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100 years of the Niels Bohr Institute: »Now we have moved on, and work on what will shape the future«

The Niels Bohr Institute is 100 years old. Through the course of these years, the research has moved from blackboards to quantum computers. But an informal, anti-hierarchical spirit from the times of Bohr is still present.

»This is the place where large parts of our present worldview had their beginnings,« says Professor Anja C. Andersen, as we enter Niels Bohr’s old office at the Niels Bohr Institute.

It was here between dark wooden furniture and dust-green walls that Niels Bohr had some of the thoughts that changed the world. Almost a decade before he moved into the office, he published in 1913 a landmark article that mapped the structure of the atom – and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

According to some calculations, the ideas created the foundation for one third of the world’s gross domestic product. Because without this article, we would not have transistors, lasers, or a lot of the other stuff that is behind computers, smartphones or the Internet.

»In short, anything hi-tech,« says Anja C. Andersen.

Niels Bohr’s effect on the world was not just a result of his own ideas. He set up a department and assembled the world’s leading physicists, and this led to, for example, revolutionary changes in the medical world, according to Anja C. Andersen. She points to one of the many black and white pictures of leading figures from the department which hang on the wall.

»The Hungarian scientist George de Hevesy, for example. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for creating nuclear medicine. This means that we can trace things through the body, and our entire cancer treatment and cancer research is built up around this.«

In other words, there are a lot of things that started at the Niels Bohr Institute. It is celebrating 100 years since Niels Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize – while at the same time, after the pandemic prevented it last year, celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Institute.

The University Post offers a portrait of a university department that now stands halfway between the historical past of it being the absolute centre of the physics world, and a future with innovative technologies. And at the same time a department that has insisted on retaining the values that go back to the time of Bohr.

Pandemics and delayed buildings

Under the roof of the taller neighbouring building, there is a group of people who know most of the intricate details of their Institute’s history. This is the Niels Bohr archive. Christian Joas, who is a German science historian and who is the head of the archive, is quick to draw a parallel between the past and the present.

»Out in the front there is ‘1920’ inscribed on the building. But the building was delayed then also, so the Institute only opened in 1921. Strikes, and inflation in the wake of World War One, were the main causes of the delay, but there had also been a pandemic at the time that might have helped delay it,« he says. He notes, however, that the delays then did not have anything to do with poor construction management.

In 1916, when Niels Bohr became professor, he started looking for the funding to open up what was to become the Niels Bohr Institute. The professor achieved world renown after his formulation of the atomic model in 1913. It took many years, but he used this fame to secure funding.

»The money came mostly from the government and from private donors. And the Carlsberg Foundation bought a grid spectrograph, which is an expensive piece of experimental equipment that the department needed,« says Christian Joas.

The Institute got off to a flying start. After one year, Niels Bohr got the Nobel Prize for Physics, and the Institute achieved a status that Bohr could use to set up an international focal point.

»There was a kind of gold fever going on, where physicists felt there was something exciting on the way, that they wanted to be a part of,« says Christian Joas, who is head of the Niels Bohr archive. Bohr also opened up to German scientists after World War One, people who were otherwise not particularly welcome elsewhere. It was here that the later Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg came to the Institute.

International researchers became aware of a certain spirit at the Institute that was characterised by curiosity, a flat hierarchy, and an informal atmosphere, explains Christian Joas and fishes out a black-and-white picture. In the picture from 1922, Bohr and the other physicists sit around, relaxed in the auditorium.

»This informal atmosphere was not conceivable in Germany at the time, when it was more the case that the professor lectured and the others listened,« says Christian Joas, who does research on the history of 20th century physics.

He finds yet another black-and-wide picture that emphasises the informal atmosphere. This time from the Copenhagen Conference in 1930 – an annual conference where physicists from throughout the world gathered in the famous Auditorium A and discussed the revolutionary ideas of the day.

In the picture, the world’s absolute elite – including Bohr and four future Nobel laureates – are seen in the rows of the auditorium.

In front of some of the world’s brightest people there are three surprising objects: A toy trumpet, a miniature cannon, and a mechanical drummer.

»The trumpet was sounded if you were enthusiastic about what was being said. If you disagreed, you could shoot a hole through the theory with the cannon. And if you wanted to give applause, you could use the drummer. It says a lot about the atmosphere,« he notes.

