,
Now the question of my successor becomes urgent. [Arthur] Schoenflies wanted to write to you and to ask for your expert opinion. I would, of course, like to have Stern. But Wachsmuth does not; he said to me, 'I think very highly of Stern, but he has such an analytical Jewish intellect.' At least it is open anti-Semitism. But Schönflies and Lorenz want to help me. …Stern has raised the standard of our little Institute and really deserves recognition. ...I have asked Laue to give his opinion; perhaps it would be best if you were to talk to him about it, so that your verdicts do not clash.
A couple of weeks later, Hedi wrote to Einstein, "Wachsmuth is agitating against Stern on anti-Semitic grounds." Even at the "Jewish University", with bylaws forbidding religious discrimination in faculty appointments, anti-Semitism could not be eradicated.
Max and Hedi decided it was time to escape from six years of fear and stress. For the month of August, they headed to Bolzano in the South Tyrol, a place special to Max since he had stayed there with Ladenburg in Easter 1909, and one, not incidentally, where the exchange rate was favorable.
At 6 a.m. on August 6, the arched concourse of Frankfurt's Hauptbahnhof receded behind Max and Hedi as they traveled off, the children staying with the nanny. They changed in Munich to the Brenner train, stood in a line at 3 a.m. for two hours for passport checks and luggage registration in Kufstein, Austria, and waited at the "clear and bitterly cold" Brenner Pass for re-registration at Italian customs. At noon, thirty hours later, they climbed down from the train into the warmth and beauty of Bolzano, the gateway to the magnificent Dolomite Mountains and South Tyrol's romantic blend of Italy, Germany, and Austria. With promenades and covered arcades, well-stocked fruit and vegetable markets, and serene mountains, it rivaled Tannhausen. Max was saddened to see the Italian flag flying over a former German city - a result of the Versailles peace treaty - but pleased that the people did not have "a trace of the spiteful and presumptuous attitude of the French."
Hedi was amazed at the graciousness of life outside of Germany and how "unbelievably pampered" she felt at the hotel in Bolzano. "God, this is beautiful," she exclaimed. There was plenty of white bread and even whipped cream at dinner. She could place clothing and shoes for cleaning at the door, leave jewelry in the room, and hang washing overnight in the meadow without fear of theft. "Poor, corrupt Deutschland," she wrote, "All confidence, all honesty broken."
After a day and a half in Bolzano, the Borns traveled up through Etschtal, Merano, Spondinig - where they ran into the Plancks, who were hiking the range even though Planck was sixty-two - and finally to the Suldenhotel. It too was beautiful, "2000 meters above the sea, a high alpine summer station… an exit point for lovely parties by wagon and by horse" - nestled at the bottom of the glaciers of the Ortler, Königspitze, and Cevedale, their snow-capped peaks jutting into the clear sky. Here was Hedi's "Schlaraffen existence," a fantasy of luxury and ease with "fabulous" food: soup, appetizers, vegetables, roasts, desserts, and "so much butter that we have to cover the butter with bread and not the reverse." To Max, the butter and whipped cream were "fairy tale things."
Reminders of the war were scattered about - shells, steel helmets, and cannon placements, even on the sides of the highest peaks - but for the Borns it was "heavenly restful" as they soaked in "the splendor of the glacial world …. through every pore." The only unpleasantness occurred at their next stay in Venice, where Americans at their boarding house treated them as outcasts, neither speaking to nor dining with them.
Their Italian episode did not compare with the insults being heaped on Einstein back in Germany. On August 24, 1920, the Study Group of German Natural Philosophers, as they called themselves, held a meeting in Berlin's Philharmonic Hall. Most of the scientists comprising the group were unknowns, but one, the Nobel physicist Philipp Lenard, gave them visibility. Speaking before a sold-out crowd, these scientists denounced Einstein and his general theory of relativity. They cloaked their rampant anti-Semitism, which his international fame had stirred up, under a guise of scientific disagreement. Einstein himself attended part of the meeting, listening to the harangue with a seemingly bemused manner. He saved his real reaction for a letter to the Berliner Tageblatt a few days later, in which he criticized the detractors as frauds, defended his science, and stated, "Were I a member of a nationalistic German party with or without a swastika instead of a Jew of liberal, national conviction, then….". Einstein did not finish the sentence, preferring that his readers fill it in.
The Borns did not learn of the attack until they reached Munich on their trip home on September 5. Hedi wrote Einstein a couple of days after arriving in Frankfurt.
