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Eccentric originals of the Niels Bohr Institute: They stick it out after most of us have given up

Community — The Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen is the setting for an academic and social community of researchers. And it is difficult to leave — even when you hit a pensionable age. At present, 43 active professors and associate professors emeritus have opted out of a well-deserved retirement to volunteer teaching and research in spite of being stuffed into smaller and smaller offices.

For many years, the tables in the lunch room at the Niels Bohr Institute (NBI) on Blegdamsvej street were covered with large sheets of paper and cups with pencils like in a family restaurant. The writing tools were used diligently as the conversation took off between physicists from different research groups over lunch.

The scientists jotted down illustrations and equations during meals to keep their colleagues up to date on current progress and on the physics paradoxes that were being attempted solved throughout the department. Or just to substantiate their arguments in an academic discussion.

»I really liked that,« says Hans Bøggild, associate professor emeritus in experimental subatomic physics who was first hired at the department in 1967: »This way, there was a social and professional interaction with colleagues from other fields also. You are, of course, interested in what is going on with a colleague’s exciting projects.«

Danish physicist Niels Bohr himself came over during lunch and said, ‘I’ve heard that you want to study physics. This is a really good idea.’ And I was happy to hear that.

Associate Professor Emeritus Hans Bøggild on meeting Danish physicist Niels Bohr

On a hot Copenhagen day in August 2022, four timeworn emeritus scientists are seated in the department’s fabled lecture theatre A, which during the last century played host to some of the greatest figures in the history of physics.

»I graduated as a student in 1967, where I was employed as a temporary amanuensis. Not even an amanuensis, but a substitute amanuensis,« says Hans Bøggild.

»This means you were kind of an assistant,« adds Mogens Levinsen, who is also Associate Professor Emeritus, »actually, a substitute for an assistant.«

»I started in 67, and I managed to have a 40-year anniversary here before I retired. You might have had 45 or 50?« Hans Bøggild continues, turning to Geir Sletten, who shrugs his shoulders and smiles:

»I am 84 now, so I have had a bit longer.«

»I started out as a student at the same time as Hans in 1961, so I’ve known him ever since. But I’m not sure if he knew me,« says Mogens Levinsen.

»Oh stop. I must have done,« Hans Bøggild breaks in with a pat on the back of his colleague.

»But I spent a year doing the hippie thing in Afghanistan. So I did not finish until January 1969,« Levinsen continues, undeterred.

»Then I was two years in Texas as a postdoc, and then I came to the H.C. Ørsted Institute as an assistant professor.«

»Oh, so you made it to assistant professor,« Hans Bøggild jokes with ironic appreciation.

»Yes, I had been a postdoc.«

»Oh yes, that’s right.«

Laughter erupts in the room, and in response to the reporter’s obvious confusion, Levinsen adds:

»This is one step above amanuensis.«

The lively conversation continues. Research, and life at the department, is not something that you just put on the shelf because of something as arbitrary as reaching a pensionable age.

The 43 emeriti at the Niels Bohr Institute still publish. Last year, they wrote 154 peer-reviewed scientific articles on top of their other scientific input to the general public. They meet and eat lunch together once a month at least, and next year, two new emeriti will join the group.

The Copenhagen spirit

The spirit and atmosphere of the Niels Bohr Institute is the stuff of legends. An egalitarian and unpretentious way of working has superseded the formal academic hierarchy between staff and students:

»For as long as I’ve been at the department, I’ve never used the [formal Danish, ed.] ‘De’ form of address with anyone here. In fact, Bohr himself once came over to talk to me. I can’t remember whether I was on the informal ‘du’, or the formal ‘De’ terms with him, but otherwise everyone else is on informal terms, and everyone is allowed to say their opinion.«

Rebels in the cause of youth

Even though the multitude of professors emeriti at the Niels Bohr Institute have no formal power, they are not without influence over fundamental decisions. Not even when big corporate interests make their entry into the sphere of research.

A few years ago, a planned collaboration with Microsoft set off waves in the department, as several researchers feared that it would forced secrecy upon scientific results as part of the contract with the tech giant.

Non-disclosure of results could, in particular, be a problem for those PhD students who cannot get a permanent position if they have not published their research:

»We were all concerned that young people had to sign a document that deprived them of their rights. It was something we were all concerned with, but it was difficult because there was a lot of money involved,« says Hans Bøggild and continues:

»We rebelled as emeriti, where we authored a joint letter and sent it to management. They then had to negotiate directly with Microsoft to have them delete the clause that kept results secret.«

The letter from the professors emeritus apparently also influenced the department’s way of dealing with a research partnership with NATO, according to Mogens Levinsen:

»I was at a meeting where management clearly stated that we would not sign a contract like this, this time, with NATO. They took our joint letter’s advice, so we got something out of it.«

Here the University Post took the bait like a hungry fish: Hans Bøggild was asked to elaborate on the flat hierarchy and the informal exchange with Niels Bohr:

»It was the year I started my studies. 1961. Danish physicist Niels Bohr himself came over during lunch and said, ‘I’ve heard that you want to study physics. This is a really good idea.’ And I was happy to hear that. He unfortunately died the following year.«

The discussion culture can be traced back to the first two decades of the Niels Bohr Institute’s lifetime in the 1920s and 1930s. The period was not just characterised by ground-breaking research into things like quantum mechanics which laid the foundation for modern technologies, but also the cultivation of a certain vitality that has become known internationally as The Copenhagen Spirit.

