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Dissolve my Nobel Prize! Fast!
October 3, 2011 6:16 PM   Subscribe

Dissolve my Nobel Prize! Fast! It's 1940. The Nazis have taken Copenhagen. They are literally marching through the streets, and physicist Niels Bohr has just hours, maybe minutes, to make two Nobel Prize medals disappear.
posted by sweetkid (70 comments total) 73 users marked this as a favorite

 
Don't fuck with physicists.
posted by JimmyJames at 6:26 PM on October 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


What a cool story. Thanks for posting this.
posted by nevercalm at 6:27 PM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


SCIENCE!

Stupid Nazis.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:27 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


BLEND THEM
posted by tumid dahlia at 6:30 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


With the passing of Dr. Ralph Steinman, it may inspire some perspective to know that not even coinage metals are permanent fixtures relative to the long arc of Science.
posted by The White Hat at 6:33 PM on October 3, 2011


Don't fuck with physicists.

Perhaps. It took a chemist to save the day though. Dissolving them in aqua regia is easy enough. Getting the gold back to the committee to recast the medals after the war was a neat trick.
posted by bonehead at 6:33 PM on October 3, 2011 [11 favorites]


They should give that sort of word problem to Nobel Candidates as a final test to weed out all the losers.
posted by illovich at 6:33 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Now in webcomic form!
posted by Nomyte at 6:35 PM on October 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


Noble behaviour indeed. Great story, thanks.
posted by arcticseal at 6:37 PM on October 3, 2011


Now in webcomic form!

As it should be!
posted by sweetkid at 6:38 PM on October 3, 2011


Getting the gold back to the committee to recast the medals after the war was a neat trick.

I know there are ways of doing this through chemistry, but I'm going to believe he used magic.
posted by Joey Michaels at 6:42 PM on October 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


For some reason, I want Walter White to read this to me as a bedtime story.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 6:45 PM on October 3, 2011 [15 favorites]


Getting the gold back to the committee to recast the medals after the war was a neat trick.

yeah, how did he do that?
posted by awfurby at 6:47 PM on October 3, 2011


Whatever they tell you, don't believe them when they say you can also dissolve a cat in aqua regia and successfully reconstitute said feline.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:48 PM on October 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


For some reason, I want Walter White to read this to me as a bedtime story.

Twisted and strange, but yes, please.
posted by nevercalm at 6:49 PM on October 3, 2011


yeah, how did he do that?

Because the gold was still there, just dissolved into the aqua regia. The reaction is reversible.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:03 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]



Because the gold was still there, just dissolved into the aqua regia. The reaction is reversible.


As a dummy who had to stay after class in chemistry AND physics for extra help, if anyone can explain this further, that would be cool...
posted by sweetkid at 7:06 PM on October 3, 2011


Any minute now jessamyn's going to jump in here and tell us to take it to AskMefi
posted by awfurby at 7:11 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


For some reason, I want Walter White to read this to me as a bedtime story.
Seriously, Kickass Scientists Fighting Evil Whilst Using Nifty Science Tricks would be a fabulous idea for a book of bedtime stories. Is there such a thing? Because there totally should be. I would so buy a book about Exciting! science for all the young kids in my life.
posted by pointystick at 7:13 PM on October 3, 2011 [11 favorites]


I know there are ways of doing this through chemistry, but I'm going to believe he used magic.

But chemistry is so much more awesome than magic! Because it's real. And because you can do things like dissolving gold before the Nazis get it and then recreating it afterward.

Sufficiently awesome science is indistinguishable from magic.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:14 PM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


He doesn't say specifically, but there are a number of ways to do it. You need to do a couple of things: first remove the nitric acid to prevent redissolution, then reduce the gold back to metallic form, finally remove the other impurities. Here's a sketch of one possible route; this is a more detailled version.

George de Hevesy was a pretty intersting guy himself. Here are Four Stories from the Atomic Age about him.
posted by bonehead at 7:16 PM on October 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


I wonder whether they used one beaker or two (one per medal).
posted by skbw at 7:17 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that was awesome. But I can see this becoming one of those scientific legends you see xeroxed to the n-th generation, hung on bulletin boards.

