Max Born was a pioneer in developing quantum mechanics. The term
“quantum mechanics” was introduced by Born. Born’s
initial research interests were lattice dynamics and how atoms in
solids one held together and vibrate. The BornHaber cycle, a cycle
of theoretical reactions and changes, allows calculation of the
lattice energy of ionic crystals. In 1926, immediately after his
student Warner Heisenberg had formulated his first laws of a new
quantum theory of atoms. Born collaborated with him to develop the
mathematical formulation that would adequately describe it. It was
Born who first showed that the solution of Schroendinger’s
quantum mechanical wave equation has a statistical meaning of physical
significance. Born’s interpretation of the wave equation has
proved to be of great importance in the new quantum theory. Born
reformulated the first law of thermodynamics. Born produced a very
precise definition of quantity of heat and thus provide the most
satisfactory mathematical interpretation of the first law of thermodynamics.
Commenting on Born’s scientific contributions,
the winner of 1977 Nobel Prize for Physics, Sir Neville Francis
Mott (19051996) wrote: “As the founder of lattice dynamics,
that is, the theory of how atoms in solids stick together and vibrate,
Max Born is one of the preeminent physicists of this century. His
celebrated work on cohesion in ionic crystals formed the bridge
between the physicist’s and chemist’s ways of studying
crystals. For the physicists, lattice energies of the crystals were
of central interest and for the chemists, heats of reaction. Born
showed that the ionization potentials of the atoms could be used
to compare the chemical and physical concepts. This was a landmark.”
Max Born was born on December 11, 1882 at Breslau,
Germany (now Worclaw, Poland). His father Gustav Born was a professor
of embryology at the University of Breslau and his mother Margarete
Born (nee Kaufmann) came from a Silesian family of industrialists.
It was from his mother that Born inherited his love for music. Born’s
mother died when he was four years old. In his childhood, Born badly
suffered from bad colds and asthma and which continued to afflict
him throughout his life. Because of his bad health, he was taught
by private tutor for a year in home and then after spending two
years in a preparatory school, he joined the Wilhelm’s Gymnasium
in Breslau. At the Gymnasium, Born studied a wide range of subjects
including mathematics, physics, history, modern languages, Latin,
Greek, and German. At the School, Born did not display any sign
of a gifted child. He was more interested in humanities than in
science subjects.
In 1901, Born joined the University of Breslau.
Following his father’s advice, Born did not specialize in
any particular subject. He took a wide range of subjects including
mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, logic, philosophy, and
zoology. At the Breslau University, Born became interested in mathematics
and the credit for this goes to his teachers Rosanes and London.
Rosanes, a student of Leopold Kronecker (182391), who developed
algebraic number theory and invented the Kronecker delta, gave brilliant
lectures on analytical geometry. It was Rosanes, who introduced
Born the ideas of group theory and matrix calculus, which were later
used successfully by Born to solve physical problems. London’s
lectures on definite integrals and on analytical mechanics were
clear and lucid. The resultant effect of the teachings of Rosanes
and London was that Born was drawn towards mathematics. He was helped
by some of his classmates to develop interest in science. One of
his classmates named Lachmann awakened his interest in astronomy.
His other classmate Otto Toeplitz introduced the lives and works
of some of the greatest mathematicians like Euler, Lagrange, Cauchy
and Riemann to Born. Toeplitz had learnt these from his father,
who was a schoolmaster and mathematician. In his later life Born
acknowledged his debt to Otto Toeplitz ‘for the first introduction
to these pathfinders in mathematical science’.
In those days it was a common practice for a German
student to move from university to university. And Born was no exception.
In 1902 Born went to the University of Heidelberg and then in 1903
he went to the University of Zurich. It was at Zurich that Born
attended his first course on advanced mathematics given by Adolf
Hurwitz (18591919). After coming back to Breslau University, he
was told by his classmates Toeplitz and Hellinger of the great teachers
of mathematics, Christian Felix Klein (18491925), the founder of
modern geometry unifying Euclidean and nonEuclidean geometry; David
Hilbert (18621943), who originated the concept of Hilbert Space;
and Hermann Minkowski (18641909), who developed the mathematics
that played a crucial role in Einstein’s formulation of theory
of relativity at the University of Gottingen. So Born went to the
University of Gottingen to attend lectures by these great scientists.
