Historical Entries


Niels Bohr Werner Heisenberg J. Robert Oppenheimer
Rudolf Clausius Robert Hooke Hans Christian Ørsted
Marie Curie James Clerk Maxwell Wilhelm Röntgen
Albert Einstein Lise Meitner Ernest Rutherford
Michael Faraday Isaac Newton Nikola Tesla
Richard Feynman Georg Simon Ohm  

Niels Bohr


"Indeed, it need hardly be stressed how fortunate in every respect it would be if, at the same time as the world will know of the formidable destructive power which has come into human hands, it could be told that the great scientific and technical advance has been helpful in creating a solid foundation for a future peaceful cooperation between nations."

From 1950 open letter to The United Nations. Available online from The Niels Bohr Archive. See http://www.nbi.dk/nba/files/gym/leth.htm for complete text.

Niels Bohr was a scientist inextricably tied to his social and political times. As such, his story is a vivid illustration that science does not take place in a vacuum. He was a Jewish person during the time of the Holocaust and World War II, and a brilliant scientist who was all too aware of the consequences of his work in helping the Allies develop the atomic bomb. These concerns were expressed throughout his later career, including in an open letter to The United Nations, from which the opening excerpt is taken.

Bohr was born in Copenhagen to a mother whose family was well-known in the field of education and a father who was a physiology professor. Bohr was a brilliant student and a great soccer player. (His brother, Harald, was actually on Denmark’s Olympic soccer team and won a silver medal.) As one of Bohr’s colleagues remembered, “Even Bohr, who concentrated more intensely and had more staying power than any of us, looked for relaxation in crossword puzzles, in sports, and in facetious discussions.”

“The Bohr Atomic Model” is perhaps the scientific contribution for which Bohr is best known. His studies included atomic structure, radiation, the nature of the periodic table, and quantum theory. As a relatively young man, he became chair of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at The University of Copenhagen (a department that had been created for Bohr, and funded by Carlsberg Brewery).

With the outbreak of World War II, life in German-occupied Denmark became increasingly difficult for Bohr (whose wife and mother also had Jewish heritage). Bohr eventually escaped Denmark to Sweden in a fishing boat, and settled in the United States, where he aided the ongoing research into the atomic bomb. For the rest of his life, he pursued humanitarian causes, even donating his gold Nobel Prize medal to the Finnish war effort.

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A concise biographical sketch of Bohr. Site maintained as part of the PBS series, “A Science Odyssey.”

A detailed account of Bohr’s professional life, particularly his scientific research and accomplishments. Site maintained as part of the Nobel e-Museum by the Nobel Foundation.

An extensive biography of Bohr and his work. Contains quotations and many references, as well as 10 pictures of Bohr. Site maintained by the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

http://www.nbi.dk/NBA/Web page.html
The official site of the Niels Bohr Archive in Copenhagen. Contains personal correspondence, scientific notes and letters, and photographs. Most materials not available over the Internet, but can be found through a searchable database. Database of photographs produces printable images (http://www.nbi.dk/cgi-bin/search-nba). Site is maintained by Felicity Pors.

A brief, but fairly detailed, explanation of the Bohr model of the atom. Site maintained by the Department of Physics, University of Toronto.

Targeted toward a younger audience. Introduces spectral lines, then moves into an explanation of Bohr’s insight in very simple terms, and includes interactive animations. Site maintained by the NSF-funded Physics 2000 Project, an online resource that uses applets and cartoon characters to “advance physics explanations.”


Rudolf Clausius

To students, Rudolf Clausius can be seen as an example of someone who used science to examine questions that affected his everyday life. His story also shows that many of the issues students deal with every day in their own lives— getting along with peers and overcoming personal tragedy—are the same issues that scientists must tackle. Although he was considered one of the great scientists of his time, he was plagued by disputes with other scientists and was accused of borrowing ideas from others.

Clausius was raised in Germany in a large family with a father who was a Councillor of the Royal Government School Board and founded a small private school. Entering university, Clausius was unsure of which subjects he would pursue. While he was interested in history, he decided to concentrate on mathematics and physics and completed his degree in these subjects. Always interested in understanding how the world around him works, Clausius studied phenomena that we see every day but may never wonder why. His Ph.D. dissertation proposed explanations for the blue color of the sky, the red colors seen at sunrise and sunset, and polarization of light. Although his theories turned out not to be based on correct physics, Clausius gained notice for his work because he applied mathematics far more deeply than any of his predecessors. This is a good illustration of how physical problems drive the development of mathematics even when their physical basis is unsound.

However, it was Claudius’s later work on the mechanical theory of heat which ended up being his most famous work, marking the foundation of the modern thermodynamics. In a revolutionary paper, Clausius proposed two laws of thermodynamics to replace the theory that was believed to be true at the time, the caloric theory. The First Law of Thermodynamics states the equivalence of heat and work: whenever work is done by heat, an equivalent amount of heat is consumed. Clausius had experimental evidence of this law, not from his own experiments but from those of Joule. Clausius’ paper also contained a version of the Second Laws of Thermodynamics, namely that heat tends to flow from hot to cold bodies. The importance of Clausius’ paper was quickly recognized and he went on to play an important role in establishing theoretical physics as a discipline.

Political events would have a major effect on Clausius’ life. Although he was nearing 50 years of age, Clausius offered his services to his country when the Franco-German war broke out. He undertook the leadership of an ambulance corps and helped carry wounded soldiers from battles and ended up being wounded in the leg himself. Clausius’ great patriotism proved somewhat of a disadvantage to him in his research investigations as he was involved in various disputes. The first dispute was with Thomson over a result of Joule that he had quoted in one of his papers. Clausius was very critical that a German had been the first to establish the result, not the Englishman Joule. The second dispute was with Tait over who was the first to propose the equivalence of work and heat:  whether Joule or the German Julius von Mayer had priority. Some historians claim that Clausius made more use of the ideas of others than he was prepared to admit.

Following the death of his wife during childbirth, Clausius had little chance for concentrated academic work since he spent his time raising his children and that he suffered severe pain and disability from his war injury.

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This in-depth biography of Clausius is part of an index of biographies of famous mathematicians and scientists that was prepared by the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It includes images of the scientist, links to other websites, and a list of references.

This short biography by Wolfram Research includes internal links to information about some of Clausius’ colleagues (e.g., Maxwell, Clapeyron) and definitions of the ideas that Clausius worked with (e.g., entropy, the virial theorem).

This document is a translation of the paper written by Clausius in 1857 in which he outlines the two laws of thermodynamics.


Marie Curie


"Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the one whom fame has not corrupted."

Albert Einstein, from Madame Curie by Irene Curie, as quoted in http://www.staff.amu.edu.pl/~zbzw/ph/sci/msc.htm

Marie Curie stands as a pioneer in the science of radioactivity (a term she coined) as well as in the role of women in science. She had a huge impact not only on the conceptual world of science by opening up an entirely new field of research and fundamental understanding but also on its sociology. She was the first person to win two Nobel prizes, the first woman to receive a doctorate in France, the mother of two daughters (one of whom also won a Nobel prize), and a tireless humanitarian. Suffering through times of extreme financial and personal hardship, Curie is an amazing example of a person with perseverance, breaking boundaries imposed by others. Students can see in her story the fact that science is not reserved for one type of person based on sex, financial resources, or nationality.