Pipes and equality

Back at Niels Bohr’s old office, Anja C. Andersen says that she was still able to feel the atmosphere of Niels Bohr when she started her own physics degree programme in the 1980s – even though Bohr had died long before this.

»This could be seen clearly by the fact that all my teachers smoked a pipe, because Niels Bohr had smoked a pipe. They were young people during the time of Bohr and had both taken the pipe and the spirit of the place with them.«

Anja C. Andersen remembers, in particular, that it seemed like there was not a lot of hierarchy. The canteen’s round tables, where you could not sit alone, meant that you, as a student, often chatted with the researchers.

»You sat down either with some researchers, or some researchers sat down with you. And there was no putting on airs: The fact that you had been awarded a Nobel Prize did not exempt you from talking to bachelor’s students.«

This was not the case everywhere, she emphasises. The atmosphere was different when she was a postdoc in Germany, for example. The professors did not just speak to anyone here.

»But if you say something wise as a first-year student at the Niels Bohr Institute, we will listen. And if you say something stupid as a professor, we will not listen. There is not that much hierarchy going on in terms of academic titles,« she says.

The no-hierarchies mindset lives on, confirms Victoria Inselmann, who studies third year physics. This was seen, for example, when she told one of her lecturers in a quantum mechanics course that she was curious to learn more.

»And then he suddenly asked if I would not like to be involved in developing some exercises with the quantum computer for the teaching. And I was just: ‘That is, teaching materials? Yes, I can do that.’ I think this is quite unique to the physics degree programme,« she says.

At the same time, life as a student is characterised by the fact that there is a large community where you know each other across the year cohorts, and where you help each other out when you are challenged, she says.

This meant that, in the first period of the physics programme, she would hardly ever get home before nightfall.

»It was so nice to be here, so you sat around doing calculations with each other after the teaching was over. That’s how I still feel. I had some time off yesterday, but I came here instead of sitting there studying in some reading room.«

This is the kind of atmosphere that can only arise when students are both inquisitive, and smart, she reckons.

»There is space for the nerdy conversations over the lunch break. There is often someone around that overhears it and that joins into the conversation.«

But even though the egalitarian spirit, the informal atmosphere, and the curiosity, are still typical of the Institute, she has not thought about it as something from Niels Bohr’s time.

»For me as a student, it is not all about the history. It is the daily life with a community and our teaching, where we have also moved on from what was cutting edge during the time of Niels Bohr,« she explains.

Freezers and quantum computers

The spirit is the same, but the science is quite different today Anja C. Andersen confirms. The Niels Bohr Institute has 430 employees today, based in five different locations – and researchers work with everything from climate, black holes, cancer research to the quantum computers of the future.

»It is as if that part of the atomic nucleus, that they were working on back then, has fallen into place. So now we have moved on, and work on what will shape the future,« professor Anja C. Andersen says.

One of the places where the research of the future takes place is on the fourth floor of the H. C. Ørsted building. Here, and on the floors below, is the Center for Quantum Devices, which since 2012 has assembled the world’s leading researchers for the purpose of developing a so-called quantum computer, a technology that would give computers far greater processing power.

Anasua Chatterjee is one of the top researchers, and proof that the department can still attract the finest scientists. Last year, this Princeton-educated assistant professor was on the Danish Berlingske media’s Talent 100 list, and is seen as one of the key figures in the development of quantum computers.

»It’s a bit hectic this morning – we’re always busy,« she notes, as she shows us around the quantum lab, where students and researchers talk between cables and machines and over the sound of loud compressors.

The compressors are de-pressurising eight cylinders in the room. The cylinders are extremely cold freezers that can get the particles within them to almost come to a standstill – a crucial process to understand and develop quantum computers.

Anasua Chatterjee suggests that the technology can, for example, be used to create models of how to make super-conductors that do not lose energy, or how to bind nitrogen better in fertilisers.

»This may not necessarily sound super sexy. But these are things that our world uses quite a lot of energy and greenhouse gases on.«

Anasua Chatterjee sees the department as being at the forefront of global research, and as being different in a number of ways. This goes for, say, bureaucracy, which she has seen much less of here.

»And then we may be more informal with the students. They find it easier to approach me, and they are not afraid to express their opinions,« she says.

