– Niels Bohr Institute - University of Copenhagen

16 July 2012

Life as a student

In 1903, Niels Bohr began to study at the University of Copenhagen. In his first year, he registered for mathematics with the astronomer Professor T. N. Thiele and philosophy with Professor Høffding, who was his father’s close friend. Along with his brother Harald Bohr, he participated in a small group of students who met several times a month to discuss philosophical and scientific questions.

When Niels Bohr was not philosophizing or playing football, he was often in the laboratory. One year, when he was taking a course in inorganic chemistry, he set a record in breaking glass. One day when the laboratory shook with a series of small explosions, the teacher Niels Bjerrum said – without investigating the source – “it’s Bohr”. He was right.

Niels Bohr’s studies gradually became more and more theoretically oriented. His main interest was of course physics, which he studied under the physicist Professor Christian Christiansen. Niels Bohr would take a master and doctorate in physics and since there were few courses for advanced students in Copenhagen, he could pretty much do what he wanted.

A few years before Niels Bohr began to study physics, the physicist J. J. Thomson had discovered the existence of electrons and Niels Bohr immersed himself with great interest in his articles. He decided that his thesis for his master’s degree would deal with the different physical properties of metals.

In the summer of 1909 Niels Bohr received his master’s degree. He took a few days holiday with some good friends before he began work on his doctorate. One weekend his visited Harald Bohr’s close friend Niels Erik Nørlund and he met Nørlund’s sister Margrethe, a beautiful young student with blond curly hair and the same gentle nature as his mother. From that moment there were no other girls for Niels Bohr. And when Margrethe saw "those lovely eyes and heard him speak and saw how modest and friendly he was” she became as captivated by Niels Bohr as he was by her.

Niels Bohr and Margrethe Nørlund

But Niels Bohr had to return to his studies. The electron theory of metals had proved to contain many possibilities so he decided that his doctoral thesis would address this issue. He and Harald Bohr, who was also working on his doctoral thesis, often studied together.

Niels Bohr defended his doctoral thesis at the start of 1911. This was followed by lovely summer with Harald Bohr and Margrethe Nørlund, who he became engaged to the same year. They sailed, they went for walks in the countryside, and they laughed and enjoyed themselves in Tivoli. All the while, Niels Bohr was making plans for the fall, when he would be travelling abroad to continue his studies.

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