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Max Born

Born: 11 Dec 1882 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland)

Died: 5 Jan 1970 in Gttingen, Germany

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Max Born attended school in Breslau, studying a wide range of subjects. He showed little promise at
school and in particular he showed more interest in the humanities than in the sciences. Entering the
University of Breslau in 1901 he took a wide range of science subjects, mainly to go along with his
father's wishes (his father had died shortly before Max left school).

Max's favourite subjects from the ones he studied were mathematics and astronomy and he thought of
specialising in astronomy. He spent 1902 in Heidelberg, then 1903 at Zurich. In Zurich he attended his
first course on advanced mathematics, a course by Hurwitz on elliptic functions.

Back in Breslau he talked to his fellow students Toeplitz and Hellinger who told him of the great teachers
of mathematics, Klein, Hilbert and Minkowski, at the University of Gttingen. Born was soon in
Gttingen attending lectures by Hilbert and Minkowski.

He became Hilbert's assistant in 1905, continuing to attend lectures by Klein and Runge. However he
annoyed Klein by only making irregular attendances at his lectures, so Born decided to substitute (1 of 4) [23/08/2002 11:00:14]


astronomy for geometry as one of his doctoral subjects. He attended Schwarzschild's astronomy lectures
and successfully obtained his doctorate in 1907.

In addition to the mathematicians mentioned above, Born was in contact with Courant, Schmidt and
Carathodory around this period. After taking his doctorate he visited Cambridge for a while but made
less of Larmor's lectures than he might because he had difficulty with Larmor's Irish accent.

Born returned to Breslau, then visited Gttingen again in 1909 and began a collaboration with
Minkowski who died only weeks after the collaboration had begun. In 1912 Born was offered a post in
Gttingen and, once on the teaching staff, he began a research project with von Krmn. This work was
on lattice dynamics where they identified the degrees of freedom of a crystal with the normal modes of
vibration of the whole body. Their work uses three dimensional Fourier analysis and periodic boundary

In 1914 Born was offered a chair at Berlin where he became a colleague of Planck. In 1919 he moved to
a chair in Frankfurt-am-Main but two years later he was back in Gttingen.

In 1921, the year he became professor at Gttingen, he reformulated the First Law of Thermodynamics.
In 1926 Born collaborated with Pauli and Heisenberg, who was a student of Born's, on quantum theory.
Born recognised Heisenberg's approach to quantum mechanics as being matrix algebra.

Born produced work of fundamental importance in quantum mechanics beginning with this
collaboration. His treatment replaced the original quantum theory, which regarded electrons as particles,
with a mathematical description representing their observed behaviour more accurately.

Born was forced, as a Jew, to flee Germany in 1933 and, after a short while in the north of Italy, he
accepted an offer to became Stokes lecturer at Cambridge.

In 1936 he was appointed to a chair in Edinburgh. There he introduced a continental style research group
comprising mostly refugees from Europe. One of his research students described Born's days in

When Born arrived in the morning he first used to make the round of his research students,
asking them whether they had any progress to report, and giving them advice, sometimes
presenting them with sheets of elaborate calculations concerning their problems which he
had himself done the day before. ... The rest of the morning was spent by Born in
delivering his lectures to undergraduate honours students, attending to departmental
business, and doing research work of his own. Most of the latter, however he used to carry
out at home in the afternoons and evenings.

Born returned to Germany when he retired in 1953 making his home in Bad Pyrmont, near Gttingen. He (2 of 4) [23/08/2002 11:00:14]


was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize for his statistical studies of wave functions. He received many other
honours, far too numerous to mention. To name a few - he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in
1939 and awarded its Hughes Medal in 1950:-

... for his contributions to theoretical physics in general and to the development of
quantum mechanics in particular.

He received the Stokes Medal from the University of Cambridge, two German schools were named after
him and he was made an honorary member of academies in Russia, India, Romania, Peru, Ireland,
Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and the USA.

Born wrote many textbooks and monographs, mostly for students or experts in the subjects but some
popular accounts of science. His publication list includes at least 360 items.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

Click on this link to see a list of the Glossary entries for this page

List of References (8 books/articles) Some Quotations (5)

A Poster of Max Born Mathematicians born in the same country

Cross-references to History Topics 1. The quantum age begins

2. Light through the ages: Relativity and quantum

Honours awarded to Max Born

(Click a link below for the full list of mathematicians honoured in this way)
Nobel Prize Awarded 1954
Fellow of the Royal Society Elected 1939
Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

Lunar features Crater Born (3 of 4) [23/08/2002 11:00:14]


Other Web sites 1. Nobel prizes site (A biography of Born and his
Nobel prize presentation speech)
2. West Chester University
3. Encyclopaedia Britannica

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JOC/EFR November 1997 School of Mathematics and Statistics

University of St Andrews, Scotland
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