Great Debates: Niels Bohr takes on Einstein, October 1927

Nov 15, 2017 7:00:00 AM Erik Fogel albert einstein

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." - Albert Einstein

In the world of physics, there are few superstars. Our icon in the field is Albert Einstein. Einstein's brilliant mind, ground-breaking career, and legendary thought experiments make him an example of contemporary genius. And he was certainly the man of the hour at the October 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels. When twenty-nine stellar scientists converged on the conference to mull over the experimental record of the newly identified photon, they looked to Einstein for approval. Photons were a disturbing and exciting discovery that had theorists scrambling for answers. WHY did these newfound quantum anomalies seemingly break all the rules and behave as both a wave and a particle?

Albert Einstein was truly amongst his peers and rivals in the crowd of the fifth Solvay Conference. More than half of the twenty-nine attendees were Nobel Prize winners. Einstein wasn't even the most decorated scientist in the bunch. Marie Curie had TWO Nobel Awards under her belt. But it was the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, that drew Einstein's attention. Bohr postulated the seemingly outlandish theory that photons didn't exist as particles until scientists started looking for them! Bohr said that photons had "no independent reality in the ordinary, physical sense." Einstein rose to confront Bohr on the issue. He disputed any conclusion that included a consideration for the scientist in the equation. Photons SHOULD exist whether we are looking at them or not.

The debate didn't end at the Solvay Conference. Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein continued to hash out their thoughts on the issue of photons and quantum physics over the next twenty-eight years. And in that time, physicists continued to study the unusual behavior of photons. They made observations and came to conclusions. And although there are still many questions today, Niels Bohr's interpretation of the photon is widely accepted. Einstein was wrong. Niels Bohr stood up to a pillar of the physics community and argued an opinion that sounded ridiculous at the time. He was out on a limb, but he didn't back down. He built an argument around himself and created a sturdy support system for his conclusions. It was a great debate. 

The ongoing Einstein and Bohr conversation was undoubtedly one of the turning points in contemporary science. It changed the method of quantum experimentation and impacted the field of physics moving forward. To learn more about the power of debate, contact us at the Debate League.

Great Debates in History

Erik Fogel

Written by Erik Fogel