Helle Kiilerich

Published November 2021

Nordita: The 50 Years in Copenhagen

Nordita (Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics) was founded in 1957. The aim of this project is to describe the history behind Nordita's creation, the organization of the Institute, the scientific staff, the fellows, and the areas of scientific study. The material for this study includes Nordita's annual reports, documents in the Niels Bohr Archive, as well as the account of Torsten Gustafson—prominent Swedish nuclear physicist and major participant in the development to be described—of the establishment of Nordita.  In addition, to give a picture of life at the institute, many former employees of Nordita have been asked to provide accounts of the time they spent at Nordita and so far 70 have responded.

Gathering at Jacobsson’s home in Gothenburg 1952

Niels Bohr, Malte Jacobsson, and Torsten Gustafson at Jacobsson’s home in Gothenburg, 16 February 1952.

The background for Nordita's creation was the successful results of cooperation between groups of scientists during the Second World War especially within the fields of electronics, radar, and nuclear energy.  An earlier example of such cooperation is that of CERN, and Nordita's history is strongly linked to CERN's. The fact that in Europe no single country had the economic, scientific, and technical capacity to build and run a large accelerator led to the decision in 1952 of a group of European countries to establish a common European institute to build one. There was a need for theoretical as well as experimental physicists for this project. Switzerland was chosen as the place for the accelerator but, before the accelerator was built,  a theoretical division was placed in Copenhagen during the years 1952-1957, where Niels Bohr had his Institute for Theoretical Physics with a broad range of visiting scientists from all over the world.

The foundation of Nordita was due to a strong wish and hard work from a number of Nordic physicists (including Niels Bohr), politicians, and advisors, and the need to show an example of successful Nordic collaboration. Nordita was located at the Niels Bohr Institute and in 1964 took over the building then occupied by the Mathematical Institute when the latter institute moved to new premises at the H.C. Ørsted Institute.