Curie (known to her family as “Manya”) was the youngest of five children born to poor school teachers in the Polish capital of Warsaw. She was an exceptionally bright student, finishing first in her high school class despite the severe limitations put on her learning by the occupying government of czarist Russia. Curie also knew tragedy early in her life, as she lost one of her sisters and then her mother (to tuberculosis) by the time she was 10 years old

To pursue her education beyond high school, Marie not only had to contend with being a woman in a time when intellectual opportunities were almost solely open to men, but she also was Polish at a time when Russia was trying to limit the national and intellectual development of the country. She, therefore, had to attend the clandestine “floating university” that was assembled by students wishing to learn and share their expertise. Curie made a pact with one of her sisters and took work as a tutor and governess for eight years, paying her sister’s way through medical school. When it was finally Curie’s turn to be supported, she left Poland for the prestigious Sorbonne in France.

Continuing to lead a life of bare essentials, Curie was often in ill health, but she quickly caught up to the formally-taught students in her class. It was at the Sorbonne that she met Pierre Curie, the man who would become her husband and scientific partner. Pierre, a talented researcher in his own right and professor of physics, quickly became fascinated by Curie’s choice for her doctoral work: the newly discovered phenomenon that certain materials, such as uranium, could expose photographic film. This began the pair’s life-long quest for an understanding of the elements that emitted what Curie called “radiation.”

Over the course of her career, Curie became the first person to win two Nobel prizes, the first in physics, shared with Pierre and Henri Becquerel for research into the phenomenon of spontaneous radiation, and the second in chemistry, for her work in radioactivity, including the discovery of two new elements: radium and polonium (named after her native Poland). But her accomplishments were balanced by hard times; when Pierre died in a traffic accident, she took his place as professor of general physics in the Faculty of Sciences, a first for a woman. Curie’s final post was as the director of the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, which she had struggled to establish for most of her life.

Always putting the good of the many ahead of her own, Curie worked under difficult conditions for most of her career (the bulk of her ground-breaking work was done in a shack where the temperature in winter dipped below zero). She and Pierre also never applied for a patent for the process by which radium could be isolated. This opened the process to researchers and industries alike, and would have made them a hefty sum had they not thought it more important for the knowledge to be shared freely. Curie also championed the use of radium and radioactivity in health therapies. During WWII, she turned to the fledgling use of X-rays in medicine and almost single-handedly formed a corps of mobile X-ray units (in automobiles) to help the wounded on the battlefield. Curie learned how to drive a car and undertook intensive lessons in human anatomy and auto mechanics so that she could teach every aspect of the operation. These mobile X-ray units were known as petites Curies (little Curies).

Never comfortable with fame, Curie nonetheless used it to help finance her research and causes. In her later years, she served on the League of Nations’ Commission on Intellectual Cooperation. Despite health problems from years of exposure to enormous amounts of radiation (including blindness, loss of weight, burned fingers), several scandals, and a constant struggle to finance her research, she was said to have a quiet dignity and was enormously respected as a scientist. She died of leukemia caused by radiation, as did her Nobel-prize winning daughter, Irene. Today her remains are interred at the Pantheon in Paris—the highest honor in France. As was often the case during her life, she was the first woman ever to be granted this great honor.

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An extensive chronological look at Marie Curie in words and excellent photographs. Much attention is spent on the personal as well as scientific sides of her life. Not all pages are accessible through the main index; one should navigate using the links at the bottom of each section for the entire story. Site maintained by the American Institute of Physics.

A smattering of vital information about Curie. Includes an extensive list of links, images of her many awards and honors, quotes from and about her, and much more. Site maintained by Zbigniew Zwolinski, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland.

A concise biographical sketch of Curie including images. Site maintained by The Chemical Heritage Foundation.

A detailed account of Curie’s professional life, particularly her scientific research and accomplishments. Includes links to other resources, including a well-referenced article recounting her life and accomplishments. Site maintained as part of the Nobel e-Museum by the Nobel Foundation.

An online “exhibitlet” about Curie. Includes images of interesting lab apparatus and a general biography. Site maintained by The Science Museum, London.

An extensive biography of the life and times of Marie Curie. Hosted by WomeninEuropeanHistory.org.

The site of Marie Curie Cancer Care, “the UK’s most comprehensive cancer charity.” Includes the Marie Curie Research Institute. Site Maintained by Marie Curie Cancer Care.


Albert Einstein

While most students will be familiar with the fact that Albert Einstein was considered one of the most brilliant scientists of all time, few may realize that he struggled academically, failed a college entrance exam, and spent several years evaluating claims in a patent office because he was rejected from university jobs. Students can relate to Einstein’s early struggles and he can also help bridge the gap between their notions of artistic or subconscious “inspiration” and scientific discovery. Einstein was daring, wildly ingenious, and passionately curious. On several occasions, Einstein had daydreams that led him to major discoveries. Everyone dreams, and it is illustrative to show students that not all scientific breakthroughs, or good ideas, come through experimentation in the laboratory and that there is a place in science for dreamers.

According to family legend, Einstein was a slow talker at first, pausing to consider what he would say. During his early school years, he generally got good grades but hated having to obey teachers and memorize facts. By the age of 15, Einstein quit school and studied books on mathematics, physics, and philosophy on his own. At the age of 16, he took the entrance examination for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and failed. When he took the entrance exam for the second time, he passed and entered the Institute of Technology in Zurich. Around this time he recognized that physics was his true subject but that he could never be an outstanding student. Einstein loved physics but also realized he would never be able to do what teachers want students to do. He spent most of his time in the laboratory but fortunately his friend was willing to study with him and fill in the gaps in Einstein’s lecture notes.

After Einstein graduated with an undistinguished record, he made a number of efforts to get a university job, and failed. He wondered if he had been mistaken in trying to become a physicist. Finally Einstein got a position at the Patent Office evaluating patent claims and devoted his free time to thinking about the most basic problems of physics of his time. He began to write scientific papers but if it wasn’t for the open mind of editor Max Planck, Einstein’s papers never would have been published, given that he was a 26-year-old amateur scientist with no formal scientific training beyond a qualification to teach high school physics. The first three papers he wrote that year—on the photoelectric effect, “special relativity” and Brownian motion—are now each considered worthy of a Nobel Prize in their own right. The fourth laid the groundwork for the famous equation E=mc2.

The success of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity had prompted requests for more articles on the subject. As he rewrote the original work, Einstein thought about ways to expand his theory to include the presence of gravity. Sitting at his post in the patent office one day, Einstein imagined how a housepainter would experience gravity if he fell off a roof. On that day, the physicist’s daydream ended with what he later called his “happiest moment.” He surmised that the unlucky painter would feel weightless when accelerating toward the ground. This clue led Einstein to reason that gravity and acceleration must be equivalent. Called the “equivalence principle,” this idea was the seed that—over the next nine years—bloomed into Einstein’s masterpiece, the “General Theory of Relativity.” After a decade of thought, with entire years spent in blind alleys, Einstein completed his general theory of relativity. Overturning ancient notions of space and time, he reached a new understanding of matter and energy.

After working in the patent office for several years, Einstein was finally given a full professorship. For the remainder of his career in academia, Einstein continued to reinterpret the inner workings of nature, the very essence of light, time, energy and gravity. His daydreams also continued to play an important role in his discoveries: he saw a beam of light and imagined riding it; he looked up at the sky and envisioned that space-time was curved. Einstein’s insights fundamentally changed the way we look at the universe.

In addition to being a visionary physicist, Einstein was also a passionate humanitarian and anti-war activist. His celebrity status enabled him to speak out and attract attention to a number of causes—global issues from pacifism to racism, anti-Semitism to nuclear disarmament.

