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In Conversation with Dr. Paula S. Humphreys

January 11, 2016 - 3:24
In Conversation with Dr. Paula S. Humphreys

Who can carry on the legacy of Niels Bohr?

Dr. Paula S. Humphreys, doctor and granddaughter of professor of physics and Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr.

As the granddaughter of Niels Bohr, it is my impression that he had a highly developed spiritual and intuitive sense. I believe that the great Indian spiritual teacher Amma could be the best bet for a person who can lead the world in the direction Niels Bohr was pointing.

When I look at the development of the world today, I find it difficult to discern the qualities that I associate with Niels Bohr.

Yet these are precisely the qualities that I believe made him the great man he was.

Recently there has been debate about Niels Bohr’s belief or lack of belief. Science Minister Esben Lunde Larsen apparently believes that Bohr was religious, and journalist Thomas Djursing of the magazine “Ingeniøren [The Engineer]” writes that Niels Bohr was an atheist. Which is the truth?

As the granddaughter of Bohr I would like to contribute with my understanding of Bohr’s thoughts.

To put Bohr’s thoughts in a new perspective, I will mention two people who especially inspired me. One is Niels Bohr, and the other is an Indian woman, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, known as Amma.

Bohr was more than a scientific genius. He was a deeply thoughtful man, who clearly and soberly dared to look danger in the eye with the new measures for the destruction of humanity that had arisen with nuclear weapons. He was prepared to do everything in his power to contribute internationally to a greater understanding of the new situation to which the world had come.

This sincerity of Bohr’s has always inspired me and to me was something unique to him. Whether it was nuclear physics or politics, he had the ability to go very deep in the understanding of an issue. The same deep sincerity that inspired me with Amma. Niels Bohr received the first Atoms for Peace Award in Washington in 1957. It was a prestigious ceremony, where President Eisenhower was also present. Bohr received the award, accompanied by these words: “In your profession, in your teaching, in your public life, you have shown that the domain of science and the domain of the humanities are in reality of single realm.”

When humanity and science are united, we find the key not only for the peace prize, but also to world peace.

Bohr worked until his death to refine, develop and discuss the ideas in his open letter to the United Nations presented in 1950. He would not give up in his quest to explain the harmony that could lead the world in a peaceful direction. But what happened with Bohr’s own understanding during and after World War II?

Bohr was not religious, but it is not the same as saying that he had no faith. For faith he had in excess. We know from the letters he wrote to his fiancée Margrethe Nørlund, in connection with his refusal to be married in a church.

He writes: “I think that I believe in more (I believe in something more than your mother and father), for I believe in happiness and meaning in life. But I cannot and will not believe in what is not true. What is not true for me would deprive life of its meaning, and it comes straight from the largest to the smallest things, therefore, and only therefore it is not true that two and two is three, and therefore it is not true that a man must beg from and negotiate with imaginary powers, that are infinitely many times stronger than itself.”

Bohr had a happy childhood. He had a close relationship with his father, the scientist and physiologist Christian Bohr. Niels Bohr grew up with science and lived in a time with great faith in its potential for humanity.

Perhaps Bohr, as so many others have, came to give science a substitute religious function, as the biologist Claus Emmeche, KU, mentions that science often does. And maybe this belief was called into question during and after World War II, when the potential that scientific inventions had also for destruction became clear.

After the war Bohr no longer looked to science to find the solution, but in the interaction between people. What is crucial, to whether we choose to use science for good or for evil, is our humanity. In his open letter to the United Nations from 1950 writes Bohr as follows: “An open world where each nation can assert itself solely by the extent to which it can contribute to the common culture and is able to help others with experience and resources must be the goal to be put above everything else.”

It is the compassion, empathy — neighborly love between people, which is the solution to world peace and not science.

Amma (Sri Mata Amritanandamayi) says that spirituality is a tool to develop our highest human qualities, our compassion. Amma says that if she had a religion, it would be called love. She believes that the various religions are only different on the surface; at a deeper level there is consistency and harmony. This, for me, is an extension of Bohr’s thoughts.

Amma travels all over the world with the aim to open our hearts to compassion for ourselves, for each other, for the earth, and all its beings. From her powerful center in India, good deeds ripple throughout the world.

The center is called Amritanandamayi Math, and her charity organization is called, Embracing the World (ETW). Volunteers in a spirit of selfless love do the work. ETW started from the confessions desperate people shared with Amma. One of the first major projects was an orphanage. Distraught people came to Amma and told her that they no longer had the money to run the orphanage.

Amma took a large amount of money her ashram had saved to build a new prayer hall, and instead used the money to rebuild the orphanage. The children were not only given healthy food and good conditions; they also received training in computer, dance, meditation etc. – and lots of love.

ETW is now grown and has everything from soup kitchens for the homeless in the United States, relief work in disaster situations (e.g. tsunamis), a comprehensive training program for India’s poor, a most modern hospital in India, where even poor people can get treatment (e.g. free liver transplants), to an Indian university that has exchange programs with renowned universities worldwide, including Stanford.

The core of ETW is to use the latest technological developments for the benefit of the poorest, so they also have the option of access to health care and education. Here, science and technology are really used in humanity’s service. Here humanity is put above everything else, and it gives peace in the hearts of everyone.