You must have suffered very much from them, for otherwise you would not have allowed yourself to be goaded into that rather unfortunate reply in the newspapers. Those who know you are sad and suffer with you, because they can see that you have taken this infamous mischief-making very much to heart. Those who do not know you get a false picture of you. That hurts too.
Distinguished German scientists did not bicker about important scientific issues in the press but debated calmly in scientific assemblies, at least theoretically. A month later, the meeting of the Society of German Scientists and Physicians in Bad Nauheim, a spa town twenty miles outside of Frankfurt, was to be such an event, with a special joint session of the mathematics and physics sections dedicated to a discussion of relativity between Einstein and his critics.
Upon arriving home, Born had to focus on a related issue, the publication of his book Einstein's Theory of Relativity and Its Physical Foundations, which was based on his Frankfurt lectures. Using nothing but elementary mathematics, the book traced the development of physics from classical mechanics, through optics and electrodynamics, and then to relativity, in each area presenting unsolved problems and explaining in the following section how those theories gave solutions that then posed further unsolved problems. Born had created a powerful teaching tool and written an exciting science book - the philosopher Karl Popper later modeled his geometry thesis on Born's method.
This book, which Born hoped to have out before the Bad Nauheim meeting at the end of September, contained more than substance; highly unusual for the time, it included a biography and a photograph of Einstein. When Born returned home, a letter from Max von Laue, urging him to omit Einstein's picture, awaited him. From the start, Born had been sensitive about the image of "burning incense before the idol." After receiving von Laue's plea, he wrote of his concerns to the publisher Ferdinand Springer to see if there was time to leave the picture out. Backed by Arnold Berliner, Springer decided to leave it in. He thought it would be easy to deal with anyone who took exception. No one did. The first printing of 2,000 copies sold out quickly without incident and was followed by a second, third, and fourth edition, none of which, however, contained the Einstein photo.
For the meeting of the Society of German Scientists and Physicians, Einstein stayed with the Borns. (Elsa accompanied him to Frankfurt but stayed with the Oppenheims in posher surroundings.) Each morning of the six-day meeting, the two men took the hour-long train ride to join the other 2,500 physicians and scientists at Bad Nauheim. This health spa, nestled in the foothills of the Taunus Mountains, is surrounded by gentle hills - a serene backdrop to complement the expected civility of which the opening remarks of the president of the Society reminded the audience.
Scientific questions of such difficulty and of such great importance as the theory of relativity cannot be voted on in popular meetings with demagogic slogans and in the political press with venomous personal attacks. In contrast, within the tight circle of true experts they receive an objective evaluation that does justice to the importance of their ingenious creator.
On September 25, the day of the debate on relativity, Born and Einstein walked out of the train station to face a changed scene: guards armed with fixed bayonets. Not trusting the scientists' sangfroid, the government prepared for trouble, unnecessarily, as it turned out.
In Bathhouse 8, five to six hundred eager listeners "squeezed together on seats, stood along the walls, filled the balcony … ." First came hours of invited papers, until session chair Max Planck finally opened the floor to discussion. Lenard spoke first. When Einstein followed, Planck was forced to silence heckling, perhaps orchestrated. Lenard and Einstein rebutted each other's comments, as others in the audience asked questions and offered opinions, including Born. Then Planck, who had maintained a more dignified proceeding than many had considered possible, observed that relativity theory still had not made it possible to extend the time for the meeting and ended the discussion.
Einstein was disappointed in his performance. "I will…not allow myself to get excited again, as in Nauheim," he wrote Born. "It is quite inconceivable to me how I could have lost my sense of humour to such an extent through being in bad company." Born knew that Einstein suffered under the attacks and worried that he might leave Germany. This was all the more reason for the Borns to react strongly to the swirl of publicity that surrounded Einstein and, in their opinion, made him more vulnerable to attack - publicity that the Borns and other friends such as Max Wertheimer attributed to Einstein's good nature and Elsa's enjoyment of the attention.
After Nauheim, Hedi took matters into her own hands. Speaking for herself and Max, she wrote a long letter to Einstein, imploring him not to allow publication of a book that the Borns and many other friends thought would be exploitative, demeaning, and construed as "self-advertising" by his enemies. Einstein attempted to stop publication of Conversations with Einstein, which was written by a slightly disreputable journalist who happened to be Jewish, but was unsuccessful. Contrary to expectations, the Earth did not shake, and the to-do faded.