This was expressed in the form of a flatter hierarchy and a playful approach to science that has been a source of inspiration for the rest of the world. This is according to Emeritus Professor Helge Stjernholm Kragh, who is a science historian:

»It was unique because of the research you did, but also the way in which the department was organised socially. There was a freewheeling discussion culture, and they mixed play with seriousness in a way that was unknown at the time.«

According to Kragh’s assessment, this spirit is no longer peculiar to the Niels Bohr Institute:

»It has almost become the norm today. We now know that if you want to have a well-functioning department, you cannot go back to the old authoritarian professors ruling, where you could not discuss freely with each other and the students.«

The most amazing papers, right up to the end

Just like the department’s founder, the writing implements in the lunchroom are now a thing of the past. This is much to Hans Bøggild’s and Mogens Levinsen’s annoyance. The same is the smoking of pipes in the lecture theatres for that matter. But the emeriti are still here.

And people are happy about that. Head of the Niels Bohr Institute Jan W. Thomsen, for example, who praises the group of emeriti to high heaven:

»Our emeriti are a part of the department’s soul. There are no salary-related issues to think about any longer, so they can therefore comment more freely than others can. We say that they are our external audit,« he says. But he also emphasizes the academic contributions:

»They publish the most amazing articles. I have just spoken to one of our emeriti, Bjarne Andresen, who has published an article that was highlighted as article of the year in Entropy, an international scientific journal. They also help guide the students, give them good counsel, and talk physics with them, where they share their fascination with the subject.«

Jan W. Thomsen adds that not all emeriti keep up the same, high octane, efforts, and not all of the time. But they all stick to some kind of research activity:

»It is a calling to be a physicist at NBI, you could say. This means that they continue to publish right to the end. They continue to focus on scientific questions and write articles and all these things. This is really impressive.«

High volume in thoughts in very little space

Despite the goodwill of management, compromises need to be made. The employment relationship formally ceases at the age of retirement. This means that salary payments stop, and the emeriti gradually get less office space. This is a necessity for the department to be able to recruit new researchers:

»My office has got smaller and smaller,« says Hans Bøggild with a laugh. »I had a big fancy office when I was 70. I was allowed to keep this for two years after retiring. But now I’ve been moved to a tiny closet next to the coffee machine. It is okay. No complaints.«

The 80-year-old physicist has just come from the first research group meeting of the year when the University Post meets him at the Blegdamsvej address.

It is a real calling to be a physicist at NBI, you could say. This means that they continue to publish right to the end.
Jan W. Thomsen, Head of Department, Niels Bohr Institute

The group has just set off a big experiment that means that the particle accelerator of the CERN laboratory in Switzerland will be running round the clock for the next two to three years. Then the research group will take stock of the results, and adjust the setup before the accelerator is restarted again.

»I have gradually started only contributing my opinion about things. Apart from that I’m just a fly on the wall,« he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Just like the new experiment in Switzerland, Hans Bøggild expects to have at least a handful of years in him yet: »I have had a really exciting working life at the department. It has gone through many different phases, and new things happen constantly. So stopping when you turn 70 — that is far too early.«

A hobby with a built in job

Mogens Levinsen and Geirr Sletten also have the associate professor emeritus title at the Niels Bohr Institute. They highlight their academic fascination as the greatest driver of their continued commitment. They shake their heads dismissively when asked whether they could do everything else with their retirement:

»It is fantastic to have a hobby that you have been paid for for more than 40 years,« says Mogens Levinsen and gesticulates. Nowadays, he shares an office with two other emeriti who, like him, are part of the chaos group, which deals with phenomena like turbulence and non-linear dynamics.

It is fantastic to have a hobby that you have been paid for for more than 40 years.

Emeritus Associate Professor Mogens Levinsen


He is deeply involved with an experiment at the moment, and gets on well with his colleagues, which he also sees outside a work context. But the final, final retirement is just around the corner when the department moves from the historic buildings on Blegdamsvej to the new Niels Bohr Building on Jagtvej:

»I’m not getting a space to work at the new department, I’ve been told. I can get two square metres in a shared office, so I will probably stop when the move takes place. Luckily, it looks like it will take a very long time before this happens,« he says, thereby setting off a round of throat-clearing from three other emeriti in the room. The new Niels Bohr Building project has gone through multiple delays and postponements.

Head of department Jan W. Thomsen acknowledges that space is generally a challenge: »We actually talk about two separate currencies at work in the department. One currency is cool cash, the other is physical space,« he says. »We are constantly working to ensure that there is room for our emeriti, for our students and, of course, for our employees. This is like doing a big puzzle.«

The impending relocation to the scandal-hit new building on Jagtvej is a challenge for everyone, but perhaps, in particular, for the retired staff:

»They have, of course, a very special and life-long relationship with this building, but people have also generally accepted that if the entire department moves to a new address, then they must also move to where the new environment is.«

And they will do this. Most of them certainly. They will continue to support the culture and make the trip through the adjoining Fælledparken park to the new buildings when the day of the big move comes upon them. Together with the students and staff of the esteemed department. They just can’t help it.