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Niels Bohr

Final Years

The Bomb

Study & Essay

Bohr returned to Denmark and resumed his role at the Copenhagen Institute. The homecoming brought tears to many eyes, and a large celebration was planned to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. Interest in atomic energy was inevitable and soon occupied many minds at the Institute.

Following his failure to induce political action, Bohr urged the scientific community to take the first steps toward cooperation. He hoped that prewar bonds could be reestablished and strengthened, so that physics itself could lay the foundation for international cooperation. In 1951 Bohr called a meeting of Institute alumni. Representatives of fourteen European countries met in Copenhagen to plan the Conseil Européenne Recherche Nucléaire (CERN), of which Bohr became chairman. The program called for a research facility that would cost about $28 million, and the Geneva establishment would undoubtedly become the most advanced European institute devoted to research free of commercial and military influence.

1955 saw the meeting of the Atoms for Peace Conference, where 1,200 delegates from seventy-two nations convened in Geneva. Two years later an Atoms for Peace award was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, and the committee unanimously chose Bohr as its first recipient. No one had shown his commitment to the cause, and no one better symbolized the struggle to harness atomic energy for use beneficial rather than destructive to humanity.

Over the last years of his life, Bohr continued to lecture all over the world. In June of 1962, Bohr went to attend a conference in Germany, where he suffered a slight cerebral hemorrhage. Although he appeared to make a rapid recovery, several months later, he died in his home after complaining of a headache. He was seventy-seven years old.

Beginning with the development of his atomic model, Bohr had radically changed the course of physics. But this was just the first of many major contributions. His correspondence principle provided clarity of purpose for many researchers who were lost in the chaotic world of the atom. He considered his own greatest contribution to be the principle of complementarity, which attempted to address paradoxes by accepting dual answers. This formulation also led to endless debates, particularly with Einstein. Every time Bohr was convinced that his logic was undeniable, Einstein merely responded that he disliked the lack of finality in Bohr's argument.

As the head of the Copenhagen Institute, Bohr also aided in the cultivation of many young minds that would go on to add their own lasting contributions to science. He served both as an individual mentor and a symbolic leader for the scientific community at large. Bohr will naturally be remembered foremost as a scientific thinker, but to overlook his efforts to promote the good and contain the bad in science would be to miss Bohr's core values. Moreover, his efforts extended far beyond science, as he aided in the escape of Danish Jews even at the risk of his own life. To celebrate Bohr as a scientist is therefore insufficient. Rather, a complete picture of Bohr must incorporate his scientific thinking with his humanitarian and leadership roles, for he always maintained his pursuit of truth with a constructive purpose.

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