Hiding Nobel Prize medals

2009-02-16

in Bombs and rockets, Geek stuff, Science, Security

Recently, I came across an interesting anecdote about the history of Nobel prizes: specifically, those that were awarded to James Franck (for work on quantum physics) and Max von Laue (for discovering x-ray crystal diffraction). Fearful of confiscation by the Nazis, both scientists illegally sent their medals to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, for safe keeping. Franck then fled from Germany to America, prior to the Nazi invasion of Denmark in 1940.

At the time, sending the medals out of Germany was a very serious crime and, since they were engraved with the names of their recipients, Bohr feared what would happen to them if the medals were found by the occupying army. Fearful that the invaders would find and confiscate the medals, Bohr eventually passed the medals to the chemist George de Hevesy, who subsequently dissolved both Franck and von Laue’s medals in acid (aqua regia, specifically). He was able to hide the resulting black solution from the Nazi invaders and, after the war, the gold was precipitated out of the solution and sent to Stockholm to be re-forged into medals by the Swedish Academy. Bohr had previously sold his own medal at a charitable auction earlier that year.

In 1943, de Hevesy himself won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for work on using isotopes to trace chemical processes.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan February 16, 2009 at 7:44 pm

These two situations are interesting reflections of each other:

They demonstrate the different mechanisms through which form and matter can each be conserved.

Litty February 17, 2009 at 10:10 am

Clever move by de Hevesy, but was it really necessary?

Would the Nazis have found the medals if they had been hidden intact?

Milan February 17, 2009 at 2:47 pm

One linked article says: “The Nazis occupied Bohr’s institute and searched it very carefully but they did not find anything. The medals quietly waited out the war in a solution of aqua regia.”

It may have been possible to hide the medals in a different way. That said, I think this solution was rather neat.

Tristan February 17, 2009 at 10:59 pm

In a certain meaningful sense, they didn’t hide the medals at all – at least not in a solution. They were only able to “hide” the medals by dissolving them because an important (perhaps the important) part of the medals – their form – was being preserved elsewhere (i.e. in the equipment for casting a new one, or in the knowledge to make the equipment to cast a new one).

Milan February 17, 2009 at 11:03 pm

A perfectly made fake Nobel Prize medal has little meaning.

The important part of the medals is getting the award: not the gold, or the shape it was put into.

Tristan February 18, 2009 at 12:46 am

I agree – this just goes to show, however, that the reason you can hide the medals by dissolving them is because the medal is not “in” the medal – it’s in the having-won the medal. As for the medal itself, well, the gold is worth something.

Milan February 18, 2009 at 8:52 am

Again, I think the importance is largely symbolic.

Outfoxing the Nazis is worth more than the gold.

Tristan February 19, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Fair enough, but again, it’s only possible because the medals weren’t entirely contained in the medals.

Replace “Nobel prize medals” with “priceless ancient gold Greek statue” or “As yet untranslated Maya text engraved on gold” and you’ll see that dissolving the gold to preserve it doesn’t always do much preservation, when at least something important about the thing is contained only in the thing itself and not somewhere else.

Dreamish July 22, 2009 at 9:33 am

Crashing the thread.

Very good point Tristan. A move made possible only by the pure symbolic value put in the medal. This is also proven by the monetary value set to the purchase of a nobel prize medal in practice. Sometimes a nobel prize laureate is putting his/her medal up for auction, and the selling value usually lands around 10 times the actual medal gold value. I think it is safe to say that a medal that has a background like this would also greatly exceed that.

And to address the earlier question about if dissolving the medal was absolutely necessary, I would answer it with a yes. The search made by the nazi soldiers was a very thorough one, and smuggling gold out of Germany during the Hitler-regime would easily get you excecuted. To quote George the Hevesy (Adventures in Radioisotope Research, Vol. 1, p. 27, Pergamon, New York, 1962); “I suggested that we should bury the medal, but Bohr did not like this idea as the medal might be unearthed.”

Milan July 22, 2009 at 10:10 am

That’s not ‘crashing’ at all. Thanks for the information.

Dreamish July 22, 2009 at 1:04 pm

You’re welcome! =)

. May 30, 2011 at 8:21 pm

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