Field of Science

The end of determinism...

Nancy Thorndike Greenspan has finally come out with an authoritative biography of Max Born. It is high time I say. Born is one of the most publicly underappreciated scientists of the century. Few people apart from historians of physics or physicists have heard about him. This is a little unfortunate, because not only was he a scientific great in a century of greats, but he was also one of the premier physics teachers of the century, an illustrious author, and a man of great and wide learning and conscience.

Born occupied the chair of physics at Gottingen University, which was the preeminent world center of theoretical physics during the century. Sojourning through Europe and Germany before, he had studied under some of the greats of the time, including David Hilbert. Born came to Gottingen, endowed with a deep understanding of not only science, but of literature, philosophy, and poetry. He fit the image of the dignified, intellectual professor in every sense.
A partial listing of Born’s students, assistants and collaborators is essentially a list of the most important physicists of the century; Heisenberg, Pauli, Oppenheimer, Dirac, Teller, Maria Goeppert Mayer, and Pascual Jordan, to name a few. The fact that the man trained no less than nine future Nobel Laureates in physics is testament enough to his erudition as a scientist and teacher. Born came to Gottingen and almost single handedly made it into the Mecca of physics to which flocked the most remarkable men and women in the field. In this Mecca, the stampedes were only for satisfying the thirst for knowledge. The quiet, amiable pacifist, who loved science for its pure beauty, worked with a dozen of the physicists who contributed to the atomic bomb. He also worked with C. V. Raman in India for a year in Bangalore.

But Born was more than an outstanding physicist; he will always also be remembered as a very compassionate, conscientious, and kind man. Most of the premier scientists in the world were his personal friends. His relations with his students were always gentle and even deferential. His correspondence with Einstein, a special confidante, is well known and still in print in book form (although Einstein's disagreements with Born's quantum probability is also well-known). When Hitler came to power in 1933, Born, like most others, faced a series of crises. In a time when the doors of fate were shut in the face of the most talented scientists in the world, it was Born who made sure that his students found respectable jobs. It was he who wrote letters to Bohr, to Einstein, and to Robert Millikan (at Caltech) to recommend promising and needy Jewish researchers who could not have gotten jobs anywhere else; and in fact who would certainly have faced worse than simply lack of jobs.
Born himself had to emigrate to Scotland, to Edinburgh, where he worked and lived for the rest of his years.

As a scientist, Born would be remembered most as the progenitor of the concept of probability in quantum physics, a concept that is not only the bedrock of the science itself, but also that of the myriad and bizarre ramifications arising out of it. The most central entity in quantum theory, the wavefunction, is Born’s invention. On it rests the entire edifice of atomic and nuclear and particle physics, as well as the many practical applications in our life that originate in quantum theory. It would not be an exaggeration to say that once we know the wavefunction for a system, we can calculate almost anything about it that we want to. It is the starting point for all forays into the domain of the small. From Newton's determinism to Born's indeterminism, we have come a long way indeed.

Born’s Nobel Prize came extremely belatedly, in 1954, when all of his students had already gotten it. It seems fit to think that, as important as the wavefunction was, Born got it for a lifetime of scientific achievement. Apart from quantum theory, he made powerful contributions to atomic physics, to solid-state physics, and to optics. In each of these fields, Born penned a book that became the classic of its time. In addition to technical works, he also wrote insightful books on philosophy, the social impact of science, and popular science.

Nancy Greenspan’s book is aptly and hauntingly titled The End of the Certain World, an allusion to the implication of Born’s discovery; that we live in a non-deterministic universe where nothing is certain. Like electron waves embodied in their probability distributions, we are nothing but will o wisps in the vast expanse of the world, and of history. And yet, like the electron, we make a difference in the fabric of space-time due to our sheer existence; modern physics buffs may like to say that we hold the power to collapse the wavefunctions of uncertainty and unreason. I would also like to think that the title of the book refers to the ominous political atmosphere of the times that led to the bloodiest and most brutal century in all of history. That was the end of the certain time of trust that human beings knew.
Born has passed into history, but his work lives on. Nancy Greenspan has done us a service.

As an amusing side note, the singer and actress Olivia Newton John (of Grease fame) is Born’s granddaughter.