In her time as a student, she knew the department first and foremost through its history. But when she graduated from Princeton and the centre opened in 2012, she became aware that top research was taking place in her field at this department.

It was the funding, and the many good researchers at the centre, that made her go to Copenhagen, and these are the qualities that are the outcome of the history of the place, she says.

»You can’t just throw a lot of money into something and reckon on it attracting people. There has been an unbroken chain of clever people who have attracted younger talent since the time of Bohr. And apart from this, you should not underestimate the value of the fact that there is a kind of prestige in history itself,« she says.

More women

In Bohr’s old office, there are a number of pictures of all the department’s employees and students from the first few years – the pictures were taken every year on Bohr’s birthday. The tradition is still respected, and the newer pictures are hanging in the corridor on the other side of the wall.

There is one significant difference that can be seen when you compare to the newer images on the other side of the wall: There are more women among them.

Last year, 27 per cent of admitted students were women. But when Anja C. Andersen was a student in the 1980s, it was only one in ten, and the perception of women was different, she remembers.

This was evident, for example, when she, together with another female student stood in front of an elderly instructor during her first year. The instructor looked at them and said that girls like them who did not want to get grit under their nails would never get through the study programme.

»We just stood there in our jeans, rubber boots and Icelandic sweaters and looked around because we thought ‘who is he talking to?’ It took some time before it dawned on me that he was talking to us,« she laughs.

Back then, there was only one women’s toilet in the entire department – one that was at the reception where the female secretaries sat. But one day, when the professor came out there, she was met with a big yellow triangle sign.

»Apparently someone didn’t think that it was a toilet that was in use, so they just chose to store radioactive samples out there. You did not really want to go to the toilet there.«

Today all the toilets are gender-neutral, and there are a lot more female students. But this does not mean that you no longer have challenges, according to Victoria Inselmann. A large group of students recently had a talk about gender in continuation of a lecture about women in physics.

»And there were several female students who felt that they were more often offered help than men. Even though this may seem helpful on the surface, there may be the underlying assumption that women need help – and this is actually a bit derogatory,« she says, while emphasising that she herself has not experienced this kind of thing, and is happy that the dialogue is there.

At the same time, she explains that during the first two years there were only three female lecturers, and that she has therefore found it more difficult to identify with the lecturers.

»When I had Anja Andersen, I went over to her and asked about what life was like as a researcher, and about her journey from being a physics student to researcher and teacher. I’ve never done that with one of the many male lecturers, so I apparently found it easier to talk to her,« she says.

The future of the Institute

The need for more female researchers is recognised by the head of department Jan W. Thomsen. One year ago, he presented an ambitious strategy for having 35 per cent women associate professors and 30 per cent women professors by 2030 – a big move from the 20.6 per cent associate professors and 13.8 per cent professors in 2021.

»This is also rooted in Niels Bohr’s values, where we don’t care about who you are – it’s about what you can do.«

The strategy, however, was based on a study that showed that, despite Bohr’s values, a majority of women felt discriminated against, he admits.

The students felt ignored, overheard and felt more overburdened with administrative tasks, the study showed. And this was an eye-opener for Jan W. Thomsen.

»This surprised me a lot. And this also made it clear to me how important it is that we make this plan with specific criteria that can be measured and assessed,« the head of department says.

This is an initiative that makes Anasua Chatterjee a bit more optimistic about the the future gender balance.

»I think that everyone agrees that this is an important goal. As a research leader, I should also be better at ensuring that women get their places on the list of co-authors that they deserve, and so on. But fortunately, we see that things are moving in the right direction, she says.

Getting more women is far from the only challenge facing the department, according to Jan W. Thomsen. The Niels Bohr Institute’s balancing act between history and the future is made clear in the case of the Niels Bohr Building, which has been delayed again and again.

»We have to invest in the current buildings – and that’s the money we could have put in the new buildings. It’s a shame, because we are happy with our history. But we also need to have good facilities so we can become part of the future,« the head of department concludes.

Back at Bohr’s old office, Anja C. Andersen recognizes this balancing approach, and looks forward to the new building. She points out that the buildings can help with both the spirit of history and the research of the future.

»With the buildings, we will be finally together again, so we can live these Bohr values again in common. And at the same time, we also get some good facilities, so we can continue to be at the forefront of the world’s discoveries.«