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Dissolving Gold in Fear

October 4, 2011

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the new Nobel Prize recipients.  I would also like to take this opportunity to remember those for whom the Nobel Prize has brought pain.

Here is a story about how Nobel prizes had to be sold or literally dissolved in the interest of human rights: 

gold

It’s 1940. The Nazis have taken Copenhagen. They are literally marching through the streets, and physicist Niels Bohr has just hours, maybe minutes, to make two Nobel Prize medals disappear. These medals are made of 23-karat gold. They are heavy to handle, and being shiny and inscribed, they are noticeable. The Nazis have declared no gold shall leave Germany, but two Nobel laureates, one of Jewish descent, the other an opponent of the National Socialists, have quietly sent their medals to Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics, for protection. Their act is probably a capital offense — if the Gestapo can find the evidence….

On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (he would one day win a Nobel of his own) was working in Bohr’s lab. He wrote later, "I suggested that we should bury the medal(s)," but Bohr thought no, the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, search everywhere in the building. Too dangerous. So Hevesy’s thoughts turned to chemistry. Maybe he could make the medals disappear. He took the first one, he says, and "I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue’s and also James Franck’s medals."…

434px-OssietzkyCarl_von_Ossietzky These stories do have a happy ending, unlike von Ossietzky’s experience: he spent the most of the remainder of his life in concentration camps and died in police camps — even in 1992, the German Der Bundesgerichtshof  (“Federal Court of Justice”) reaffirmed Ossietzky’s conviction for trying to alert the world to growing Nazi military menace.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 5, 2011 4:16 pm

    Thank you, Theophrastus, for remembering these incredible individuals and for helping us all know about how they sometimes had to prize their Prize.

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