Max Born was a German physicist who won a share of the Nobel prize in 1954 “for his fundamental research in quantum mechanics, especially for his statistical interpretation of the wavefunction”. Besides the fundamental contributions to quantum theory for which he is most remembered, he also did wide-ranging work on atomic, solid-state and optical physics, as well as early investigations of Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

Born in the city of Breslau in what was then the Prussian province of Silesia (now Wrocław, Poland) in 1882, Born gravitated in 1904 to the University of Göttingen, then a powerhouse of cutting-edge mathematics and theoretical physics.

Following the publication in 1905 of Albert Einstein’s seminal paper introducing special relativity, Born teamed up with the mathematician Hermann Minkowski to try to incorporate it into a theory of electromagnetism using the mathematics of matrices, then hardly used in physics. This caused a great deal of controversy, as many prominent physicists at the time rejected relativity with all its implications that time and space were not absolute, but could be warped by motion.

The work was cut short by Minkowski’s death in 1909, and Born went on to use matrix mathematics to derive new results in solid-state physics, but his familiarity with the tool really came into its own with the first attempts to put quantum physics on a solid footing in the 1920s.

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Werner Heisenberg, famed for the quantum uncertainty principle, had put together the basic picture, but Born realised matrix mathematics provided the best description of it. Working together with Heisenberg and his own student Pascual Jordan, Born created the basic mathematical framework of quantum mechanics as it is still used today.

## The Born rule

Central to the picture is perhaps Born’s most famous single contribution to physics, and the basis of his Nobel prize: the “Born rule”. This is a mathematical rule that says how you can calculate the probability of measuring any particular value of a quantum object’s position, momentum or any other property from information contained in its quantum wave function. Essentially, it dictates how our concrete, classical world emerges from a fuzzy, only statistically defined underlying quantum realm.

Einstein’s famous, unbelieving response, contained in a letter to Born written in 1926, is often paraphrased as “God does not play dice with the universe”. Nevertheless, Einstein nominated Born, Heisenberg and Jordan for the Nobel prize in physics for their work.

The fact that it was awarded to Heisenberg alone in 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics” was seen by many as an injustice. Heisenberg himself wrote in a letter to Born in 1933 that his contribution could not be diminished by “a wrong decision from the outside”. It took more than two decades for the Nobel committee to rectify it.

Of Jewish extraction, Born was forced to flee Germany for England on the accession of the Nazis to power in 1933. Two years later he published *The Restless Universe*, an introduction to modern physics. He became a naturalised British citizen in 1939, two days before the second world war broke out, and was also made a fellow of the Royal Society in the same year.

Born worked first at the University of Cambridge as Stokes lecturer, before being offered a professorship at the University of Edinburgh by Charles Galton Darwin, the physicist grandson of Charles Darwin of evolution fame. He remained there until his retirement at the age of 70 in 1952, where Born returned to the then West Germany. He died in Göttingen in 1970, where he is buried.

One of Born’s granddaughters is famed in a rather different sphere. His daughter Irene married a Welshman, Brinley Newton-John, and gave birth in 1948 to a daughter, Olivia – the actress, singer and co-star of the film *Grease*.

## Key facts

**Full name**: Max Born

**Born**: 11 December 1882, Breslau, German Empire (now Wrocław, Poland)

**Died**: 5 January 1970 (aged 87) Göttingen, West Germany

Max Ball was a Nobel prize winning physicist whose founding contributions to quantum theory, including the “Born rule”, are central to quantum mechanics.