A optics physicist would vaporize it with a laser.
An electronics engineer would have created a high powered arc and vaporized it.
A plasma physicist would have atomized it with a plasma torch.
An engineer would grind it down to powder and disperse it.

etcetera
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:19 PM on October 3, 2011


From his autobiography, one. That single flask survived for four or five years, including the university being bombed.
posted by bonehead at 7:20 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you dissolve salt into water, the salt is still there, right? To put it in the simplest terms. So you just need to extract it.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:23 PM on October 3, 2011


That's it in a nutshell, IndigoRain. The power of normal chemistry can't make gold nuclei into any other sort of nuclei. They were still there, just needed an environment where they could precipitate out again.

And listen, I love me some Neils Bohr, but this de Hevesy fellow is the hero of this story!
posted by Mister_A at 7:26 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


As a dummy who had to stay after class in chemistry AND physics for extra help, if anyone can explain this further, that would be cool...

So this is actually kind of tricky to explain, and not a super-simple thing if you're working on, say, half-remembered high school chemistry. But the principle is simple enough: The atoms are still there. Molecules are just arrangements of atoms; water is a bonding of oxygen with hydrogen at a 1:2 ratio, but if you zap it the right way (literally, I mean; electrolysis is the name of the process and that electro part is just what you think) you can separate them and end up with oxygen bonding to other oxygen, and hydrogen doing the same thing. It's a lot more complicated than that for getting the gold back out of the gold-plus-aqua-regia, but it's the same basic principle: The Stuff is there, just bonded differently than the combination we think of as "shiny special gold."

To use a weird analogy, you can build a house out of bricks and wood, or take it all apart and rearrange them into a gazebo and a brick firepit. Same bricks, same wood, but different arrangement that works very differently.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:28 PM on October 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


In addition to a precipitate in solution, a Nobel gas was also produced.
posted by sourwookie at 7:31 PM on October 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


Getting the gold back to the committee to recast the medals after the war was a neat trick FUCKING AWESOME THAT IS SO COOL
posted by twirlip at 7:52 PM on October 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Getting the gold out of solution isn't too hard.

You can do it chemically as shown here.
posted by Argyle at 8:01 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The prof I was working for this summer told us that story!

I was working in a nuclear chemistry lab, where we do (or would have if the licensing was finished while I was still there) change one nucleus into another.
posted by Canageek at 8:13 PM on October 3, 2011


From the article: This was not an obvious solution

BOOM. Science pun.
posted by auto-correct at 8:16 PM on October 3, 2011 [14 favorites]


Let's not be precipitate. No need for the acid tounge.
posted by bonehead at 8:20 PM on October 3, 2011


> For some reason, I want Walter White to read this to me as a bedtime story.

Is there some way we could get this to happen? He's got an infant daughter and the show was just picked up for another season.
posted by contraption at 8:23 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you're not part of the solution ...
posted by Curious Artificer at 8:26 PM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


What a great story. I feel just a tiny bit less misanthropic.
posted by theora55 at 8:39 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can't wait for the movie version where the medals get dissolved by Private Williams (an American GI added so that US audiences have someone to relate to) when he accidentally knocks them into a vat of aqua regia while helping Bohr and Hevesy up after they got panicky and slipped on banana skins.
posted by No-sword at 8:55 PM on October 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


You can do it chemically as shown here

I like the scary shadow-puppets around 2:00... (Nazis!)
posted by exphysicist345 at 9:07 PM on October 3, 2011


Shortly before this my Morfar was down at the border, I guess somewhere in Sønderjylland, in the Danish army. He told me that they shot at the radiators on the trucks, but tried not to shoot directly at the Germans because they didn't want to make them mad. I guess by the time the Nazis were in Copenhagen he was being marched to internment accommodations, but from what he tells me they didn't have it that tough. But he hated Germans, especially Germans around his own age and older, right up to his death.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:10 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


This was awesome, because as soon as I read the title I knew how it was going to be. Aqua regia, baby. I use that stuff every day.