At the Gottingen University, Born served as an Assistant to David
Hilbert. He attended lectures by Klein and Carl Runge (18561927)
on elasticity and a seminar on electrodynamics by Hilbert and Minkowski.
Klein was annoyed with Born because of Born’s irregular attendance
at his lectures. Born then attended Schwarzschild’s astronomy
lectures. During his student days at the Gottingen University, he
had the opportunity to go for walks in the woods with Hilbert and
Minkowski. During these walks, all matters of fascinating subjects
were discussed in addition to mathematics including problems pertaining
to philosophy, politics and social. Born was also interacting with
nonmathematicians like Courant, Schmidt and Caratheodory.
Born earned his PhD in physics from the University
of Gottingen in 1907. He then undertook compulsory military service.
However, he did not have to complete the standard one year period
because he suffered from asthma. Even his brief stint with the military
made him loath all things military. After serving in the military
Born visited Caius College, Cambridge for six months to study under
Larmor and J. J. Thomson (19081909). He came back to Breslau and
worked there with the physicists Lummer and Pringsheim. Around this
time he was fascinated by Einstein’s work on relativity. Born’s
work on combining ideas of Einstein and Minkowski led to an invitation
to Gottingen in 1909, by Minkowski as his assistant. However, Minkowski
died within weeks after Born’s coming to Gottingen. In 1912,
Born joined the faculty of the Gottingen University and he started
with working with Theodore von Karman (18811963), who discovered
Karman vortices.
In 1915 Born was appointed as Professor (extraordinarius)
at the Berlin University to assist Max Plunck. At the time Albert
Einstein was also at the Berlin University. However, soon he had
to join the Army. He was attached to a scientific office of the
Army, where he worked on the theory of sound ranging. He could also
manage to find time to work on the theory of crystals, which led
to publication his first book entitled “Dynamics of Crystal
Lattices” summarizing a series of investigations that Born
had initiated at Gottingen.
In 1919, after the conclusion of the First World
War, Born was appointed Professor at the University of FrankfurtonMain,
where a laboratory was put at his disposal.. Here Born’s assistant
was Otto Stern, the first of Stern’s wellknown experiments,
which were awrded with a Nobel Prize originated there.
In 1921, Born came back to the University of Gottingen
as Professor of Physics, where he stayed for 12 years, interrupted
only by a visit to USA in 1925. Among his collaborators at Gottingen
were Pauli, Heisenberg, Jordan, Fermi, Dirac, Hund, Weisskopf, Oppenheimer,
Joseph Mayer and Maria Goeppert Mayer. During his stay Born’s
most important contributions to physics were made. He published
a modernized version of his book on crystals. Assisted by his students
he undertook numerous investigations on crystal lattices, followed
by a series of studies on quantum theory. He collaborated with Heisenberg
and Jordan to develop further the principles of quantum mechanics
discovered by Heisenberg. He also undertook his own studies on the
statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics. Born proposed that
what Schrodinger had described with his wave equation, not the electron
itself, but the probability of finding the electron in any given
location. Consider you are bombarding a barrier with electrons,
when some will go through and some will bounce off. Born figured
out that a single electron has, say 55 percent chance of going through
the barrier, and a 45 percent chance of bouncing back. Because electrons
cannot readily divide, Schrodinger’s quantum mechanical wave
equation could not have describing the electron itself, what it
was describing was its probable location. Born’s interpretation
was hailed by Leon Lederman, as “the single most dramatic
and major change in our world view since Newton”. However,
at the beginning Born’s interpretation was not liked either
by Schrodinger, the propounder of the wave equation or many other
physicists including Einstein. Born corresponded with Einstein on
the subject and the BornEinstein letters were published in 1971.
Born’s proposition of probability meant that the determinism
of Newton’s classical physics was no more valid. There is
no predetermined way in which absolute prediction can be made, as
in classical physics. Everything depends on probability. A similar
idea is embodied in the uncertainty principle of Werner Heisenberg.
