For some time I have been researching the lives of a group of scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War Two. Although there are several impeccably researched non-fiction works on the subject and a number of biographies, none of these really conveyed to me the emotions and convictions that drove their work - I simply could not connect with the personal principles of the scientists who collaborated with such energy to produce the period's ultimate weapon of mass destruction. In my search for understanding the motivation of those who joined the race to produce the bomb whose use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki appalled the world, I eventually decided to turn from fact to fiction.
Niels Bohr's model of the hydrogen atom—first published 100 years ago and commemorated in a special issue of Nature—is simple, elegant, revolutionary, and wrong. Well, "wrong" isn't exactly accurate—incomplete or preliminary are better terms. The Bohr model was an essential step toward an accurate theory of atomic structure, which required the development of quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Even in its preliminary state, the model is good enough for many calculations in astronomy, chemistry, and other fields, saving the trouble of performing often-complex calculations with the Schrödinger equation. This conceptual and mathematical simplicity keeps the Bohr model relevant. Despite a century of work, atomic physics is not a quiet field.
Danish Ambassador Peter Taksoe-Jensen spent a weekend in Vermont this month traveling with me to town meetings in Burlington, Brattleboro and Montpelier. Large crowds came out to learn about a social system very different from our own which provides extraordinary security and opportunity for the people of Denmark. Today in the United States there is a massive amount of economic anxiety. Unemployment is much too high, wages and income are too low, millions of Americans are struggling to find affordable health care and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider. While young working families search desperately for affordable child care, older Americans worry about how they can retire with dignity.
Google on Sunday recognized Niels Bohr with a homepage doodle to commemorate the 127th anniversary of the Danish physicist's birth. The doodle, one of the search giant's simpler ones, shows the breakthrough atomic model Bohr conceived of in 1913 taking the place of the first "o" in Google's famous logo. Bohr's model was the first to conceive of the atomic structure as similar to a solar system, with electrons spinning around a central nucleus like planets around a sun, but with the electromagnetic force binding them rather than gravity. Bohr, born in 1885 in Copenhagen, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922 for this early work published while he was at Manchester University.
The leader of Hitler's atomic bomb program, Werner Heisenberg, portrayed himself after World War II as a kind of scientific resistance hero who sabotaged Hitler's efforts to build a nuclear weapon.