Historical Oddities: Niels and Harald Bohr

Niels Bohr is a Danish physicist and is famous for making some of the most important scientific discoveries of the early 20th century. Bohr’s most prominent discovery was the Bohr model of atomic structure. The model improved upon the Rutherfordian model and established the orbit of electrons around a central nucleus made up of protons and neutrons. The Bohr model also established the quantum jump between energy levels in the atomic shell, basing the discovery off of earlier work in spectroscopy of hydrogen atoms. Bohr later investigated the yet undiscovered element 72, which he claimed was not a rare earth element as some scientists predicted. The element, Bohr said, was similar to zirconium. Shortly after, the discovery of the element proved Bohr correct. The element was named hafnium, after Bohr’s home town of Copenhagen. In 1922 Niels Bohr received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discoveries about atomic structure and his studies in quantum mechanics.

Before Niels Bohr became a physicist and in fact during his early career, he was also an avid football player, along with his brother Harald. Both Harald and Niels played for the university club Akademik Boldklub in Copenhagen while they were students at the university. At the time Akademik Boldklub was one of the best clubs in Denmark. Niels Bohr played goalkeeper while Harald was a striker. Harald was the more famous as a footballer, joining the club at 16 in 1903 and playing through his time at the university. Niels only played for Akademik Boldklub in the 1905 season, after which he further pursued his interest in physics. During one match against German club Mittweda, Niels did not react to a long shot and missed an easy save. Later he admitted that he was distracted by thoughts about a math problem and lost focus on the match.

While Niels Bohr’s football career never really took off, his brother Harald’s did. Harald did well enough at Akademik Boldklub that he was called up to the Danish national team to play in the 1908 Olympic Games in London. Bohr’s most impressive performance came in the first match of the games, which was also Denmark’s first international football match. The Danes were playing the French B team in the quarterfinal. They won the match 9-0, and Harald Bohr scored two goals during the match. The Danish national team went on to defeat the French A team 17-1, but lost the final 2-0 to Great Britain. Harald Bohr along with the rest of the national team received a silver medal for football in the games.

After the 1908 Olympics, Harald Bohr made one final appearance for the Danish national team in 1910. Denmark defeated an amateur England team 2-1. After this appearance, Harald Bohr continuing his schooling and went on to become a prominent mathematician. Today, Harald is known primarily for being the founder of study of almost periodic functions, and for his collaboration on the Bohr-Landau theorem. However, during his life, he always remained popular for his career in football. It was reported that during the defense of his doctoral thesis, Harald Bohr’s audience was made up of more football fans than mathematicians.

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