I have met Amma. I have sat next to her when she meets one person after another without a break -­‐ sometimes around the clock. I have seen how all people, both believers and non-­‐ believers, are affected deeply by their encounter with her. It is not a question of religion, but spirituality. It is a meeting of compassion, the same unselfish love that Amma recommend us to give to each other.

Amma has consultative status with the UN. On July 8, 2015 in New York, the UN Initiative for Academic Impact (UNAI) and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham jointly held a conference on technology for sustainable development with researchers from 93 leading international universities. One of the keynote speakers was Amma, Chancellor of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, who in her speech among other things emphasized the interaction between science and spirituality to lead our society in a positive and sustainable direction.

She said: “In this century, science and spirituality have been considered incompatible. Spirituality is also a science — it is a valid branch of knowledge that cannot be ignored. The scientific community is researching the physical world in an attempt to discover the secrets of the universe. In reality, spiritual scriptures recount the experiences of those who performed intense inner inquiry in order to unfold the same secrets. When we try to view spirituality through mathematics, physics and logic alone, we may fail to grasp its subtleties. We need to approach it with the faith of a child, and with the wonder that shines in a child’s mind and eyes.

Renowned scientists of the past viewed the universe and its subtleties with awe and wonderment. Their research had the inquisitiveness and faith of an innocent child. In fact, many past and present eminent scientists acknowledged spirituality towards the end of their lives, but by then it was too late. Amma prays that the scientific community leading the world today does not make this same mistake.”

In science, we are trying to prove hypotheses with experiments. If we cannot prove a hypothesis, it is not valid.

Science functions as a religion substitute, when we assume that everything can be proven and described based on scientific principles. But it is again a perspective that we have chosen and is no different than the religious person who has chosen to describe his world in relation to his Bible, Koran, Torah, etc. And if we pigheadedly stick to one or the other point of view it will only lead to strife and not serve humanity.

It is so easy to judge spirituality as naive and gullible — and also Niels Bohr and Amma as naive and gullible (as many have done). But we must ask ourselves whether it is the truth or whether we are missing something valuable in this somewhat cynical attitude. The values founded in love, cannot be proved by mathematical formulas, but that does not mean that there is no purpose to their existence.

Amma continued her speech:

“Day by day, science and technology are rapidly growing in an uncontrollable manner. No one knows where this growth is leading. When we look around, we see developers, producers, distributors and consumers all seem to be caught in a frenzy to acquire the latest, greatest and largest things. The current state of humanity is like that of a child let loose in a candy store.

Today, while lying in our bed we can order anything to eat, drink, watch or listen to, and it will be delivered right to our home. We don’t need to go to a store anymore to buy new or used things. There are websites for anything and everything. The Internet is revolutionizing the world, which is good. Now, we can buy anything with a single click of our finger — except one thing: love.

We live in the age of the Internet. Wherever we go on the planet, we need to have Internet. But along with a connection to the Internet, we also need to rediscover our ‘Inner-­‐net’ connection. Spirituality teaches us how to manage both our internal and external worlds. For one who knows how to swim, frolicking in the ocean waves is a delightful experience, but one who is unable to swim will quickly drown.”

It takes a lot of love and sincerity to devote one’s life to the service of humanity, as Amma does. It was also with deep concern and sincerity that Bohr looked at the world situation during and after World War II. This concern, again and again caused him to continue to formulate and express new thoughts to describe, understand, and influence the potential threat that had arisen with nuclear weapons.

As his granddaughter I am in possession of one of his handwritten drafts, written after the war, showing his continued work on further developing his ideas. The journal is not published in Niels Bohr’s complete works, or anywhere else, and completely atypical is the first page written with Bohr’s own handwriting.

Bohr normally developed his thoughts out loud while Margrethe or one of his closest associates wrote them down. I would like to quote the first sentence from his journal: “The uniqueness of the human species is our ability to jointly enrich the lives of every man.”

Niels Bohr’s wife, Margrethe Bohr, my grandmother said to me, “The uniqueness of Niels was his goodness.”

So my father, Aage Bohr, said, to me many years later. The sincerity occurred because Bohr’s goodness not followed with a naivety, but with a very deep understanding. Surely humanity and science were united in Bohr.

We can not get around the compassion, love, empathy, humanity, spirituality, openness, our inherent goodness, or whatever we choose to call it. It is our highest potential existence as human beings. Science/technology will always only be a tool.

I have a Buddha statue that stood in Bohr’s study, which he really liked. My father told me that he loved to go over to the statue each day to see with what expression the Buddha looked at him.

One of his very closest confidants, physicist, and Nobel laureate W. Pauli and his wife gave him for his 70th birthday a book with images of Buddhas (William Cohn: “Buddha in der Kunst des Ostens [Buddha in the Art of the East]”).

To say that Bohr was not a spiritually interested person would be just as wrong as to claim that he was religious.

I will conclude by quoting Bohr. Later in the journal described above, he writes as follows:

“The solution to this task, which has no parallel in history, requires an unbiased study of traditional viewpoints limited scope, with special consideration to the human condition.”

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