08 June 2011

Anniversary of the Niels Bohr Archive

The Niels Bohr Archive is more than an archive - it is an autonomous institution that holds an unparalleled collection of everything about the world famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr and some of his closest associates. His scientific theories about the atomic model and the subsequent research in nuclear physics at his institute revolutionized the world, and the collection consists of letters, manuscripts, films and sound recordings, books, articles, and pictures of Bohr and his contemporaries. The archive is used by scientists and students from around the world.

The Niels Bohr Archive is an autonomous institution that holds an unparalleled collection of everything about the world famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr.

On the 9th of June, the Niels Bohr Archive celebrates its 25th anniversary as an independent institution. It is celebrated with an event, which includes famous physicists talking about of Bohr's importance and the work of the Archive. Also participating is Health minister Bertel Haarder, who was minister of Education when the Archive was established in 1985, and the eminent science historian John L. Heilbron

Started by Niels Bohr

The origins of the Niels Bohr Archive (NBA) may be dated to the 1950s, when Niels Bohr (1885-1962) set up a 'secretariat' at his residence, the Carlsberg Mansion, in order to organize some of his letters and manuscripts. 

In the late 1950s, when the American Philosophical Society inaugurated the Archives for the History of Quantum Physics (AHQP) ― a project to document the early history of quantum physics ― Niels Bohr offered Carlsberg as the headquarters.  This seemed only natural, as Bohr's Copenhagen institute had been an international centre for developing quantum physics.  As a result NBA (as it was called already then) became an original AHQP repository, offering its resources to historians of science from all over the world.

The Niels Bohr Collected Works. Volume 1 was published in 1972 and the project was completed with the publication of Volume 12 in 2006. In 2008, the Collected Works were published in a new limited edition with an added cumulative index. The new edition is also available as an e-book

NBA's first priority soon became the publication of the Niels Bohr Collected Works, a project started by Niels Bohr's younger colleague, Léon Rosenfeld, and supported mainly by the Carlsberg Foundation.  Volume 1 was published in 1972.  In 1977, his project was left to Erik Rüdinger, who also took over the task of looking after the Archive.

Formally established institution

In 1985, in connection with the centennial for Niels Bohr's birth, NBA was formally established as an independent institution under the Danish Ministry of Education.  On this occasion NBA, now housed at the Niels Bohr Institute, received the majority of Bohr's letters and manuscripts as well as other relevant items through a deed of gift from Niels Bohr's widow and sons.  These papers, which have been conserved, ordered and catalogued, comprise the core of the holdings.

Over the years the collections at NBA have been augmented with supplementary papers originating from Niels Bohr as well as from several of Bohr’s contemporaries, such as Hevesy, Rosenfeld, Kramers and Klein, in addition to physicists of the next generation, notably Aage Bohr.

Erik Rüdinger was Director of NBA until 1989, when he was succeeded by Finn Aaserud, who also took over as General Editor of the Collected Works which were completed with the publication of Volume 12 in 2006.  In 2008, the Collected Works were published in a new limited edition with an added cumulative index.  The new edition is also available as an e-book.

Finn Aaserud, director of the Niels Bohr Archive, Lis Rasmussen, librarian and Felicity Pors, research assistant.

Research and outreach

In addition to historical research and archival work, including making material available to scholars all over the world, NBA has taken on an outreach function primarily directed towards high-school students but also the general public. There is a public series of history of science seminars with lectures by internationally prominent scholars. For securing historical knowledge extensive interviews are made with prominent physicists, such as Nobel laureates Aage Bohr and Ben Mottelson.  These interviews are deposited for the use of researchers.

A revolution in physics

NBA is becoming increasingly involved in the preparations for the 100th anniversary in 2013 of Bohr's atomic model, which was published in a trilogy of articles, “On the Constitution of Atoms and Molecules”, which started a revolution in physics.  In addition to providing material for projects instigated by others, NBA will itself be responsible for research publications and conferences.  A new international edition of Bohr's trilogy will be published with an extensive introduction by historian of science John L. Heilbron, and a historical publication based on the otherwise closed early correspondence between Bohr and his future wife Margrethe Nørlund will shed important new light on Bohr both as a scientist and a person.

Future prospects

The 2013 celebrations will be a landmark for the history of science and may serve, if resources can be found, as a stepping stone for a substantial increase in NBA's activities, which would make it possible to meet the ever-increasing number of requests from researchers at home and abroad.  Equally important, NBA needs to develop its own research potential with resident historians of science carefully choosing relevant historical projects and carrying them out on the basis of the archival collections, the major part of which is as yet not used for such purposes.  In this regard, several new ideas and visions are currently being developed.  In the longer run, such activities will help encourage a much-needed expansion of the field of history of science at the University of Copenhagen.