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January 5: Max Born

January 5, 2014

F50_1bMax Born, an influential German-born physicist and mathematician, died in Göttingen, Germany, on this date in 1970 at the age of 87. His crowning achievement, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1954, was to apply statistical methods to quantum mechanics (the mathematical interpretation of phenomena at very small scales). He once flooded an entire laboratory while experimenting, leading his adviser to tell him that he could never become a physicist. Many of Born’s contributions to physics and chemistry started as informal conversations with other scientists, and produced a wide range of discoveries, from an understanding of the lattice energy in table salt to a physical interpretation of Erwin Schrödinger’s wave function equations. Later in life, Born took an increasing interest in physics as philosophy, believing that evil (including the Nazis who had banished him from Germany) comes from being certain that a particular perspective is correct. Instead, Born insisted that his students and assistants (including J. Robert Oppenheimer and six Nobel prizewinners) question the status quo — and the uncertainty equation he derived (pq - qp = h/2πi) is inscribed on his tombstone. His granddaughter, Olivia Newton-John, is a Grammy award-winning Australian singer.

“Intellect distinguishes between the possible and the impossible; reason distinguishes between the sensible and the senseless. Even the possible can be senseless.” —Max Born

Our thanks to Zev Brook for contributing this Jewdayo entry.