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The American Institute of Physics presents this online exhibit. The site offers sections on Einstein’s formative years, great works, political concerns, and more.

This website is a brief overview of the major sections from the American Institute of Physics' Einstein exhibit described above. From this overview, you can click to see each section of the exhibit in more detail.

This PBS website provides support materials for the NOVA program “Einstein’s Big Idea.” The site includes a transcript of the program, related articles, audio clips, and more. Several features on this website originally appeared on the “Einstein Revealed” website, which has been subsumed into this site.

This rich site, dedicated to the life and work of Albert Einstein, contains digital images of his notebooks and travel diaries. The Archival Database allows direct access to approximately 43,000 Einstein-related documents.

This archive chronicles the iconic, wild-haired scientist from his youth to his old age in family photographs, digital files of his personal documents, and links to the files the FBI kept on him.

This website accompanies an exhibit created by the American Museum of Natural History. It includes a section on Einstein’s life and times, as well as specific sections dedicated to his work in the areas of light, energy, time, and gravity. The website also includes information about Einstein’s role as a pacifist and world citizen.


Michael Faraday

Students can see many things in the story of Michael Faraday. They can see the positive consequences of perseverance and the pursuit of one’s dreams despite humble beginnings; they can see the unity of religion and science in a deeply devout scientist; they can see the pettiness that some must overcome to achieve greatness; and they can see the role that chance, or luck, plays in the path that each of us follows. Faraday’s story is rich with opportunities to engage students, both with the details of his pursuit of science and the details of his own personal journey.

Faraday was the son of a poor blacksmith who was a member of a Christian sect called the Sandemanians. He had little, if any, formal education, and worked as an errand boy for a book binder when he was 13 or 14, eventually becoming an apprentice. To Faraday, it was like working in a library, and he eagerly pored over all the books of interest (sometimes copying the text and pictures) that came to the shop to be bound, particularly those having to do with chemistry and the other sciences.

It was a customer of the bookbinder’s that gave Faraday four free tickets to lectures being given by Sir Humphry Davy. This was an event that changed the course of Faraday’s life, and one can easily wonder what might have happened (or not happened) if those tickets had been given to another worker, or Faraday had been on his lunch break and missed the customer. Whatever the case, Faraday was enraptured by Davy’s lectures and took copious notes. In an act of desperation, audacity, or naiveté, Faraday recopied the notes, had them bound, and sent them to Davy with the request for a job at The Royal Institution of London. Davy was impressed with Faraday’s ability, but had no positions open. In another stroke of luck for Faraday, shortly thereafter, Davy’s assistant was dismissed for fighting, and Faraday was hired in his place. Had Davy’s assistant held his temper, Faraday might have continued as a frustrated bookbinder’s apprentice.

Faraday’s new job began almost immediately with an 18-month tour of Europe accompanying Davy, his wife, and her maid. Faraday had to agree to act as Mrs. Davy’s valet at times, but he took this non-scientific task in stride as he met some of the great thinkers of his time. This was his formal education, a true “road scholar.” Upon returning to London, Faraday became Davy’s assistant. The men had what could only be described as a fruitful professional relationship, and Faraday gained some notoriety for his discoveries and accomplishments. This led to some jealousy on Davy’s part, and it is conjectured that he assigned his assistant less-promising tasks to keep him out of the limelight. What is not conjecture is that Davy opposed Faraday’s election as a Fellow of the Royal Institution. He was overruled, and Faraday never held a grudge, being as humble and kind and uncaring of honors as Davy appeared impressed by them. In a mere 12 years after first being hired, Faraday replaced Davy as director of the Royal Institution.

In his career, Faraday’s scientific accomplishments were many and great. He was the foremost pioneer of the relationship between electricity and magnetism, discovering electro-magnetic rotation (the first electric motor), electromagnetic induction (the generator), the two laws of electrochemistry, and the magneto-optical effect (the “Faraday effect”); coined the still-used terms “ion,” “cathode,” and “electrode” (with William Whewell); and furthered the notion of “fields” of force. He also contributed practical inventions—collaborating on Davy’s miner’s lamp and inventing a new, more efficient type of chimney. Faraday was often a trusted advisor to organizations and the government about scientific matters. He was also the preeminent scientific lecturer of his time, starting both a Friday lecture series and a special Christmas series of lectures for children that continues to this day.

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An extensive biography with links and additional information about Faraday’s correspondence, research, and images from the Royal Institution’s Faraday Museum. Site maintained by The Royal Institution of Great Britain.

A biographical sketch of Faraday, including images. Includes link to a complete biographical work available online. Maintained by The Chemical Heritage Foundation.

An insightful, short biography that focuses on the personal aspects of Faraday’s life. Site maintained by the BBC.

A general biography with quotations and interesting cross-links and tidbits. Site maintained by School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland.

A very short biography, but one that contains excerpts from Faraday’s correspondences. Maintained by Spartacus Educational.

An in-depth biographical profile with a focus on Faraday's personal perspective. Site maintained by Ether Wave Propaganda.


Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman’s career can be used to present students with an example of a scientist who was far from one-dimensional. He was admired for his wit, intelligence, eccentricity, independence and a never-ending curiosity. He was never satisfied with what he knew and always continued to question science although his curiosity was not restricted to science only. Anything that puzzled him became a challenge to be solved. The notion that science is a creative process of having and pursuing ideas rather than the dull profession of people carrying out prescribed experiments in a lab, is one of the most fundamental messages for students learning about physics and the nature of science. Feynman was truly theatrical and can serve as a reminder to students that physicists (and other scientists) are not necessarily laboratory-bound but can have many talents and express their creativity in many ways.

Growing up in the outskirts of New York City, Richard Feynman was influenced by his father who encouraged him to ask questions in order to challenge traditional thinking. His mother instilled in him a sense of humor, which he kept all his life. As a child, he delighted in repairing radios, had a talent for engineering, and had mastered differential and integral calculus by the time he was 15. During college Feynman took every physics course offered and embarked on a lifelong quest to clarify the mathematics of a subatomic world. While studying the quantum theory of the electromagnetic field that was a puzzle for the scientists at that time, Feynman decided to proceed with his own research in the field. He figured that if the great scientists of that period could not find a satisfying theory, he would ignore what they said. He ultimately developed a new quantum theory, which brought him a Nobel Prize for Physics.

Early in his career, Feynman went to Los Alamos National Laboratory to work as part of the group developing the atom bomb. He worked on estimating how much uranium would be needed to achieve critical mass and developed many experimental devices to test his hypothesis without blowing up Los Alamos. But Feynman found Los Alamos to be too isolated and boring and, so, found pastimes such as picking locks, breaking into safes, and leaving mischievous notes to prove that the security at the lab was not as good as people would like to believe. He also practiced Native American drumming. His fellow scientists considered him the oddest member of the group that made the atom bomb.

After the project, Feynman started working as a professor at Cornell University but soon felt uninspired there. Despairing that he had burned out, he turned to less useful, but fun, problems, such as analyzing the physics of a twirling dish as it is being balanced by a juggler. During these down and uncreative times, Feynman found his students to be a source of inspiration and comfort. Feynman is sometimes called the “Great Explainer,” taking great care when explaining topics to his students and trying to bring everything to the freshman’s level. If he could not explain some subject at that level, he would admit that he did not understand it. He produced three books in a series called Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, which are considered classics in which he recreated almost everything in physics.

