It is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Max Born on 5th January 1979. Born was a Nobel Prize winning physicist who appears in one of the most famous photographs of all time.
Having only a CSE in General Science, the work of Max Born is beyond my understanding, as is the work of all the theoretical physicists.
It was my daughter in her schooldays who introduced me to their work. She became enthused by science in teenage years. “Look at this!” she exclaimed one evening. It was not often that school textbooks evoked such excitement.
“What is it?”
“It’s from a conference held in 1927 – look who is in the picture. There’s Schroedinger and there’s Neils Bohr and there’s Max Planck and who else would be at the front – Einstein”.
The solitary woman in the picture, sitting in the front row was the brilliant Madame Curie, the only person ever to win Nobel prizes in different sciences..
“What were they doing? Why the photograph?”
“It was the Solvay Conference in 1927. Look at it – the most brilliant people in the world gathered together in one place. Do you know, Einstein and Bohr once had a debate and every time they met after that, instead of saying ‘how are you?’ and things like that they just carried on the debate from where they left off the previous time”.
The photograph recorded what must have been one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of humanity. Geniuses by the dozen. To have been present would have left an indelible mark on the memories of mere mortals.
“Can you imagine what it would have been like?” she said. “It would have been like getting all the greatest rock musicians in the world into one band and put them on the stage together”.
Indeed, and the egos of the geniuses would have been considerably smaller. I have been at at Schroedinger’s grave in the Austrian village of Alpbach; it is modest and unassuming, almost anonymous, tucked against the wall of a small village churchyard.
Teaching religious education to sceptical students, Solvay represents the reality from which the church departed. Since the days of Copernicus and Galileo the church was troubled by facts that did not fit its explanation of the world. An implicit fundamentalism remains, the work of Darwin a hundred and fifty years ago only brought to the surface the attitudes already there. In the century and a half since, it is hard to see any movement at all by many Christians. Anti-intellectualism reigns; even had we an Einstein, he would not get a hearing.
The gulf between the world inhabited by those who stand in the tradition of Einstein, a world embraced by younger generations, and the world imagined by many members of the church, is now so wide, it is hard to imagine that the church is redeemable.