One piece of it continued, however. Einstein wrote to Born, "Today I write principally because I want solemnly to bury the hatchet. I have had a tiff with your wife for the sake of mine, mainly because of a rather exaggerated letter she wrote to her." Einstein relayed his displeasure in an obvious manner. He referred to Born in the formal Sie rather than the intimate Du reserved for one's family and close friends that he had begun using about a year earlier. Born had felt honored to be included in that group.
When Max talked to Hedi, he discovered there was much to apologize for. Hedi's six-page letter to Elsa had been scathing, accusing her of being open to all kinds of flattery, of dulling Albert's judgment, of taking advantage of his great heart, and of selling his freedom when he was too sick to object. Born replied to Einstein that he had taken the matter "very much to heart, more so than anything else I can remember." The friendship continued, as did Einstein's flirtations with the press, and after a couple of months, his use of Du.
Freed from the conservative cultural and political regime of the kaiser, Jews were beginning to thrive in an open German society. They were part of the government for the first time and part of the highly visible explosion in avant-garde music, art, architecture, literature, and drama; but underneath was an undercurrent of Anti-Semitism. With Germany roiled by defeat and desperate economic conditions, the public was foaming, and Jews instantly were made the scapegoat. The presence of a few notable Jews, such as Walther Rathenau, in the same government that had accepted the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles created a convenient target.
Historically, anti-Semitism had infected the atmosphere in the theoretical physics community less so than in other sciences. As the neglected stepchild of experimental physics, its lower prestige made it easier for Jews to get appointments. Einstein's ascendancy changed the hierarchical place of theoretical physics both in Germany and internationally. The academic establishment that had so carefully controlled the employment of Jews now found the most famous scientist in the world, a Jew, in its midst.
The attacks on Einstein were from a small, organized group that wanted to reestablish influence on theoretical physics. Born had watched the efforts at Bad Nauheim. In a long letter to Felix Klein, he warned of the importance of the "correct choice of members" on scientific committees, emphasizing that "after the Nauheim proceedings, one can not gloss over that in physics a 'South-German particularism' [a special subgroup] exists for which the spokesmen are Wien and Stark." In another two years, Nobel Prize-winner Johannes Stark would write the anti-Semitic tract, "The Present Crisis in German Physics" and later ridicule relativity and quantum theory as Jewish science in this lecture, "Jewish and German Physics."
Despite divisiveness in the physics world, within Born's institute, harmony reigned. He wrote to Gilbert Lewis, "The physics is so beautiful that one would like to wish for days with 48 hours in which one could create more." He was busy working on lattice theory and on his experiment with Fräulein Bormann to measure the free path of silver atoms. Landé still explored the cubic atom, and Stern wanted to expand his research methods to test Sommerfeld's theory about the spatial orientation of electrons in atoms. Earlier, Sommerfeld, working on Bohr's theory of the atom, had hypothesized that when a magnetic force is applied to an atom, it could orient itself in only certain discrete directions - a phenomenon known as space quantization - while conventional wisdom called for the atoms to form a continuous distribution. Using the molecular beam method, Stern planned to explore what would happen to the orientation of a silver atom as it interacted with a magnetic field. Born, like other theorists, considered Sommerfeld's formula to be largely symbolic and cautioned Stern. Stern was convinced, however, and Born agreed to find financial support for his work.
Somewhat flippantly, Born told a German friend who was on his way to New York that should he meet a rich German-American who still had a place in his heart for the old country, he should ask him to support Born's institute. A few weeks later, the friend sent a postcard saying, "Your man is Henry Goldman," and gave instructions to write to Goldman at the St. Regis Hotel. Born did so and received a check from Goldman for a few hundred dollars. With the inflation in Germany, it was a small gold mine.
Born's friend had found a rarity: an American sympathetic to Germany. A few months later, Born traveled to the luxurious Adlon Hotel in Berlin, met Goldman, a heavy-set gentleman of about sixty-three, and discovered what made this American different. Goldman, a first-generation American whose father had emigrated from Germany, did not believe that Germany was responsible for the war. In 1917, he had refused to contribute to an Allies' war loan and the family firm, Goldman, Sachs & Co., forced his resignation as senior partner. By this time, Goldman had already financed the formation of such companies as Sears, Roebuck, & Co., F. W. Woolworth Co., the Studebaker Corp. and B. F. Goodrich. In retirement, he was an art collector and philanthropist - although always an anonymous one - doing what he could to support Germany. Born left the meeting with more research funds, enough to support Stern for a while longer, and with a new and lasting friend in Goldman.