But Bohr, Sommerfeld, Heisenberg and many others took Born’s
ideas seriously and they continued the exciting work of trying to
get all pieces to fit.
Born introduced a useful technique, known as the
Born Approximation, for solving problems concerning the scattering
of atomic particles. Born and J. Robert Oppenheimer introduced a
widely used simplification of the calculations dealing with electronic
structures of molecules. This work known as “BornOppenheimer
theory of molecules deals with interatomic forces.”
In 1933, like many other scientists of Jewish
origin, Born was forced to leave Germany. He went to England and
became Stokes lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He worked
there for three years. During these years he mostly worked in the
field of nonliniear electrodynamics, which he developed with Infeld.
During the winter of 19351936, Born spent six
months at Bangalore at the invitation of C. V. Raman. Commenting
on his coming to Bangalore and subsequent events, Born said: “
As I had no other job, I was willing to accept Raman’s offer
namely, a permanent position at his institute, if he could obtain
the consent of the Council. Then he insisted on my attending the
next faculty meeting which had to decide on bringing my appointment
before the Council.
The English professor Aston (who had joined around
the same time) went up and spoke in a most unpleasant way against
Raman’s motion declaring that a second rank foreigner driven
out from his own his country was not good enough for them. I was
so shaken that, when I returned home, I simply cried.”
Born was elected to the Tait Chair of natural
philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in 1936. He became a British
subject in 1936. One of Born’s research students described
Born’s days at Edinburgh: “When Born arrived in the
morning he first used to make the round of his research students,
asking them whether they had any progress to report, and giving
them advice, sometimes presenting them with sheets of elaborate
calculations concerning their problems which he had himself done
the day before…The rest of the morning was spent by Born in
delivering his lectures to undergraduate honours students, attending
to departmental business, and doing research work of his own. Most
of the latter, however he used to carry out at home in the afternoons
and evenings.”
After his retirement in 1953 Born went back to
his native country and settled in Gottingen. In 1954 he was awarded
the Nobel Prize in Physics “for his fundamental research in
quantum mechanics, especially for his statistical interpretation
of the wavefunction.” He shared the Prize with Walther Wilhelm
Georg Franz Bothe (18911957).
Born was awarded Fellowships of many scientific
academies—Gottingen, Moscow, Berlin, Bangalore, Bucharest,
Edinburgh, London, Lima, Dublin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Washington,
and Boston. He was awarded honorary doctorates from a number of
universities including Bristol, Bordeaux, Oxford, Freidburg/Breisgau,
Edinburgh, Oslo, and Brussels. He received the Stokes Medal of Cambridge,
the Max Planck Medal of the German Physical Society, the Hughes
Medal of the Royal Society of London. He was also awarded the MacDougallBrisbane
Prize, the GunningVictoria Jubilee Prize of the Royal Society,
Edinburgh and the Grand Cross of Merit with Star of the order of
Merit of the German Federal Republic.
During his postretirement life in Bad Pyrmomt, a town neer Gottingen,
Born wrote many articles and books on philosophy of science and
the impact of science on human affairs particularly the responsibility
of scientists for the use of nuclear energy in war and peace. He
was totally against the use contemporary scientific knowledge of
nuclear energy for warfare. He took the initiative in 1955 to get
a statement on this subject signed by a gathering of Nobel Laureates.
Born is buried in Gottingen, where he died on January 05, 1970.
His tombstone displays his fundamental equation of matrix mechanics
that is pqqp = (h/ 2??i.
References
 Born. Max. My Life: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate. London:
Taylor & Francis, 1978.
 A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1999.
 The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists (Second Edition). Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002.
 Parthasarathy, R. Paths of Innovators in Science, Engineering
& Technology. Chennai: East West Books (Madras) Pvt. Ltd.,
2000.
 Spangenburg, Ray and Diane K. Moser. The History of Science:
From 1895 to 1945. Hyderabad: Universities Press (India) Ltd.,
1999.
 Dardo, Mauro. Nobel Laureates and TwentiethCentury Physics.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