Later in his career, Feynman gained notoriety for his role on the commission investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986. Feynman famously showed on television the crucial role in the disaster played by the booster’s O-ring flexible gas seals with a simple demonstration using a glass of ice water and a sample of O-ring material. His opinion of the cause of the accident differed from the official findings, and were considerably more critical of the role of management in sidelining the concerns of engineers.

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This short article written for essortment.com focuses on Feynman’s personal character and working style as much as on his accomplishments.

This website, part of the Science Hobbyist site, contains links to hundreds of books, articles, videos, and Feynman lectures on tape.

This short biography is the one produced at the time of his Nobel Prize award in 1965. From it, readers can link to the actual speech he gave at the Nobel banquet and his Nobel lecture on Quantum Electrodynamics.

This short biography by Wolfram Research includes internal links to information about some of Feynman colleagues (e.g., Einstein, Pauli) and definitions of the ideas that he worked with (e.g., quantum field theory, Feynman diagrams).

This Wikipedia site contains a biography of Feynman broken into sections such as the “Manhattan Project” and the “Caltech Years”. It also includes a bibliography and a selection of quotes from the physicist himself.

This biography of Feynman is part of an index of biographies of famous mathematicians and scientists that was prepared by the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It includes images of the scientist, links to other websites and a list of references.


Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg was a scientist inextricably tied to his social and political times. As such, his story is a vivid illustration that science does not take place in a vacuum. Students can relate to these themes, as well as to the fact that despite being enormously bright, Heisenberg barely passed his doctoral examination.

His is also an example of a scientist who overcame great adversity in his childhood. Heisenberg was born in the southern German state of Bavaria. His father, a teacher, fostered constant competition with his older brother. It is apparently one reason that he was always ahead of his classmates in school, especially in the subjects of math and science. Although these topics intrigued him, Heisenberg was equally interested in music, and he studied classical piano with one of the great Munich masters. Following the outbreak of world war, life in Bavaria became very difficult. Fuel began to run out and food was so scarce that Heisenberg, weak from hunger, once fell off his bicycle into a ditch. Heisenberg’s school was closed for long periods, and students were expected to become independent in their schooling. Like most of his classmates, Heisenberg served in a school military training unit, and his participation in the German youth movement was one of the defining factors of his personality and outlook. He developed an inseparable attachment to his German homeland.

Heisenberg entered college planning to study mathematics, but after a disconcerting interview with one of the math professors, turned to theoretical physics. Although he was granted his doctorate in the record time of three years, he surprisingly nearly failed the final oral portion when he could not answer questions related to astronomy and experimental physics. His mentor fought for him, but his final grade was equivalent to a C, which Heisenberg found very humiliating. Despite this rocky start, Heisenberg went on to be appointed a professor of theoretical physics at the age of 25—Germany’s youngest full professor—and to produce the first breakthrough to quantum mechanics. He worked intensively with Niels Bohr and others in Copenhagen, eventually leading to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and to the “Copenhagen Interpretation,” the capstone to the foundations of quantum mechanics.

As Hitler was coming to power, Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics and became a leading spokesman for modern physics in Germany. However, Heisenberg himself fell under attack, being called a traitor and threatened with internment in a concentration camp. After a frightening year-long investigation, Heisenberg was cleared and, in fact, remained in Germany throughout the Nazi era. He was not a Nazi, but he was a patriot for German culture, and apparently he felt it was his duty to remain at his post in order to help preserve what could be saved of decent German science.

Although the Nazi regime generally distrusted Heisenberg and others in the German physics community, the discovery of nuclear fission in Berlin led to the “uranium project,” which Heisenberg and his colleagues took up. Several theories exist as to why Heisenberg participated in the German effort to develop nuclear weapons and why the effort failed. One assertion is that Heisenberg, as a theorist without much interest or ability in experimental work, was ill-suited for this practical project. Others feel that Heisenberg saw this project only as a way to prove to the authorities his own worth and the worth of theoretical physics.

At the end of the war, an Allied science intelligence unit captured Heisenberg and other German nuclear scientists, along with most of their papers and equipment. After interrogations, American and British authorities detained Heisenberg and nine other German scientists for six months at an English country manor. Following his release, Heisenberg spent years advocating for fission research for non-war purposes, such as electrical power and sought to reestablish international relations.

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This biographical site was created by Hofstra University, and by the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. It includes extensive background on Heisenberg’s troubles as a student and his participation in the German nuclear fission project, as well as his work in quantum mechanics. Also included is a comprehensive section on Heisenberg’s meeting with Niels Bohr in 1941, where Heisenberg reportedly mentioned that atomic energy research was being conducted in Germany.

This biography of Heisenberg is part of an index of biographies of famous mathematicians and scientists that was prepared by the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It includes images of the scientist, links to other websites and a list of references.

This short autobiography is the one produced for Heisenberg’s Nobel Prize award in 1932. It has been periodically updated. From it, readers can link to his Nobel lecture on The Development of Quantum Mechanics, and to information about a set of Swedish postage stamps produced in 1982 honoring Nobel physicists, including Heisenberg.

This biography of Heisenberg is part of the support materials for the television show “Science Odyssey” produced by PBS. This piece on Heisenberg is part of a databank data bank consisting of 120 entries about 20th century scientists and their stories.

This fascinating website, produced by Heisenberg’s son, Jochen, contains many personal letters and photos, is an attempt by Heisenberg’s son to present material that highlights his father’s integrity and humanity. It may help anyone who is interested is Heisenberg the man and his personal struggles.

This website, produced by the Niels Bohr Archive in Copenhagen contains copies and translations of several letters sent from Niels Bohr to Werner Heisenberg. The letters, released by the Bohr family, cover the period from 1957 to 1962.


Robert Hooke

Many times, the hardest part of science is knowing what questions to ask, or getting an inspired idea. Robert Hooke had many, and they led him to great discoveries in several different fields. Hooke’s interests knew no bounds, and included physics and astronomy, chemistry, biology, and geology, architecture and naval technology. Among other accomplishments, he devised an equation describing elasticity that is still used today (“Hooke’s Law”); worked out the theory of combustion; assisted Robert Boyle in studying the physics of gases; invented an early prototype of the respirator; invented the balance spring, which made more accurate clocks possible; helped rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666; and invented or improved meteorological instruments such as the barometer, anemometer, and hygrometer. He was the type of scientist that was then called a virtuoso—able to contribute findings of major importance in any field of science. The notion that science is a creative process of having ideas rather than the dull profession of people carrying out prescribed experiments in a lab is one of the most fundamental messages for students learning about physics and the nature of science. However, it’s also important to explore with students how his inability to pursue his ideas through to a comprehensive theory and his disputes with peers held him back professionally.

Growing up, Hooke suffered from poor health, as did many children of his day, and continually suffered from headaches, which made studying hard. At 10 years old, his father became sick and his parents gave up on his education, leaving him to his own devices. Hooke spent his time observing the plants and animals in nearby fields and farms, and the rocks, cliffs, beaches, and ocean around him. He was fascinated by mechanical toys and clocks and even made his own out of wood.

Over the years, Hooke showed great talents at science, and when the Royal Society of London was created, he was appointed curator of experiments. Although it sounded like a prestigious post, initially the society could not even pay Hooke for his work, and he was required to demonstrate three or four experiments at every meeting of the Society. In fact, Hooke reacted to the impossible task set him by producing a wealth of original ideas over the following 15 years. However, the demands meant that he never had time to develop his ideas as one would expect a leading scientist to do, but it seemed to suit his nature to have his mind jump from one idea to the next. Hooke did achieve worldwide scientific fame when his book Micrographia was published, containing a number of fundamental biological discoveries as well as beautiful pictures of objects he had studied through a microscope he had made himself.

