Sunday, October 16, 2011

How To Hide A Nobel Medal (A True Story)

Imagine you have a medal made of 23-karat gold. No, imagine you have TWO medals made of 23-karat gold. And they belong to your friends. Possessing them is like signing your own death warrant. What would you do? Would you even think of dissolving them?

That's what a Hungarian chemist did to his friend's medal.

The Nazis took Copenhagen in the year 1940. Prior to that, they declared that no gold shall leave Germany. But two German Nobel laureates, James Franck, of Jewish descent, and Max Von Laue, an opponent of the Nazis, have quietly sent their medals to Bohr's Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen for protection. They never thought that one day the Nazis would conquer Denmark too.
Their act is probably a capital offense. And Bohr himself could probably be arrested for hiding evidence. The medals are heavy, shiny, and had "Von Laue" and "Franck" inscribed on them. Oh how inconvenient.

Bohr knew he had to do something to make the medals disappear. Bury them? No. The army would upend the entire lab, leaving no stones unturned. Send them away? There was neither DHL(founded 1969) nor FedEx(founded 1973).

On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (who would one day win a Nobel Prize of his own) decided to turn to science for help. He decided to dissolve the medals.
Gold is a very stable element, doesn't tarnish, doesn't mix, unreactive, and doesn't dissolve in anything — except for one particular chemical emulsifier, called "aqua regia," a mixture of three parts hydrochloric acid and one part nitric acid. The nitric acid loosens the gold atoms, after which hydrochloric acid moves in, using its chloride ions to surround and transform the gold. And it's a painstakingly slow business.

But as the minutes ticked down, both medals were reduced to a colorless solution that turned faintly peach and then bright orange. By the time the Nazis arrived, both awards had liquefied inside a flask that was then stashed on a high laboratory shelf.
..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 shelfThe Disappearing Spoon

After the war, Hevesy returned to Copenhagen and did a little wonder of his own. He reversed the chemistry, precipitated out the gold and sent the material 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.
So where was Bohr's medal?
Well he auctioned it off in 1940 to raise money for Finnish Relief. A big man with a big heart indeed.


1 comment:

  1. Ooh Like! Interesting, I mean. (Facebook influence...)

    But you said "both medals were reduced to a colorless solution that turned faintly peach and then bright orange." Did you mean 'clear' solution?



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