“I was busy dissolving Nobel prizes while the Nazis occupied Copenhagen”: this is how they managed to save two of the prestigious medals

The well-known Nobel laureates are ironically sometimes ironically mysterious, or rather their circumstances. And we are not talking about the fact that they can surrender for discovering dark secrets of the universe, if not for the fact that they disappear or even that someone has come to dissolve Nobel Prizes to hide them.

Beyond the prestige that receiving it entails, at least for the moment, the Awards have their physical medal, which for many perhaps has much more value than the symbolic one in the case of gold. Of course, while since 1980 they have been made with recycled 18-karat gold, previously they were made with 23 karat gold, being somewhat heavier and larger, and apparently in a certain context it was necessary to save three of these original medals from being stolen.

Bury them? Bah, that does not hit us physicists and chemists with a Nobel

Nobel prizes they began to be delivered in 1901 and from that first moment, peculiar stories of their deliveries and receptions are told. For example, in the own organization website They explain that the 1901 laureates received the “royal” medals in 1902 because the designs on the reverse of the medals were not completed on time, in part because they had to be approved by each institution that awarded the award.

Not that this is a very flashy story, partly because of that “things in the palace go slowly” and that being late seems inherent in the human condition. But there are other more curious, especially if we talk about the also gloomy time that science passed and these awards during the period of the occupation and expansion of German National Socialism.

Some time ago we talked about the only three scientists who have rejected the Nobel Prize (we highlight the scientific one, because there have been other rejected prizes in non-scientific disciplines). Among the three stories we alluded to the idea that the Nazi regime prevented Richard Kuhn from collecting the award, but it is not something that is clear (besides that the German Chemical Society stopped awarding the Richard Kuhn Medal for Kuhn’s collaboration with the regime).

Nobel Physics World War

Niels Borh, James Franck and Max von Laue (from left to right).

Spinning with this time, what also happens is that around the medals of the Germans Max von Laue (1914) and James Franck (1925), and of the Danish Niels Bohr (1922), the three Nobel laureates in Physics during the Second World War, there is also a mystery orbital (the wink nerd it was there and we had to catch it). Apparently, given the occupation of Denmark, Bohr was concerned about the fate of these medals, since both von Laue and Frank had deposited them with Bohr’s own Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen to try to avoid their confiscation (the institution had It has also been a haven for German Jewish physicists since 1933).

According to the Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy (also of Jewish origin and Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1943), who worked at the institute, Bohr’s concern revolved around the discovery of the medals, or the risk of sending them to another country, since speaking of Nazi Germany this was practically a capital crime and the names of the scientists were engraved on the awards. Burying them did not seem enough to the author of one of the most important atomic models in history, so a somewhat more elaborate plan had to be put together. And, of course, scientist.

Hevesy explained in Adventures in Radioisotope Research that it was he who suggested burying von Laue’s medal, but that Bohr thought it could easily be unearthed. So the chemist resorted to a very common process in a laboratory: dissolution.

What is unusual is dissolve a Nobel Prize, but Hevesy said that he decided to dissolve the medals and that “while the invading forces marched through the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving the medals of Laue and also of James Franck.” In fact, the task was not up to everyone and The help of an experienced chemist did not hurt, since according to the scientist “gold is extremely unreactive and difficult to resolve.”

Thus, the solution was to resort to royal water. This solution of concentrated nitric and hydrochloric acid is named for its ability to dissolve noble metals, thanks to the combined effect of H ions+, NO3, and Cl in solution.

Niels Bohr Institute

The Bohr Institute of Physics, Copenhagen.

The history of the image that captures what was probably the greatest concentration of geniuses in history

Thus, although the Nazis occupied the institute and searched it meticulously, they did not find the medals and they remained there waiting quietly. Bohr’s, by the way, is not mentioned in the chemist’s account, but according to the organization documents from the Niels Bohr Archive in Copenhagen show that his medal, as well as the medal of the 1920 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, August Krogh, already had been donated to an auction Held on March 12, 1940 for the benefit of the Finnish Relief Fund (the occupation of Copenhagen was just this year).

After the war, the gold recovered and The Nobel Foundation again presented Laue and Frank with new Nobel medals. For their part, those of Bohr and Krog were acquired by an anonymous buyer and donated to the Danish Historical Museum in Fredriksborg, where they are still preserved.

Curiously, stories of this type of awards continue to be recovered, such as that of how troublesome it can be to carry one in your luggage when going through airport controls. Meanwhile, the awards continue to maintain their popularity and are taken as a reference, although from here we continue to emphasize (not so well) that at that point there is no Nobel Prize in Technology.

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“I was busy dissolving Nobel prizes while the Nazis occupied Copenhagen”: this is how they managed to save two of the prestigious medals

Hank Gilbert