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Niels Bohr

Bohr's Youth

Important Terms and People

Studies at Copenhagen

Niels Henrik David Bohr was born on October 7, 1885, in a large Copenhagen house that belonged to his maternal grandmother. His father, Professor Christian Bohr, was an internationally renowned physiologist who held a medical degree but never practiced as a doctor. His mother, Ellen Adler, was the daughter of a prominent banker and politician. The parents held progressive views and raised their children with an emphasis on such values as generosity and openness. Christian and Ellen also endeavored to create an effective intellectual atmosphere for their family, which also included older sister Jenny and younger brother Harald, by encouraging independent development.

Harald, born just eighteen months after Niels, became Niels's inseparable companion. Many anecdotes tell of their devotion to each other. Once, when Niels was heard calling all over for his brother, an older cousin finally asked what he needed. Niels replied that he had been given a bun and wanted to share it with Harald. Both boys showed great intellectual promise, but Harald was regarded as the brighter of the two. Armed with a sharp wit, he used to tease Niels, who neither defended himself nor protested. Harald, however, along with his father, recognized Niels as "the special one of the family." Christian was careful to allow both to follow their own paths, and Harald went on to become a distinguished mathematician, receiving his doctorate two years earlier than Niels.

The influence of their father on both children is undeniable. The boys were allowed to sit in and listen to the spirited discussions that arose when distinguished colleagues visited the Bohr home. Christian Bohr instilled in them an appreciation for knowledge and its pursuit. Professor Bohr was a great admirer of Goethe and would recite passages of Faust to his children. He also appreciated authors such as Shakespeare and Dickens, and he encouraged his children to become familiar with both German and English cultures. Not only did Professor Bohr keep their educations balanced, but he also showed them the value of a well-rounded life. He took them on long walks and expeditions to foster an appreciation for nature. They also became accomplished athletes, learning soccer (or European football) at a young age. Both brothers achieved national recognition as soccer players, and Harald even became a member of the medal- winning Danish Olympic team of 1908.

Not much is known about Niels's early schooling. At the Gammelholm School, which he attended from first grade until university, he was a successful though not brilliant student, who excelled in physics and math but also performed well in history and languages. His most difficult subject was composition, as he struggled with the formal requirements of his teachers. He especially disliked the rule of having a strict introduction and conclusion to every essay, and in one essay on metals he mockingly ended, "In conclusion I would like to mention aluminum."

As he advanced to the upper grades, Niels's natural ability became more evident as the school's math and science departments failed to keep up with him. Frustrated with outdated textbooks, he began reading scientific journals that exposed him to the advancing breakthroughs of physics. By the time he entered the University of Copenhagen in 1903, he was more than prepared for the challenges it would bring.

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