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Born, Max

mechanics wave quantum particle

(1882–1970) German physicist: invented matrix mechanics and put forward the statistical interpretation of the wavefunction.

Max Born was the son of a professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau and, following the death of his mother when he was 4, he was brought up by his maternal grandmother. He studied at Breslau, Heidelberg, Zürich and Cambridge, gaining his PhD at Göttingen (1907). He remained there, becoming professor of physics in 1921 and establishing a centre of theoretical physics second only to the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. As a Jew he left Germany for Cambridge in 1933, becoming a professor in Edinburgh and finally returning in retirement to Göttingen in 1953. In 1954 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for his fundamental contributions to quantum mechanics, together with .

Initially Born’s research interests were lattice dynamics and how atoms in solids hold together and vibrate. The Born–Haber cycle of reactions allows calculation of the lattice energy of ionic crystals. However, in 1923 the old quantum theory established by remained inconsistent and unable to account for many observations. Then made the startlingly apt suggestion that particles possess wave-like properties (1924) and Born, in collaboration rapidly developed a sequence of important ideas. With Jordan, Born constructed (1925) a method of handling quantum mechanics using matrices (matrix mechanics) and this was the first consistent version of the new quantum mechanics. Subsequently took this, and the equivalent wave mechanics due to , and blended them into a single theory (1926).

Born also put forward the probability interpretation of the wavefunction. In Schrödinger’s wave mechanics a particle is represented by a wave packet, which would be expected to disperse in time. Born’s solution was to state that the wave guides the particle in the sense that the square of the amplitude of the wavefunction is the probability of finding a particle at that point. Einstein opposed a move from deterministic to statistical physical laws and Born and Einstein discussed the issue from time to time over many years.

Born is buried in Göttingen, where his gravestone displays his fundamental equation of matrix mechanics:

where p is the momentum operator, q the position operator and h Planck’s constant.

The singer Olivia Newton-John is a grand-daughter of Born.

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