That time they dissolved the Nobel Prize in acid to hide it from Nazis

For those who like true stories about Kickass Scientists Fighting Evil Whilst Using Nifty Science Tricks:

Nobel Prize


Picture this.  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.

The Nobel medals were made of 23-karat gold and inconveniently (for the physicists) labeled “Von Laue” (for Max von Laue, winner 1914) and “Franck” (for James Franck, winner 1925).

The Nazis had made taking gold out of Germany a capital offense.  These two Nobel laureates quietly sent their medals to Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics, for protection.

On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (neatly, he would later win a Nobel Prize) was working in Bohr’s lab. He wrote later, “I suggested that we should bury the medal(s),” but Bohr thought no, the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, search everywhere in the building. Too dangerous.

So Hevesy’s thoughts turned to chemistry. Maybe he could make the medals disappear. He took the first one, he says, and

“I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue’s and also James Franck’s medals.”

The gold from the two medals had been dissolved into a bright orange, but otherwise unassuming, liquid.

The Nazis left the beaker untouched on a shelf until after the war.  Perhaps because it looked like pee?

It even survived the bombing of the university.

Back in Denmark, de Hevesy did a remarkable thing. He reversed the chemistry, precipitated out the gold and then, around January 1950, sent the raw metal back to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. The Nobel Foundation then recast the prizes using the original gold and re-presented them to Mr. Laue and Mr. Franck in 1952.

Bonus fact: Niels Bohr also had a Nobel Prize medal, but he’d put it 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.

This uplifting story is also in webcomic form!

Via: NPR