Neils Bohr: Discovery & Biography

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  • 0:00 Who Was Neils Bohr?
  • 0:35 A Life of Science
  • 1:35 Science, Interrupted
  • 2:27 Contributions to Science
  • 4:08 Other Achievements
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Ellen Ellis
Read about one of the most important contributors to modern physics, Niels Bohr. The Danish scientist led a fascinating life devoted to science, but also to peace after escaping Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1940s.

Who Was Neils Bohr?

Imagine trying to study something so small you can't see it even with the most powerful microscope. Think about how challenging it would be to try to figure out what that tiny thing is made of and how it operates. Now imagine making a huge contribution to the understanding of that tiny object and changing the way science works - by the age of 37.

This is exactly what Danish scientist Niels Bohr did. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922 for figuring out a crucial piece of the puzzle of the structure of the atom as well as how atoms radiate energy.

A Life of Science

Bohr may have made one of his greatest scientific achievements by the young age of 37, but he didn't stop there. His life and his work were devoted to science. Niels Henrik David Bohr was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1885 to a professor of physiology and an educator. He grew up surrounded by the encouragement he needed to pursue his education and work in physics. He attended the University of Copenhagen, where he earned a doctorate degree in physics in 1911.

After completing his degree in his home town, Bohr moved to England to work under the physicist J.J. Thomson, who had earlier discovered electrons in atoms. Under Thompson's guidance, Bohr began his work on investigating the structure of the atom. His work was not everything, however, and just a year after moving to England, Bohr married Margrethe Norlund, and they would go on to have six children. Bohr and his wife eventually returned to Denmark. He founded the Institute for Theoretical Physics at his alma mater in Copenhagen and worked as a professor and researcher.

Science, Interrupted

For Bohr and his colleagues, the growing threat from Germany in the 1930s interrupted scientific research and forced it in new directions. When Bohr visited the U.S. in 1939, the information he shared regarding Germany's efforts to create an atomic bomb helped spurred the start of the Manhattan Project and the race to split the atom.

Eventually, Bohr and his family had to escape Denmark as Germany expanded its occupation of European countries. They fled to Sweden and then the U.S. There, Bohr and his son, Aage, also a physicist, began working for the government on the Manhattan Project. Like other scientists who contributed to the development of the atomic bomb, Bohr was wary of the potential consequences and later put his efforts into slowing the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Niels Bohr died in his home in Copenhagen in 1962, after having a stroke at the age of 77.

Contributions to Science

The most famous, and arguably greatest, contribution that Niels Bohr made to science was in helping us to better understand the structure of the atom. His work was mostly theoretical, and he used math and the work of experimental physicists to understand how electrons could circle the nucleus of an atom without losing energy and collapsing.

Bohr described each electron as having a specific amount of energy and being set at a specific distance from the nucleus. If an electron absorbs just the right amount of energy, it can jump up to a higher level. If it jumps down to a lower level, it will release, or radiate, a certain amount of energy.

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