By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

Otto Hahn's gravemarker, Stadt Friedhof

The most conspicuous memorial site in Gottingen is a cemetery, the Stadt Friedhof, located on the road to Kassel. There is a scientists’ corner here, where many famous scientists who worked or studied in Gottingen are buried close together. They include Max Planck, the original discoverer of the need for energy quantization; Otto Hahn, one of the authors of the famous paper on the splitting of the atom; Walther Nernst and his entire family: and several more. Hahn’s tombstone bears an enigmatic, perhaps ominous inscription:

92U + on


The top line is standard chemical language for the reaction of an atom of uranium (isotope of mass 92) with a neutron. But how are we to interpret the down-pointing arrow? The end of the world or maybe descent into hell?

Max Born is buried with his wife in a totally different part of the cemetery, the family plot of his wife and her forebears. His epitaph, too, is in the form of an equation, a mathematical formula in this case: pq – qp = hI27ri, and what will strike the layman about it is the fact that pq – qp is not zero, as he would expect. It turns out that p and q stand respectively for the momentum and the position of a particle in space and the significance of the inequality of their forward and reverse products is the underlying basis for Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This may be Born’s claim to posterity for at least an equal share of the credit.

There is an amusing anecdote about the interment of Walther Nernst, a none too popular physical chemist (but sufficiently proficient to have won a Nobel Prize in 1920). He died in 1945 on his estate in East Prussia and was buried there, with two colleagues, Karl Bonhoeffer and Max Bodenstein, serving as pallbearers. When the Russians annexed East Prussia, the remains were removed to German soil (to Berlin) and there WaS another ceremony with Bonhoeffer and Bodenstein again in attendance. Some years later the family thought he should really lie in Gottingen, where he had been professor for most of his career, and so the body was moved once more, still with the same honorary escort. “I’m getting tired of this,” Bodenstein is reported to have remarked to his partner, who, however, responded more cheerfully: “You can’t bury Nernst too often” was his reported reply.