There are lots of mainstream movies about humans doing crazy, spectacular things for survival, for honor and for others. “127 Hours,” “Interstellar” and “Schindler’s List,” just to name a few. When I watch movies like these, I often think about what it takes to go beyond our human limitations of fear to do great things. Is it something we’re born with? Or is it it something all of us have and could use if a situation arises? To delve more deeply into this phenomena, I looked into stories of human greatness outside our mainstream culture. Here is one of my favorites.
Nobel Prizes & Nazis: During World War II, German Nobel laureates Max von Laue and James Frank sent their gold medals to their friend Niels Bohr for safekeeping. Bohr lived in Copenhagen, which was not under Nazi control at the time Bohr received the medals. However, Hitler’s army invaded Copenhagen with little to no warning in advance, and Bohr was suddenly left with the predicament of having two solid gold Nobel Prize medals that weren’t his own in his possession.
The medals had the names of the laureates on them, and Bohr would also face dire consequences if the invading Nazis found out that he had helped the laureates illegally transport and hide their medals. So, he decided to dissolve the medals to avoid death for him and his friends. Now, Nobel Prize medals are solid gold, so they are pretty dense and hard to dissolve with regular items like acid.
However, a member of Bohr’s team, George de Hevesy, concocted aqua regia, a solution of ¼ nitric acid and ¾ hydrochloric acid. Together, these two acids served as the perfect duo to rip electrons off the inert gold medals and completely dissolve them. De Hevesy’s methods worked, but the density of the medal and the inertness of gold meant the process would take a significant amount of time. As the Nazis were invading Copenhagen, De Hevesy started dissolving the medals in his aqua regia solution, hoping that time would be in his favor. And thankfully, De Hevesy succeeded.
The Nazis eventually raided the lab, and the people fled. But the beaker of aqua regia and gold solution was left untouched. After the fall of the Nazis a year later, De Hevesy returned to the lab, precipitated the gold out of the aqua regia solution, and sent the metal back to the Swedish Academy to remake the medals. The medals were recast and the rightful Nobel laureates were once again awarded their medals in a ceremony.
Though De Hevesy went on to win his own Nobel Prize as well, the knowledge he used to save the day is from basic chemistry. I’d like to think that each of us has knowledge within us that we sometimes overlook. Whether it’s basic chemistry or our ability to empathize with others, it’s the moments when we need to use this knowledge that truly matter. There will always be fear and darkness in the world, but when we rise above it, we can do meaningful things. Each of us in our own way can become heroes of humanity.
Contact Ayushi Tandel at atandel ‘at’ stanford.edu.