Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Nobel Prize Can Get You A House And Free Beer


Niels Bohr is one of the greatest scientists who ever lived and a personal hero of mine. He was also a favorite of his fellow Danes when he lived in Copenhagen. Today, however, I found out just how much they loved him. Apparently, after he won the Nobel Prize in 1922, the Carlsberg brewery gave him a gift – a house located next to the brewery. And the best perk of the house? It had a direct pipeline to the brewery so that Bohr had free beer on tap whenever he wanted.
Of course, that was more than just national pride. Carlsberg had a passion for science as part of its company culture. They had a laboratory devoted to developing better beer brewing. In 1875 that laboratory was the first to isolate Saccharomyces pastorianus, the species of yeast used to brew pale lagers. The laboratory also made discoveries in protein chemistry that ended up having applications elsewhere.
And here’s another fun bit of speculation for you. Bohr certainly didn’t rest on his laurels after winning the Nobel Prize, which he won for his investigations into the structure of the atom and early work in quantum mechanics. With the help of the Danish goverment and Carlsberg’s Foundation, Bohr had founded the Institute for Theoretical Physics in 1921. During the next decade, Bohr worked with physics to lay the foundation of the principles of quantum mechanics, and it was in 1927 that he developed the concept of complementarity, a key principle in quantum mechanics.
Complementarity is far from intuitve, and many of the basic concepts of quantum mechanics are similarly hard to grapple with. Indeed, Bohr had a series of famous debates with Albert Einstein, in which Einstein was very reluctant to accept quantum mechanics. Einstein resisted many of its implications for years.
So how did Bohr keep his mind supple and flexible, ready to accept new ideas when his peers like Einstein couldn’t? Well, here’s the thing – there are several studies that indicate that being drunk can actually improve your creativity. That’s because it prevents your mind from being able to focus, so it more readily drifts from one connection to another, which can yield creative solutions to problems.
So was free beer the reason why Bohr was able to make great strides in developing quantum mechanics? Okay, probably not – but I’m sure a few late night drinking sessions with other physicists didn’t hurt.