Bitter disputes with fellow scientists occurred throughout Hooke’s life. There is no doubt that Hooke genuinely felt that others had stolen ideas that he had put forward first. He did, indeed, come up with a vast range of brilliant ideas, many of which were claimed by others not because they wished to steal them from him, but rather because Hooke never followed through to develop his ideas into comprehensive theories. He failed to develop major theories from his inspired ideas for the simple reason that he did not really have as much technical ability as some of his contemporaries.

Hooke’s relationship with Isaac Newton is an example of one of these disputes. The two men corresponded for years, originally discussing their differing theories on planetary motion. Hooke attempted to prove that the Earth moves in an ellipse around the sun and later proposed the inverse square law of gravitation to explain planetary motions. Yet, he seemed unable to give a mathematical proof of his conjectures or, perhaps, he wasn’t willing to devote his time to this type of pursuit. However, his claim of priority over the inverse square law led to a bitter dispute with Newton. Also, when Newton produced his theory of light and color, Hooke claimed that what was correct in Newton’s theory was stolen from his own ideas about light and what was original was wrong. As Hooke grew older he became more cynical and would shut himself away from company. The papers that he wrote in the last few years of his life are filled with bitter comments.

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This biography of Hooke is part of an index of biographies of famous mathematicians and scientists that was prepared by the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It includes images of the scientist, links to other websites and a list of references.

This extensive biography is part of a website dedicated to Hooke and his discoveries. The text contains internal links to many other scientists whose work has been influenced by Hooke and to information about Hooke’s major publications. Also included is the verbatim text of a scientific article written by Hooke in the 17th century.

This biography of Robert Hooke is part of a collection of biographies of famous scientists produced by the University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley.

Considered the definitive Robert Hooke online resource, this website is an excellent, well-illustrated site on Hooke’s life and work, including a number of images from Micrographia.


James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell can be used to present students with an example of a scientist who pursued many different ideas and interests throughout his lifetime. He took the first color photograph, defined the nature of gases, and ,with a few mathematical equations, expressed all the fundamental laws of light, electricity, and magnetism. In doing so, he provided the tools to create the technological age, from radar to radio and televisions to mobile phones. Students may relate to the fact that scientists, such as Maxwell, often have to overcome adversity and personal tragedy in their lives. There are many opportunities for engaging students in the story of Maxwell’s personal life, his work, and his use of imagination.

Maxwell was born and raised in Scotland, where he enjoyed a country upbringing; his natural curiosity displayed itself at an early age. However, his childhood was not without struggle and tragedy. When he was eight years old, he experienced the devastating loss of his mother. Because he had been taught by his mother, he was left without schooling when she died. His father hired a 16-year-old boy to tutor him, but the boy abused Maxwell and was not capable of teaching him more complex concepts. Eventually, Maxwell attended the Edinburgh Academy for the rest of his schooling and went on to receive a degree in mathematics.

One of Maxwell’s most important achievements was his ability to build on and clarify other people’s work, for example, his extension and mathematical formulation of Faraday’s theories of electricity and magnetic lines of force. Maxwell showed that a few relatively simple mathematical equations could express the behavior of electric and magnetic fields and their interrelation. He also calculated the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field (approximately that of the speed of light) and mathematically predicted the existence of radio waves.

With Clausius, Maxwell also formulated a kinetic theory of gases that did not reject the earlier studies of thermodynamics but used a better theory to explain the observations and experiments. Maxwell’s use of imagination helped him in developing his theory, and his colorful description helped people visualize it. He created a “demon paradox” involving a tiny hypothetical creature that could see individual molecules. Maxwell suggested that the demon can make heat flow from a cold body to a hot one by opening a door whenever a molecule with above-average kinetic energy approaches from the cold body, or below-average kinetic energy approaches from the hot body, then quickly closing it. Maxwell is credited with fundamentally changing our view of reality, so much so that Albert Einstein said, “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.”

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This biography of Maxwell is part of an index of biographies of famous mathematicians and scientists that was prepared by the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It includes images of the scientist, links to other websites and a list of references.

This short biography by Wolfram Research includes internal links to information about some of Maxwell’s colleagues (e.g., Kelvin, Faraday) and definitions of the ideas that Maxwell worked with (e.g., electromagnetic field, the Maxwell equations).

Part of an index of biographies of famous physicists and astronomers, this short biography was prepared by the Department of Physics at the University of Zagreb, Croatia.

This Wikipedia site contains a biography of Maxwell broken into sections such as the “The Early Years” and the “Kinetic Theory”. It also includes a bibliography and a selection of quotes from and about the physicist himself.

This piece on Maxwell was written by Christopher Haley from the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge University. It describes Maxwell’s contributions to physics during the Victorian era.

This website contains highlights from the book “The Life of James Clerk Maxwell” written in 1882 by Maxwell’s friend Lewis Campbell. The highlights on the website are biographical, focusing on descriptions of Maxwell’s life, but there are sections of Campbell’s book (also available) that refer to his scientific works and a collection of his poetry.


Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner is one of the pioneering women in science who serves as a wonderful example to students that science is not reserved for one type of person. Her career was truly a labor of love, being discriminated against not only because of her gender but also her religion. Meitner broke through boundaries imposed by others and persevered to become an influential scientist in the field of radioactivity and nuclear fission.

Meitner was raised in Vienna, Austria, and quickly discovered she had a talent and interest in mathematics and physics. She easily passed the entrance exams for Vienna University and thought that she would study both of her favorite subjects. However, a difficult calculus problem and an unsympathetic professor made her drop mathematics as a subject, leaving her to focus solely on physics. It was difficult for her to fit in to the conservative world of high-level science, where she was usually the only woman. Some professors were embracing, others begrudging, and many were openly hostile to women in their classes. These reactions can serve as a reminder to students that even scientists who are supposed to be objective are subject to bias. After her undergraduate work, she continued on at the university, receiving her doctorate in physics—the second doctorate in science from that university granted to a woman.

After getting her Ph.D., Meitner was unable to find work in Vienna and, so, moved to Berlin. At her first job in Berlin, where she studied experimental radioactivity, she had to work in a converted carpentry shop in the basement because the laboratory supervisor could not bear to see a woman work in the all-male laboratory. To make matters worse, she was eventually forced to leave Berlin because the Nazis were closing in on all people of Jewish ancestry. Meitner soon found a welcoming setting for her research at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm. Due to the fact that she was hiding out in Sweden, she wasn’t able to have her name included on any of the papers she wrote or co-authored during the war.

Meitner, together with her colleagues from Berlin, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, were the first to recognize that under bombardment by neutrons, the uranium atom actually splits, producing the lighter element barium. She described the process in a letter to the journal Nature and named it “fission.” News of splitting the atom and its possibilities reached scientists in the United States and, ultimately, resulted in the Manhattan Project, although Meitner herself never directly engaged in nuclear weapons research.

Several years later, Hahn alone was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Although many others in the field knew of Meitner’s contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission and thought she should have also received the Nobel Prize, Hahn never truly acknowledged the full extent of her involvement in their work. Years later, Meitner was duly acknowledged and rewarded with the Fermi award, the Max Planck medal, and the Leibnitz medal.

