Born, Max

(1882-1970), physicist

by Richard Staley

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Born, Max (1882-1970), physicist, was born on 11 December 1882 at Wallstrasse 8, Breslau, then part of Germany (later Wroc?aw, Poland), the elder of the two children of Gustav Jakob Born (1851-1900), a professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau, and his first wife, Margarethe Kaufmann (1856-1886). The family home was cultured and musical (Born was an accomplished pianist), with a strongly scientific atmosphere. He attended the König Wilhelm Gymnasium, Breslau, from about 1889 to 1901. In the course of his subsequent university studies in Breslau, Heidelberg, and Zürich, Born became increasingly engaged in mathematics and physics, travelling to the centre of German mathematics at the University of Göttingen in 1904. There he met the mathematical luminaries David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski, participating in a 1905 seminar they led in electrodynamics (an expression of their interest in current physics), and took courses with Voigt in optics and Schwarzschild in astronomy. Hilbert made Born his assistant, responsible for helping to prepare his lectures and writing them up for the mathematical reading room. Born also impressed Felix Klein, the doyen of German mathematics, with a report on the stability of the elastic line, but incurred his wrath by at first declining to enter the philosophical faculty prize competition Klein set on the topic. In order to rescue himself from the consequences of alienating Germany's most powerful mathematician, Born subsequently submitted this work both for the prize (successfully) and his doctoral dissertation.

Born then spent six months in Cambridge in 1907. Despite finding himself unprepared for the rigours of the experimental courses of the Cavendish professor of physics and recent Nobel laureate J. J. Thomson, and unable to understand the Irish dialect of the mathematical physicist Joseph Larmor, Born reported that he returned to the continent with a wish to become a 'real physicist' (Born, 121). After an unsuccessful flirtation with experimental work in Breslau, the inspiration of Einstein's 1905 paper on relativity prompted his first research contributions. Born returned to Göttingen to work with Minkowski shortly before the latter's unexpected death in 1909, and he employed Minkowski's four-dimensional formulation of relativity in an ambitious but flawed attempt to build a relativistic rigid body theory of the electron. In 1912 he turned to the second major theoretical breakthrough of the early twentieth century, following Einstein's lead to apply quantum theory to the specific heat of solids. Here Born and Theodor von Kármán developed a much more fundamental approach than the simultaneous and more rapidly assimilated work of Debye. From the strengths of his mathematical education Born drew a commitment to axiomatic approaches in physics (which he combined with atomism). He typically approached a problem in all its complexity, devising a mathematical formulation of appropriate generality before descending to more tractable specifics. A readiness to employ elegant but unfamiliar mathematical techniques often made Born's work initially inaccessible to other physicists.

Born and von Kármán's derivation of specific heats was one aspect of a broad programme to derive all crystal properties from the assumption of a lattice whose particles could be displaced under the action of internal forces. Born was to pursue this enquiry into the structure of matter throughout the rest of his career, largely alone through to the First World War and later often in collaboration with students and others. His contributions were foundational for the theory of crystal lattices and for solid-state physics. In addition to many path-breaking papers, his monographs and textbooks, Dynamik der Kristallgitter (1915), Atomtheorie des festen Zustandes (1923), and (with Huang) Dynamical Theory of Crystal Lattices (1954), were quickly recognized as landmarks in the field. Born's skill in writing technical textbooks was also reflected in theoretical optics, where his books Optik (1933) and (with Wolf) Principles of Optics (1959) became standard works. As an undergraduate text Atomic Physics (1935) enjoyed unrivalled popularity in the English-speaking world, with eight editions by 1969.

In 1913 Born married Hedwig Ehrenberg (1891-1972), the daughter of a Göttingen law professor. They had two daughters and one son, Gustav, who became professor of pharmacology. At the outbreak of the First World War Born was called to his first professorship in theoretical physics at the University of Berlin. There began a long friendship between the Borns and Einstein. Their correspondence provides a fascinating commentary on the extraordinary scientific and political events in which they participated, and drew forth some of Einstein's most famous sayings: it was to Born that Einstein first remarked that 'God doesn't play dice' (Born-Einstein Letters, 127).

