Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent calendar #12: All of astronomy

In 1904, Max Born, a German born physicist who would win the Nobel prize in 1954, went to Göttingen to study mathematics and physics. He soon made friends with Professor Karl Schwarzschild, who taught astronomy, and at that time was not much older than his students. Schwarzschild's name might be familiar to you from the Schwarzschild-metric - the first known exact solution to Einstein's field equations that he would derive about a decade later.

In their book "Der Luxus des Gewissens" (The Luxury of Conscience) by Max Born and his wife Hedwig, Born recalls that he used to play tennis with Schwarzschild. Max Born (who was called "Maxel" by his friends) liked Schwarzschild's astronomy class, but did not feel very inspired by the lectures on geometry, held by the great mathematician Felix Klein, namegiver of the Klein bottle:
"Die geometrischen Vorlesungen... waren aber nicht nach meinem Geschmack, und ich besuchte sie nicht sehr regelmäßig... Mein Reinfall im müdlichen Examen, das in nur sechs Monaten bevorstand, schien unvermeidlich."

"The lectures in geometry... were not to my taste and I did not attend them on a regular basis. That I would flop at the oral exam, to which there were only six months to go, seemed unavoidable."

Maxel asked his friend Schwarzschild for advice. Schwarzschild suggested to instead take the exam in astronomy:
"[E]r sagte, ein halbes Jahr sei reichlich Zeit, die ganze Astronomie zu lernen."

"He said, half a year is more than enough time to learn all of astronomy."

Max passed the oral exam in astronomy, even though he answered the question "What do you do when you see a falling star?" with "I make a wish!" and only after Schwarzschild's further inquiry remembered to add "I note down the time and location, the direction and the length of the visible trace."


  1. It's "prize", not "price". The words are the same in German (Preis) and French (prix) but not in English or Spanish (premio and precio).

  2. Hi Bee & Stefan,

    Thanks as for now and forever after when I think of either Schwartzschild or Born I will have images of them playing tennis. Then again it is kind of appropriate when it comes to the search for a Quantum Gravity theory wondering whose court the ball is in. It also has me wonder if this had been years after if he might have added to his answer "I note down the time and location, the direction and the length of the visible trace", after which I apply the Born rule to the result.



  3. ""What do you do when you see a falling star?" ... "I make a wish!""

    Indeed. Tuesday 13 December 2011, CERN will report the Higgs search, upgrading 1 fb^(-1) of data to 5.5 fb^(-1).

    BAD: "At this point, the region at low mass, between 114 and 141 GeV, is where we expect to see something." WORSE: "Really difficult, and I mean really, really difficult. It is such an arduous job that even after 30 years worth of searching, by literally tens of thousands of physicists, it has yet to be found." ROTTEN: "CERN leaders have been cautioning that the results won't show anything conclusive."

    Make a wish! Will there be a big surprise party, or will the bride be left standing at the altar? Uncle Al predicts an ornate wedding dress will go to eBay, used less than once.


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