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Part of the “Chemical Achievers: The Human Face of the Chemical Sciences” website, this short piece describes the contributions of Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassman to the study of radioactivity and the splitting of the uranium atom.

From a profile of women scientists produced at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, this biography of Meitner outlines her contribution the work on nuclear fission and the Nobel committee’s failure to understand her part in the work.

This short article written for essortment.com focuses on the fact that despite her great contribution to the sciences, Meitner was not offered a Nobel Prize.

This short biography by Wikipedia contains lots of internal links to information about some of Meitner’s colleagues (e.g., Plank, Hahn) and definitions of the ideas that she worked with (e.g., nuclear fission, meitnerium).


Isaac Newton

Although Isaac Newton is one of the most famous physicists of all time, his life was marred by personal tragedy, conflict, and mental illness. Some students will be able to identify with the struggles he endured throughout his life. His story is also a good example of how someone with humble beginnings, who was not expected to do great things and had an unremarkable academic career, overcame adversity to become one of the most influential scientific thinkers in history.

Tragedy struck Newton before he was even born, his father died three months prior to his birth. When he was two years old his mother remarried, and his new stepfather didn’t like him, sending him to live with his grandmother. Basically treated as an orphan, Newton did not have a happy childhood. As a delicate child, his shyness kept him from making friends easily, and he was more interested in reading, solving mathematical problems, and mechanical tinkering than in taking part in the usual boyish activities.

At 10 years old, Newton began attending school, but his teachers weren’t aware of his mental prowess, describing him as “idle” and “inattentive.” Despite these reports, Newton entered college, received his bachelor’s degree—without any great distinction, and then returned to his home in the English countryside due to the plague that was sweeping Europe.

Over a period of 18 months at home, he experienced the most productive years of his life by inventing several mathematical functions, demonstrating that white light was composed of different colors of light, discovering the law of gravitation, formulating early versions of his three laws of motion, and laying the foundations of celestial mechanics. Tradition has it that Newton formulated his law of universal gravitation by seeing an apple fall in his garden and wondering if the same force that kept the moon in orbit around the Earth applied to gravity at the Earth’s surface. However, the idea did not actually come to Newton in a flash of inspiration but, rather, was developed over nearly 20 years as he and Robert Hooke exchanged letters about the nature of planetary motion.

Throughout his professional life as a professor at Cambridge, and later as a highly paid government official in London, Newton conflicted with his colleagues and peers, including Robert Hooke. When Newton published his first scientific paper on light and color, it was generally well received, but Hooke criticized Newton’s experimental design. Newton responded irrationally, trying to humiliate Hooke in public and severing all correspondence. Newton was unprepared for anything other than full acceptance of his theory and withdrew from the scientific community. He finally was persuaded to return when the Royal Society commissioned him to find a law of planetary motion. What resulted was one of the greatest scientific books of all time, the Principia, in which Newton explained the motion of planets, tides, equinoxes, and the acceleration of falling objects, all using his new mathematical theory of forces.Despite this success, mental illness plagued Newton’s life, and he again withdrew from social interactions after suffering a nervous breakdown, ultimately retiring from research altogether.

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This PBS website provides support materials for the NOVA program “Newton’s Dark Secret.” The site includes a transcript of the program, plus related articles, audio clips, and more.

This biography of Newton is part of an index of biographies of famous mathematicians and scientists that was prepared by the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It includes images of the scientist, links to other websites and a list of references.

This lengthy article about Isaac Newton was first written by Robert Hatch for the Encyclopedia Americana. It includes comprehensive sections on Newton’s life and character, as well as his scientific achievements.

This biography of Newton is part of the resource section of the BBC History Web page. It outlines his struggles as a young boy and his conflicts with other scientists of his time.

“Galileo and Einstein” is a course offered by Michael Fowler at the University of Virginia. Professor Fowler has posted all of his lectures online, and this one is about Isaac Newton. It starts with a short biography of his life that leads into a discussion of the idea of gravitational force.


Georg Simon Ohm

Students can see many things in the story of Georg Simon Ohm. They can see an example of perseverance in the face of adversity, personal hardship, and tragedy. Students can relate to these themes, as well as to the fact that despite being very bright, Ohm struggled to get a job as a professor, and once he did have an academic position and presented his research findings to the scientific community, his ideas were not accepted. He was forced to leave the country in order to continue his work.

Ohm’s childhood was a humble beginning; his father was a locksmith, and his mother was the daughter of a tailor. Of the seven children born to his parents, only three survived, which was common in those times. Although his parents had not been formally educated, Ohm’s father was self-taught and was able to give his sons an excellent education in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and philosophy. This was in stark contrast to their school education, where they received little in the way of scientific training.

When Ohm entered university, he became carried away with student life, spending much of his time dancing, ice skating, and playing billiards. His father, angry that his son was wasting the educational opportunity that he himself had never been fortunate enough to experience, demanded that he leave the university after three semesters. During his time off, he worked as a mathematics schoolteacher before returning to his studies. Upon receiving a doctorate, he immediately joined the staff of the university as a mathematics lecturer. But after only three semesters, Ohm gave up his university post because he felt the career prospects there were poor and his meager salary meant he essentially lived in poverty, suffering through times of extreme financial hardship. Ohm spent the next several years teaching mathematics at various overcrowded and poor-quality schools; it wasn’t the successful career he had envisioned. As he had done for so much of his life, Ohm continued his private studies, and after he had learned of the discovery of electromagnetism, he began his own experimental work in the school physics laboratory for his own educational benefit. He soon realized that in order to get the job he really wanted, a post in a university, he would have to publish his results, and he began to systematically work towards this goal.

Through his studies, Ohm discovered one of the fundamental laws of current electricity and published two papers describing his experimental findings. He showed that the current flow through a conductor is proportional to the voltage and inversely proportional to the resistance. Unfortunately, when Ohm published his findings, his work was coldly received and his ideas were dismissed by his colleagues. The Prussian minister of education even announced that “a professor who preached such heresies is unworthy to teach science.” Ohm was devastated and resigned his post. He left Prussia and went into academic exile for several years. Although he accepted a position in Bavaria, which gave him the title of professor, it was still not the university post he had strived for all his life.

Ohm didn’t receive credit for his findings until several years later when the Royal Society in London recognized the significance of his discovery. This belated recognition was welcome, but there remains the question of why someone who today is a household name struggled for so long to gain acknowledgement. Some speculate that his shy inward personality contributed while others suggest that his mathematical approach to topics that, at the time, were studied in a non-mathematical way was the cause.

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This biography of Ohm is part of an index of biographies of famous mathematicians and scientists that was prepared by the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It includes images of the scientist, links to other websites and a list of references.

This biography by engineers concerned with corrosion science (“The Corrosion Doctors”) provides a brief biography of Ohm. The authors speculate about why Ohm struggled for so long to gain recognition.

This short biography by Wikipedia contains lots of internal links to definitions of the ideas that Ohm worked with (e.g., electric current, Ohm’s Law).


J. Robert Oppenheimer

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is rich with opportunities to engage students. He had the reputation for being an influential teacher with an exciting personality and a researcher with daring ideas, even if they often contained errors. He was seen as a visionary and capable leader at Los Alamos, but a security hearing late in his career brought to light foolish mistakes in judgment and human relationships. Oppenheimer’s greatest strengths—his personable nature and diverse interests—may have also led to his downfall. His successes and failures and conflicted conscience make him a complex historical figure to explore with students.

