The idea behind the conference – University of Copenhagen

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Niels Bohr Conference 2013 > About the conference > The idea behind the co...

The idea behind the conference 

Then and now

When Niels Bohr was first informed in early October 1943 about the state of the British-American nuclear weapons project, he became immediately at least as concerned about the long-term political consequences as about the immediate scientific insights and challenges. At the same time as he contributed to the realization of the project, he made a number of diplomatic approaches in the US and England primarily in order to convince the British and American statesmen to inform the Russian allies about the nuclear weapons project, and, more generally, to encourage a serious consideration by the politicians of the new weapon’s post-war role. After the war he intensified his activities and spent significant energy and thought on this political project, an activity that culminated in an open letter to the UN in 1950.

Today society and international politics are affected even more strongly by science and technology, but we lack a serious discussion of how to handle this dramatic process of constant change. The discussion is complicated in particular by an increased scientific specialization, as a result of which few people feel adequately equipped for discussing across disciplines and functions. In this situation, basing a large conference on the “invocation” of Niels Bohr – whose interests and activities to an extreme degree ranged from basic scientific research to philosophy, arts and social commitment – is particularly fitting.

Bohr’s idea

Niels Bohr immediately understood how a nuclear race between competitive and secretive research communities and fear of new technological breakthroughs would shape relations between the great powers. However, just as importantly, he thought at the same time that the new technology also entailed the opposite: the solution. Openness – an open world – constituted a positive lesson of nuclear weapons. This view involves a strong element of transferring to political relations the approach that ideally, and according to its self-image, marks the scientific world in general, and Bohr’s environment at the institute in Copenhagen in particular. In the research community the self-understanding is that ideas are available to all – and success is to have one’s ideas spread and used by as many as possible. From its establishment in 1921, Niels Bohr’s institute was regarded as a particularly successful case, where this spirit was carried out across nationalities, professional specialization and, not least, beyond the natural inclination of researchers toward reservation regarding their own early ideas.

Social science research on nuclear strategy confirms the views of Bohr, and disagree with those of the otherwise military-history informed Churchill, in that the former claimed that nuclear weapons made a qualitative and dramatic difference. Bohr warned that nuclear weapons would change the character of great power relations fundamentally. Churchill rejected this, saying that ‘this new bomb is just going to be bigger than our present bombs and involves no difference in the principles of war’. Bohr was proven right; nuclear war would certainly not follow classical principles of war, and without nuclear weapons, East-West relations and thereby ultimately domestic societies had unfolded very differently.

Our present challenge is to examine how scientific advances create new changes of a similarly qualitative kind. Areas such as climate change, genetic engineering and militarization of space not only produce differences in degree but have the potential principally and dramatically to change society – including how research and knowledge should be organized, distributed and managed. Bohr thought that science and the resulting nuclear weapons required changes to the organization of international relations centred on openness especially regarding science and technology.

Robert Oppenheimer later said that Bohr’s way of thinking meant that ‘In principle, everything that might be a threat to the security of the world would have to be open to the world’. Today, as there is in fact great concern about many new types of threats to security as well as a rediscovery of the problem of nuclear weapons, a rethinking of Bohr’s “Open World” could be a way of looking both principally and practically-politically at the great contemporary challenges that have research and technology at their core.

The idea of the current conference

In 2013 there will be a wide range of events commemorating the 100th anniversary of Niels Bohr's three epochal articles that most famously introduced the quantum-physical model of the atom. The University of Copenhagen can and should celebrate this aspect of Bohr’s work, and this is done best through an initiative combining participants from both the scientific and political worlds. Rather than approaching this task historically, it would be more interesting, relevant and Bohrian to examine how the idea of an open world can contribute to dealing with the challenges of today and what differences there may be between the technologies, the research and the political conditions then and now.

The conference may be seen as a continuation of two similar symposia at the University of Copenhagen respectively in 1985 and 1989 conceived and organized by then Rector Ove Nathan. These symposia resulted in the books ”The Challenge of Nuclear Armaments: Essays Dedicated to Niels Bohr and his Appeal for an Open World” and “The Challenge of an Open World: Essays Dedicated to Niels Bohr”. The first conference in particular played a significant role in the incipient relief of tensions between East and West, the change of military doctrine by the Soviet leadership and the realization of new thoughts on openness, Glasnost. The continuity of the substance of Bohr’s thoughts about nuclear weapons was more evident in the 1980s than it is now, but the idea of openness has on the other hand achieved wider resonance. The second conference initiated the task of rethinking new sciences and technologies in a similar manner, and this task has only become more pressing with time.