Home > Beer > Carlsberg and the Copenhagen Interpretation: Beer, Bohr and the Bomb

Carlsberg and the Copenhagen Interpretation: Beer, Bohr and the Bomb

Carl Jacobsen had a strained relationship with his father. J.C. Jacobsen had named the Carlsberg brewery after his son in 1847, but after conflicts between the two men, Carl set up a rival brewery in 1882: the Valby Brewery, later renamed Ny (new) Carlsberg by agreement with his father.

Science, however, greatly benefited from the rivalry, as it meant that the Gammel (old) Carlsberg Brewery was left to the charitable Carlsberg Foundation when J.C. Jacobsen died in 1887. Later the breweries merged and Carl became CEO, but the Foundation still retains 51% of the voting shares.

Part of the Foundation’s work was the upkeep of the Carlsberg Honorary Residence, J.C. Jacobsen’s villa by the brewery which was left to Carl for life in his will, but subsequently to the Foundation for residence by ‘‘a man or a woman deserving of esteem from the community by reason of services to science, literature, or art, or for other reasons.”  As a result, as described and speculated upon by Michael Frayn in his play Copenhagen, the Carlsberg Honorary Residence played host to another dispute, not unlike a father falling out with his son.

Niels Bohr had received a grant from the Carlsberg Foundation in 1911 and it later funded his establishment of  the University of Copenhagen’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in 1921.  As a result Copenhagen remained at the forefront of research and debate on atomic physics and quantum mechanics for two decades, centred around the gregarious Bohr who enjoyed long discussions with Einstein and others.  Bohr moved into the Carlsberg Honorary Residence in 1931 and it’s interesting to consider the smells of brewing that must have wafted through the many meetings of great minds it hosted.

From 1924-1927 the young German Werner Heisenberg was a close assistant to Bohr, and developed his groundbreaking Uncertainty Principle under Bohr’s wing, as well as documenting the shared principles now known as the Copenhagen Interpretation. However, in September 1941 Heisenberg returned to Copenhagen in very different circumstances.  Heisenberg had become head of the German nuclear programme, partially due to his position as one of the only prominent non-Jewish scientists in the field.  Bohr was half-Jewish, a Dane living under Nazi occupation who had previously given refuge to a number of German Jewish scientists fleeing the Nazis.

We can’t be entirely sure what happened privately between Bohr and Heisenberg during that meeting, as each gave contrasting stories. Heisenberg’s account suggests that he was trying to obtain some measure of approval for the morality of what he was doing for the Nazis.  Certainly Bohr came away with the frightening knowledge “that Germany was participating vigorously in a race to be the first with atomic weapons“.

In any event, Heisenberg left and continued to work on the ultimately unsuccessful Nazi nuclear programme, eventually being captured on 3 May 1945 by Allied forces behind German lines, just a few days before Germany’s surrender.  There is some speculation that Heisenberg deliberately curtailed the programme’s progress or ambitions, although Heisenberg never claimed this himself.

Bohr, meanwhile, had fled Copenhagen in September 1943 under fear of arrest, first making a visit to Sweden, during which he convinced King Gustav to make a public statement about Sweden’s willingness to accept Jewish refugees.  Hitler simultaneously ordered the deportation of Danish Jews to the camps, but around 8,000 were swiftly rescued to Sweden in or around October 1943. Ultimately around 50-100 Danish Jews are thought to have died in the Holocaust.

Under the name “Nicholas Baker”, in December 1943 Bohr went to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project as part of the British team, acting as a “father confessor” (“Uncle Nick“) to the scientists working on the Allied bomb.  He returned to Copenhagen and the Residence after the war.  Heisenberg visited Bohr again in 1947 at Bohr’s summer house in Tisvilde, by then a disgraced figure from a disgraced nation.

Bohr lived at the Residence until his death in 1962.  He is buried, along with his wife Margrethe, in the same cemetery in Nørrebro as Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard.

Carlsberg stopped using the swastika symbol (which had been used as a trademark since the renaming of Valby as “Ny Carlsberg”) in 1940.  Sadly, I can’t find a single reference to whether Bohr and Heisenberg actually enjoyed a beer together before the war, or perhaps even in 1947.  However, being a Dane and a German who enjoyed long conversations about the nature of the universe, I can imagine that they did.

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  1. May 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Nice bit of historic research done behind Carlsberg and some of the great people who visited and worked there. How did you find out so much though?

    • May 29, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Ha, as a history graduate I can confirm that my methodology was suspect. My copy of Frayn’s play has lots of historical notes, combined with visiting the Old Carlsberg brewery and some online sources to fill in the gaps/verify.

      The one thing I should say is that one of the sources, which I think I linked to above, suggests the 1941 visit happened at Bohr’s room at the Institute, not the Residence. Frayn sets his play at the Residence, or simply “Valby”. I don’t recall that Frayn mentioned Carlsberg at all.

  1. May 30, 2012 at 10:48 pm

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