After the war Born moved to Frankfurt (1919) and then Göttingen (1921), where he soon turned his attention to addressing the difficulties of the quantum theory of the atom, the second field in which his contributions were fundamental. As director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics, Born was responsible for Göttingen becoming one of the most important international centres of the new 'quantum mechanics' which he named in 1924. In 1925 Born recognized that a new formulation his former assistant Heisenberg had proposed could be expressed in terms of matrix operations, leading to the development of matrix mechanics by Heisenberg, Born, and Jordan (another of Born's impressive group of students and assistants). Then in 1926 Born initiated the statistical interpretation of Schrödinger's wave function--which he immediately saw to contradict the determinism of classical physics. It was for this work especially that Born was honoured with the Nobel prize in physics in 1954. Born's description of particle scattering, which became known as the Born approximation, has become important in high energy physics.

In 1933 antisemitic civil service laws stripped Born of his post in Göttingen and resulted in his emigration to Britain, where he was for three years Stokes lecturer in Cambridge. Searching for a more permanent position he spent six months at the Indian Institute of Physics in Bangalore, but was then appointed Tait professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, which he held from 1936 until his retirement in 1953. There he gradually built a school of research physicists, concentrating in particular on the physics of the solid and liquid states. Many of his students and collaborators came from outside Britain, including a number of refugees from the continent. Among those who worked with Born in Edinburgh were Klaus Fuchs (later notorious for passing atomic weapon secrets to the Soviets), Fürth, Lonsdale, Bradburn, Peng, H. S. Green, Cheng, Yang, Huang, and Wolf, with the collaborations with Fuchs and Green (on the statistical mechanics of condensed systems) being particularly important.

In 1954 Born and his wife returned to the small town of Bad Pyrmont near Göttingen. The award of the Nobel prize gave something of a forum for Born's views on science in the cold-war period. Throughout his life he had exhibited a strong interest in the philosophical dimensions of physics, most fully expressed in lectures on the Natural Philosophy of Cause and Chance (1949) and articles collected in Physics in my Generation (1969). His equally deep concern with the place of science in culture was reflected in the thorough and imaginative pedagogy of his popularizations Einstein's Theory of Relativity (with three German editions between 1920 and 1922 and an English edition in 1924) and, on quantum theory, The Restless Universe (1936). Following the events of the Second World War, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the cold war, Born was led to the pessimistic view that science and technology had destroyed the ethical basis of traditional society. He was passionate in his emphasis on the importance of scientific thinking, but also on the necessity for understanding the limits within which it was appropriate, and for acknowledging the responsibility of the scientist, particularly in relation to the development of nuclear weapons. Born participated in the founding of the Pugwash movement (1955) and his forthright views were expressed in, among other books, Physics and Politics (1962) and My Life and my Views (1968). He died in a Göttingen hospital on 5 January 1970.

Among other honours Born was awarded the Stokes medal of Cambridge University (1936), the Max Planck medal of the German Physical Society (1948), and the Hughes medal of the Royal Society (1950). He received nine honorary doctorates and was a member of scientific academies in several countries.


M. Born, My life (1978)
N. Kemmer and R. Schlapp, Memoirs FRS, 17 (1971), 17-52
A. Hermann, 'Born, Max', DSB
R. Staley, 'Max Born and the German physics community: the education of a physicist', PhD diss., U. Cam., 1992
Albert Einstein, Hedwig und Max Born: Briefwechsel, 1916-1955, ed. M. Born (Munich, 1969); trans. I. Born, The Born-Einstein letters (1971)
'Born, Gustav Jakob', Deutsche biographische Enzyklopädie, ed. W. Killy and others (Munich, 1995-9)

Staatsbibliothek, Berlin
University of Copenhagen, Niels Bohr Institute for Astronomy, Physics, and Geophysics |  Archive for the History of Quantum Physics
Bodl. Oxf., Society for Protection of Science and Learning file
Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with C. A. Coulson
ICL, corresp. with Herbert Dingle
ICL, corresp. with Dennis Gabor
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, corresp. with Bertrand Russell
Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell
Rijksmuseum voor de Geschiedenis der Naturwestenschappen, Leiden, Netherlands, corresp. with Ehrenfest
University of Copenhagen, Niels Bohr Institute for Astronomy, Physics, and Geophysics  SOUND  Archive for the History of Quantum Physics, interview conducted by P. P. Ewald, T. S. Kuhn and F. Hund (1960, 1962) [51pp transcript held at Imperial College and Science Museum Library]

Lotte-Meitner-Graf, photograph, repro. in Kemmer and Schlapp, Memoirs FRS

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