Challenging accepted thinking is paramount to problem solving

Niels Bohr, Einstein’s lesser-known sparring partner deserves greater recognition
More than a match: Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein in 1925 at one of their debates on the philosophy of science © Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

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One of the two scientists who took part in a series of landmark interwar debates on the philosophy of science is an icon. Albert Einstein is famous around the world, even to people who will never grasp his theories. His intellectual sparring partner of the 1920s and 1930s, however, is unjustly little known.

Despite winning the Nobel physics prize and being more than a match for Einstein, Niels Bohr is far from being the household name his achievements merit. Beyond science, his ideas on teaching, especially trusting youth to push the boundaries of knowledge, offer lessons for professors and students alike. 

Born in Denmark in 1885, Bohr was a gifted scientist from an early age. He also played as goal for a Danish football league team and even turned his hand to glassmaking when the test tubes in a university lab did not meet his needs.

By 1911, he was in England on a science fellowship, devouring new research on the atom. Two years later, he leapt to the forefront of quantum physics, creating the atomic model that became the basis for our understanding of how the world is built. He won the Nobel Prize in 1922 and began his public jousting with Einstein on a subject likely to leave lesser mortals scratching their heads: quantum non-locality.

Their debates are seen as one of the high watermarks of scientific research in the first half of the 20th century. A choice exchange saw Einstein dismiss the theory that mechanics were to be understood as a probability without any causal explanation by saying that he was sure that God did not play dice. Bohr responded: “Stop telling God what to do.”

In 1921 he opened the Niels Bohr Institute, having spent four years drumming up support from the Danish government and finding funding from companies and private donors that would let him create a centre of excellence for a new breed of physicists.

His institute at the University of Copenhagen became almost a production line for Nobel Prize physicists. Four of its members have received the ultimate accolade, among them one of Bohr’s six sons. The institute’s work has shaped the world. We have Bohr and his disciples to thank for important progress in quantum mechanics. If that sounds like scientific mumbo jumbo, try thinking of life without the electronics at the heart of computers, mobile phones, CD players, lasers and medical scanners. These devices, and many more, use technology that grew from Bohr’s research. The institute cites one study claiming that 30 per cent of the western world’s GDP can be traced back to Bohr’s thinking.

The reason behind the achievements of Bohr’s institute is something business schools and students would do well to note. It was not the amount of money that secured success. What made the difference was the belief that accepted thinking must be questioned, with the upcoming generation taking the lead. Bohr showed faith in younger scientists that other established figures may have seen as too raw to be fully trusted.

An approach in which the innovations and enthusiasm of youth benefit all could be a template for much of management education. If young people have the confidence to do things differently, we might come closer to solving problems such as pollution, energy consumption, drought and food shortages. Business school is an ideal place for the seeds of such a philosophy to be sown.

Of Jewish descent and working in Nazi-occupied Denmark, a notable scientist like Bohr could not escape the Reich’s attentions. To prevent the Nazis seizing two Nobel gold medals given to Jewish colleagues, Bohr and a Danish chemist decided at great risk to dissolve the medals, to be hidden as a beaker of orange liquid before troops arrived to search the site. (Bohr had auctioned his own medal for Finnish war relief before the invasion.) In a remarkable epilogue, the chemist reversed the process after the war and sent the gold to the Nobel Foundation, which recast the medals and presented them to the prize winners.

Bohr went on to help refugees fleeing the Nazis and then, when the order to arrest Jews in Copenhagen was issued in autumn 1943, escaped to the UK to help the Allies take the lead in the atomic race.

His institute still thrives and bears a plaque declaring that the building is where atomic physics and modern physics were born in the special creative environment inspired by Niels Bohr. Though very much true, such a sober statement fails to do proper justice to an underappreciated figure. 

Emeric Peyredieu du Charlat is dean of Audencia Business School, France.

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