Oppenheimer lived a privileged childhood in New York City and started his college career studying philosophy and French literature before a course in thermodynamics turned him on to physics. As he began his career as a physics professor, Oppenheimer impressed his colleagues with his vast mastery of theoretical physics, and his students adored him for his theatrical nature. During World War II, Oppenheimer eagerly became involved in the effort to develop an atomic bomb, initially as a theoretical advisor, calculating estimates of the amount of enriched uranium needed to create such a weapon. He quickly became essential to the project, and when a centralized scientific laboratory was created to house the secret project, Oppenheimer was appointed scientific director, and despite initial frustrations, problems, and setbacks, Oppenheimer developed into an effective and inspiring director, overseeing thousands of employees.

To test the effectiveness of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer pushed for it to be used on an actual target. President Truman ordered those targets to be Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Either immediately or through injuries sustained in the blasts, the two bombs killed an estimated 210,000 people, 95% of them civilians. After initial excitement from the bomb’s success, Oppenheimer slumped into despair as casualty reports streamed in from Japan. His story is an example of how there are social and political consequences to scientists’ work. Overnight, Oppenheimer was marked as the “father of the atomic bomb” and became a consultant on political matters relating to atomic energy. In the next few years, he would lobby vigorously for international control of atomic energy.

Even though Oppenheimer was involved in the highest level of government atomic affairs, he was investigated about his involvement in Communist infiltration and Russian spy rings. During the investigation, he told officials that he had been contacted by “intermediaries” in touch with an unidentified official at the Soviet consulate, and that one of these intermediaries had talked about passing on information about secret work being done at Berkeley. Although Oppenheimer had had no further dealings with these individuals, he came under intense scrutiny from the FBI. He was publicly humiliated, having his security clearance suspended, and he stepped down from his government posts.

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University of California at Berkley created this online centennial exhibit to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Oppenheimer’s birth. The exhibit contains extensive sections on Oppenheimer’s life, considering both the scientific and political ramifications of his work on the atomic bomb. The site also includes selected internet links to other Oppenheimer sites.

This biography of Oppenheimer is part of the support materials for the television show “Science Odyssey” produced by PBS. This piece on Oppenheimer is part of a databank data bank consisting of 120 entries about 20th century scientists and their stories.

This biography of Oppenheimer was produced as support materials for the PBS show The American Experience: Race for the Super Bomb. It chronicles Oppenheimer’s achievements as a scientist, and his misgivings about being a part of the atomic bomb project.

This section of the Nuclear Files.org website is dedicated to the so-called Oppenheimer Affair, which refers to the hearings that took place in 1954 during which Oppenheimer was stripped of his federal security clearance. Includes are actual testimony and facsimiles of correspondences sent to and from Oppenheimer during this time.


Hans Christian Ørsted

Students can see many things in the life story of Hans Christian Ørsted (sometimes also spelled Oersted). They can see the positive consequences of perseverance through humble beginnings; the role that chance plays in scientific discovery; and that scientists need not be interested in only one field. Ørsted’s story is rich with opportunities to engage students, both with the details of his pursuit of science and the details of his own personal journey.

Ørsted, a son of the village pharmacist on a small Danish island without a school, was educated by the villagers. Ørsted showed early signs of exceptional gifts and became interested in science by working in his father’s pharmacy. Although he originally studied pharmacology, he went on to receive a doctorate in philosophy, ultimately becoming a professor at the University of Copenhagen. But his interest in science was so strong that he considered its practice to be a religion. Since he had also studied science for years and adopted the view that nature is systematic and unified, Ørsted was given the task of creating a physical studies program at the university.

One day, while preparing an experiment for one of his classes, Ørsted discovered something that surprised him. As he was setting up his materials, he brought a compass close to a live electrical wire and noticed that the needle on the compass jumped to a position perpendicular to the wire. But his experimental evidence suggested that they were, and Ørsted concluded that an electric current creates a magnetic field, and electromagnetism was born. A connection between electricity and magnetism was a step towards a unified concept of energy. Although it appears that his discovery may have been accidental and spontaneous (serendipity!), only someone looking to find a connection between electricity and magnetism would consider placing a compass near a current in the first place.

Ørsted followed up this chance observation with months of scientific experimentation. He went on to study the phenomenon extensively to support his proposal and announced his astounding discovery in a four-page Latin pamphlet he distributed to scientists throughout Europe. His hypothesis rocked the scientific community and led to a flurry of activity in electrodynamics research by such investigators as Ampère and Arago, who repeated his experiment and formulated it mathematically.

Throughout his life, Ørsted appreciated the need to spread knowledge of scientific advance, and created the Society for the Dissemination of Natural Science to spread scientific knowledge among the general public. In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Ørsted wrote poetry and prose. Shortly before his death, he published a series of articles called “The Soul in Nature,” a masterpiece expressing the essence of his philosophy of life.

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This short biography by Wolfram Research includes internal links to information about some of Ørsted colleagues (e.g., Ampere, Arago) and definitions of the ideas that he worked with (e.g., magnetic field, current).

This article by Frederick Gregory, an historian from the University of Florida, examines Ørsted’s work in electromagnetism from an historical perspective, and speculates about the influence of philosophers like Schelling and Kant may have had to Ørsted’s work.


Wilhelm Röntgen

Almost all students of physics are familiar with X-rays, but very few know the story behind this technology. Using X-rays to help illustrate Wilhelm Röntgen’s meticulous research and life story is not only a powerful way to engage students, but it also will lead to their being reminded of Wilhelm Röntgen and the origin of the X-ray every time they have or see one. Students can also relate to the fact that despite being extremely bright and ultimately winning the first Nobel Prize in Physics, he was not an extraordinary student, and was actually expelled from school.

Wilhelm Röntgen (sometimes spelled Roentgen) was raised in The Netherlands as the only child of a cloth merchant and manufacturer. At boarding school, he didn’t show any special aptitude but loved nature and was fond of roaming in the country and forests. As a child and throughout his life, he was skilled at making mechanical devices, and he chose to attend a technical school. Unfortunately, he was unfairly expelled, accused of having produced a caricature of one of the teachers, which was in fact done by someone else. He wanted to attend college but had not achieved the requirements needed, so he took and passed an entrance exam. There he studied mechanical engineering and received a Ph.D.

One day as he conducted experiments of light phenomena in his dark laboratory, Röntgen made a huge discovery. He evacuated a tube (similar to our fluorescent light bulbs) of all air, filled it with a special gas, and passed a high electric voltage through it. The tube produced a fluorescent glow, and when Röntgen shielded the tube with heavy black paper, he found that a green-colored fluorescent light could be seen coming from a screen a few feet away. He realized that he had produced a previously unknown “invisible light,” or ray, that was being emitted from the tube—a ray that was capable of passing through the heavy paper covering the tube. He plunged into seven weeks of meticulously planned and executed experiments to determine the nature of the rays. He worked in isolation, telling a friend simply, “I have discovered something interesting, but I do not know whether or not my observations are correct.”

As Röntgen explored this phenomenon more, he discovered that while holding materials between the tube and screen, he saw the bones of his hand clearly displayed in an outline of flesh. He found that the new ray would pass through most substances, casting shadows of solid objects on pieces of film. He named the new ray “X-ray.” In his preliminary report to the medical society, he included experimental radiographs and the image of his wife Bertha’s hand with a ring on her finger. Shortly after, the world was gripped by “X-ray mania,” and Röntgen was acclaimed as the discoverer of a medical miracle. Röntgen declined to seek patents or proprietary claims on the X-rays, so that his knowledge could be used freely.