Great little story, thanks for sharing.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 9:21 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Niels Bohr slow-walked the development of nuclear weapons throughout the war, such that the Nazis never actually got them. We owe him a great debt of gratitude for that. The business with the medals is nice but it's nowhere near as important as this.
posted by newdaddy at 9:24 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


...When the Nazis ransacked Bohr's institute, they scoured the building for loot or evidence of wrongdoing but left the beaker of orange aqua regia untouched. Hevesy was forced to flee to Stockholm in 1943, but when he returned to his battered laboratory after V-E Day, he found the innocuous beaker undisturbed on a shelf.

Why was it not disturbed by the Nazis, or anyone else for four or five years? Because it looked like a beaker full of pee, that's why.

"Hey, what's this?" quickly turns away and puts it down in disgust "...uh, nevermind."
posted by eye of newt at 9:50 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Niels Bohr slow-walked the development of nuclear weapons throughout the war

Bohr got out and worked on the Manhattan Project, and, it's to be presumed, did not slow-walk the development of nuclear weapons. You're thinking of Heisenberg. It's been proposed, but, so far as I know, we don't know for sure, that he deliberately stymied progress on the Germans' bomb project.
posted by Zed at 9:56 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


An engineer would grind it down to powder and disperse it.

A software engineer would say adding hardware is cheaper than writing software so add as much gold as possible.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:04 PM on October 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


newdaddy probably is thinking of Heisenberg, but maybe he means that NB was slow-walking on the inside at Los Alamos? That would be awesome, but I doubt it...not biting the hand and all that. (Paging David Greenglass...)

Not to be a Scrooge, but merely for historical interest, does anyone know the primary source for this? Interview with Hevesy? With the Nobel commission?
posted by skbw at 10:07 PM on October 3, 2011


Not only did Bohr work on the Manhattan Project, he struck up a friendship with Feynman because Feynman was the only one who would argue with him

Per Wikipedia

Feynman was sought out by physicist Niels Bohr for one-on-one discussions. He later discovered the reason: most physicists were too in awe of Bohr to argue with him. Feynman had no such inhibitions, vigorously pointing out anything he considered to be flawed in Bohr's thinking. Feynman said he felt as much respect for Bohr as anyone else, but once anyone got him talking about physics, he would become so focused he forgot about social niceties.

posted by Ad hominem at 10:11 PM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


maybe he means that NB was slow-walking on the inside at Los Alamos? That would be awesome, but I doubt it...not biting the hand and all that.

My understanding, from an Oppenheimer biography I read some time ago, is that by the time Bohr got to Los Alamos most of the physics related to the uranium and plutonium fission bombs was settled. Mostly what he did is act as a physics devils advocate (pushing scientists to think beyond the project) and to spur discussion of moral/ethical problems.

So his ability to "slow-walk" the American project would have been quite limited, even if he wanted to.

Of course, I could be misremembering things. It's been awhile since I cracked that one open.
posted by sbutler at 10:45 PM on October 3, 2011


Not only do I love the dissolving of the Nobel Prizes and their subsequent reconstitution, I love the people involved.

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Newton said that three hundred odd years ago, and it wasn't more applicable than it was in the early years of the twentieth century.

Recommended reading: The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Szilard's bet with Oppenheimer is an historic moment of the caliber of Caesar crossing the Rubicon.
posted by Sphinx at 11:00 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bohr got out and worked on the Manhattan Project, and, it's to be presumed, did not slow-walk the development of nuclear weapons. You're thinking of Heisenberg.

I don't think so
posted by Skeptic at 11:05 PM on October 3, 2011


Niels Bohr also had a Nobel medal, but he'd put his up for auction on March 12, 1940, to raise money for Finnish Relief.