About that time, Stern found a research partner. Walther Gerlach, a new lecturer in Wachsmuth's experimental physics department, wandered by Born's lab for a chat and discovered an atmosphere where "one sat the entire day, talked, and did physics." It took only a few visits for him to become an unofficial member. Born's first reaction was, "God be thanked. We have an experimental physicist who can help us here." Born and Stern wasted none of Gerlach's time - Stern working with him on space quantization and Born on lattice theory and electron affinity.
Born had a side interest as well - closely following the developing field of quantum theory. When writing to Lewis to thank him for finding a place for Paul Epstein at Caltech, he argued against Lewis's criticisms of Bohr's atomic model, telling him that reading Sommerfeld's Atomic Structure and Spectral Lines would dispel all doubts. "One thing shines out of the chaos: the classical relationship between the motion of charged particles (nuclei and electrons) and radiation is wrong and must be described by" a quantum formula. Born was a believer in the new theoretical direction if not actively pursuing the answer to questions posed by the new theory. "The true laws are quantum laws that unfortunately we know only little about."
An expansiveness was growing in Born. Hedi even mentioned in a letter to the Einsteins that Max was interested in lecturing in America to earn some extra income, in case they knew of any opportunities. A deep anxiety, however, about the growing hostility within Germany still preoccupied him. To Einstein, he predicted dire consequences from reparation payments.
We are not going to pay as much as is asked for. But I can see the effect of power politics on the minds of the people; it is a wholly irreversible accumulation of ugly feelings of anger, revenge, and hatred. In small towns such as Göttingen, this is very noticeable. I can, of course, understand it. My reason tells me that it is stupid to react in this way; but my emotional reaction is still the same. It seems to me that new catastrophes will inevitably result from all this. The world is not ruled by reason; even less by love.
Serge Boguslavski, one of Born's favorite Göttingen students from before the war, wrote Born "a shattering view .... from the land of the Bolsheviks" that reinforced this verdict. Boguslavski had finally gotten a letter out of Russia to Born with an urgent request for an official invitation for him to come to Germany. The conditions in Russia were more deplorable than in Germany, and Boguslavski was not only starving but had tuberculosis. Born wrote to everyone - Planck, Hilbert, Ehrenfest, Einstein - for help. When they all said there was nothing that they could do, Born knew there was no way of getting Boguslavski to Germany.
The last months in Frankfurt were hectic. Born was working with Fräulein Bormann to finish his experiment with silver atoms and trying to organize the institute for Erwin Madelung. Wachsmuth had succeeded in placing Madelung first on the list to the Ministry for Born's successor with Stern second, and Madelung had accepted. Born reported to Einstein that Stern was so unhappy about "his prospects… under the current anti-Semitic conditions" that "he is thinking of going into industry, which I consider a crazy idea." Stern stayed in Frankfurt for another year, however, continuing his research with Gerlach - and Wachsmuth put merit above ethnicity when he nominated Stern for a Nobel Prize a few years later.
A piece of news from Copenhagen made Born consider dropping everything. On February 21, Landé received a letter from Niels Bohr reporting that he had just derived the entire periodic system from quantum theory. The next day, Born wrote excitedly to Franck, who happened to be in Copenhagen.
Wouldn't that be grand! But the tragedy is that we understand not a word of how he does it. He only says that it is based on the correspondence principle… Dear, good Franck, be a nice chap and write to us about it as well as you understand it, or ask Bohr or Kramers to [write] something clear. Otherwise, we'll explode from curiosity. Or let me come to Copenhagen in eight days. At such an exciting event I would like being close by. Bohr is an astonishing man.
Stern, equally enthusiastic, added, "Dear Franck, You must snatch the great secret away from Bohr and tell us immediately."
Born did not go north. He was too busy completing plans for the move to Göttingen and dealing with an unexpected complication - a robbery. They lost their silver, linen, bicycles, even Max's suit and shoes. He felt insecure in the house and had trouble sleeping. By April 1921, when they left their home and lovely garden, Frankfurt had begun to resemble chaotic Berlin. For Hedi, the move was particularly difficult. She was five months pregnant. She took the girls to stay in Leipzig while their apartment was renovated, and Max went to Göttingen alone.