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This website is a study guide for high school students on the discovery of X-rays, produced by NDT Resources. It summarizes Röntgen’s discovery, and relates the discovery of X-rays to further investigations of radioactivity.

This short autobiography is the one produced for Röntgen’s Nobel Prize award in 1901. It has been periodically updated. From it, readers can link to an educational tutorial about X-rays, and to information about a set of Swedish postage stamps produced in 1982 honoring Nobel physicists, including Röntgen.

This biography of Röntgen, written by Raymond Brock of Michigan State University, brings to life the human side of Roentgen and how he must have felt at the time of his amazing discoveries.

Part of the Physics 2000 set of interactive physics demonstrations, this section on X-rays includes demos on the fluoroscope, how X-rays are emitted, and more.


Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford was one of the world’s most innovative thinkers. His story begins humbly as one of 12 siblings growing up on a New Zealand farm. (His credo was “We don’t have the money, so we have to think.”) He grew up to be a famous, socially conscious researcher and a “people person” who was very supportive of his students, many of whom went on to win Nobel prizes and be great scientists themselves. In a time when women were on the fringes in many professions, Rutherford campaigned for their rights at Cambridge University and worked supportively with one of the first women researchers in the field: Harriet Brooks.

None of this might have happened, however, if Rutherford had been successful in his first attempt at a career—to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a schoolteacher. (He was turned down three times!) This is just one example of the fortuitous and convoluted route that Rutherford followed to his career as a scientist. Along the way, there were also several scholarships he received because the first-place winners were unable to accept them. Rutherford had come in second each time, but without these means of getting from rural New Zealand to college, he might never have been able to start his research career.

Rutherford is famous for making things simple—designing equipment to simply test hypotheses and trimming claims to the bare essentials. He made three discoveries over his lifetime for which he is best known: He did the fundamental research that led to an understanding of the chemistry of radioactive material; he disproved J. J. Thomson’s “Plum Pudding” model by discovering the solid nucleus and orbiting electrons of the atom; and he “split” the atom.

Rutherford was particularly good at working with others; he not only shared information, but he also shared the credit for many of his discoveries with other researchers. Might this have been a product of growing up with 11 brothers and sisters? Whatever the case, he also nurtured many students who went on to win Nobel prizes themselves, including James Chadwick, Niels Bohr, Hans Geiger, and Robert Oppenheimer.

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A general biography of Rutherford, including images of Rutherford and postage stamps honoring him. Links to other resources, including a more extensive biography at the Nobel e-Museum and more extensive descriptions of his experiments. Maintained by The Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Contains a fairly extensive biography, including aspects of Rutherford’s scientific career and links about New Zealand. Contains quotes and Web references. Maintained by NZEDGE, a private company.

Describes the holdings of the Rutherford Museum of McGill University, where Rutherford worked from 1889–1907. Also displays the contents of each cabinet in clear photographs. Contains Rutherford’s research apparatus, some written documents, as well as a biography section. Site maintained by the McGill Physics Department. Site maintained by The Rutherford Museum of McGill University.

An interactive applet of Rutherford’s famous gold-foil experiment. Site maintained by the graphics and Web programming team of Michael W. Davidson and Florida State University, in collaboration with Optical Microscopy at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.


Nikola Tesla

The story of Nikola Tesla’s eccentric demonstrations, flashes of inspiration, and idealistic nature can be used to engage students in the science he is famous for. Tesla was a visionary in the field of scientific development whose inventions changed the world forever. However, his ability to focus on fundamental principles was his greatest strength, but it was also his biggest weakness because he was often unwilling to work out the practical details of his inventions.

Tesla was born to a father who was a Serbian Orthodox priest and a mother who invented household appliances. Passionate about mathematics and sciences, Tesla had his heart set on becoming an engineer, but his father insisted that he enter the priesthood. However, when he was 17 years old, he contracted cholera and used his condition to get his father to agree to allow him to study engineering if he survived. Lucky for him, when he did survive, his father kept his word, allowing Nikola to study electrical engineering at university.

Tesla began his career as an electrical engineer with a telephone company in Budapest. Still weak from his illness, his friend Anthony Szigeti encouraged him to walk each evening to regain his strength. It was during one of these strolls with Szigeti that Tesla had an epiphany about motors. As they admired the sunset, Tesla was struck with an idea like a flash of lightning. He envisioned using a rotating magnetic field in his motor—a major break with convention—and drew a diagram in the sand with a stick explaining to his friend the principle of the induction motor.

Over the next couple of years, Tesla built a prototype of the induction motor but wasn’t able to interest anyone in promoting it. So he accepted an offer to work for Thomas Edison in New York. There, Tesla pointed out the inefficiency of Edison’s direct current (DC) electrical powerhouses that had been built every two miles up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Tesla proposed that an alternating current (AC) power system would be more efficient and able to transmit power over longer distances. He found that while DC flowed continuously in one direction, AC changed direction 50 or 60 times per second and could be stepped up to very high voltage levels, minimizing power loss across great distances. A bitter battle with Edison ensued, as Edison fought to protect his investment in DC equipment and facilities. After losing his job with Edison, Tesla spent two years working at odd jobs, including ditch digging, and continued developing his AC system of generators, motors, and transformers. He held 40 basic U.S. patents, but allowed others to buy the patents and supply America and the rest of the world with the system. Ultimately, Tesla’s AC system emerged victorious over Edison’s DC system because it was a superior technology. Tesla’s AC induction motor started the industrial revolution at the turn of the century and is widely used throughout the world in industrial and household appliances.

To attract public attention and new investors, Tesla cultivated the image of an eccentric genius. Reporters flocked to Tesla’s laboratory to cover his sensational discoveries and dramatic pronouncements. A master showman, Tesla dazzled spectators by sending 250,000-volt shocks coursing through his body. Even though he was hailed as a scientific legend, Tesla spent the last years of his life exploring impractical scientific ideas, including wireless transmission of power around the world. He also believed he had broadcast signals to Mars and that he had received a return message from Martians! Since he wasn’t able to produce definitive results that he had in fact gotten signals from Mars, Tesla could not secure the funds he needed to complete his project and suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent his remaining years depressed and a recluse and finally died as a result of injuries sustained when struck by a taxi in New York City.

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This Tesla biography is a part of the Tesla Memorial Society of New York’s website. It is rich with information about Tesla’s work with Thomas Edison and his pioneering use of alternating current in motors.

This biography of Tesla is part of the support materials for the television show “Tesla: Master of Lightning” produced by PBS. This comprehensive section on Tesla’s life and legacy includes a description of his work on the Niagara Falls Power Project, the invention of radio, and his dream of using his science discoveries to put and end to war.

This section of the PBS Tesla site described above includes personal recollections that Tesla made in Scientific American, June 5, 1915. It provides interesting insight into the thoughts of one of history’s greatest inventors.

This Wikipedia site contains a lengthy biography of Tesla broken into sections such as the “The Early Years” and the “Colorado Springs” It also includes a bibliography and a list of Tesla’s recognition and honors.

Part of Frank Germano’s personal website, this review of Tesla and his work includes a biography of the inventor, detailed descriptions of each of his major inventions and a selection of “famous Tesla quotes.”

This biography of Nikola Tesla includes photographs and scientific explanations of the implications of Tesla’s groundbreaking scientific achievements. It was written by Gary L. Peterson, who as part of the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, is working to preserve Nikola Tesla’s historic Wardenclyffe office and laboratory building in New York.




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