So much good stuff in this story.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 11:37 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aqua regia is fucking scary stuff, before any one out there gets any bright ideas to try this at home. You mix the HN and HCl together and its fine, then all the sudden it starts changing colors, heating up, putting out dark orange fumes(!!!), and then if you're like me, you run as quickly as you can out of the room.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:42 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aqua regia is fucking scary stuff, before any one out there gets any bright ideas to try this at home. You mix the HN and HCl together and its fine, then all the sudden it starts changing colors, heating up, putting out dark orange fumes(!!!), and then if you're like me, you run as quickly as you can out of the room.

Yeah, it's intimidating - same as bromine. Not much fun when your gloves start bubbling while you're holding a flask.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 11:50 PM on October 3, 2011


Niels Bohr also had a Nobel medal, but he'd put his up for auction on March 12, 1940, to raise money for Finnish Relief. The winning bid was anonymous, but later, Mr. Anonymous gave Bohr's medal to the Danish Historical Museum of Fredrikborg, where it can be seen today.

Yeah, mefites are classy like that.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:32 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


...does anyone know the primary source for this? Interview with Hevesy?

For the dissolving medals story? de Hevesy published an autobiography, Adventures in Radioisotope Research in 1962. The text is on-line, the first link in this comment. That link will take you to his discussion of the event. The story is also told prominantly in his official biography on the Nobel website.
posted by bonehead at 3:08 AM on October 4, 2011


Aqua Regia dissolves Gold - Periodic Table of Videos
posted by mikelieman at 4:50 AM on October 4, 2011


It's been proposed, but, so far as I know, we don't know for sure, that he deliberately stymied progress on the Germans' bomb project.

So we are, how do you say…uncertain?
posted by urschrei at 5:06 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Another failed alchemy experiment. When will those crazy alchemists learn?
posted by blue_beetle at 5:23 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I desperately want the title of this post to become the basis of a new game show.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 5:38 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal did a comic about this.
posted by Nossidge at 5:53 AM on October 4, 2011


I wonder whether they used one beaker or two (one per medal).
The article says one.
posted by Flunkie at 7:50 AM on October 4, 2011


Which is why everyone liked de Hevesy...except perhaps his children.

"Daddy, where's my dollhouse?"

"Safe."
posted by epersonae at 8:59 AM on October 4, 2011


Cool story. Nice little best of the web.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:28 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Winning comment on NPR: So, it takes the possibility of death in order to get a physicist to use applied chemistry.

You may also see there my nitpick that technically, Denmark was not "suddenly part of the Reich"; it was never annexed, and operated as a protectorate till 1943 and thenceforth under martial law.

I wonder whether they used one beaker or two (one per medal).

From his autobiography, one. That single flask survived for four or five years, including the university being bombed.

OK, but does this then count as a collaboration for purposes of calculating a given physicist's Einstein Number? And does Bohr count as a collaborator or contributor?
posted by dhartung at 11:34 AM on October 4, 2011


If you want to see something truly terrifying, load this 60 minutes clip about electronics recycling in china and skip to the 6:56 mark. There a chinese guy with no safety equipment is generating this HUGE plume of deep orange gas (undeniably from aqua regia) to get gold out of old computer parts.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:58 PM on October 4, 2011


Only peer-reviewed coauthor credits count for numbering, no?
posted by bonehead at 5:18 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great story. Thanks for sharing, sweetkid.
posted by homunculus at 9:26 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


@blue_beetle: HEY now! I regularly changed iodine into xenon in my lab this summer. It was easy to, all I had to do was wait.
posted by Canageek at 7:53 AM on October 8, 2011


Something I didn't pick up on a first or second reading--the Finnish war relief effort for which Bohr sold off his medal concerned not some arm of WWII, but instead a different war entirely, the Winter War.
posted by skbw at 6:53 AM on October 11, 2011


Huh? From your own link: "The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939. The pact was nominally a non-aggression treaty, but it included a secret protocol in which the Eastern European countries were divided into spheres of interest. Finland fell into the Soviet sphere."

The Winter War was very much an arm of WWII.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:43 AM on October 11, 2011




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