Farewell Bohr’s hierophant

Finn Aaserud
Finn Aaserud, former Director of the Neils Bohr Archive

Finn Aaserud has done more than anyone in the past fifty years to illuminate the memory of the most revered Danish theoretical physicist of the twentieth century. Following Finn’s recent retirement, dozens of colleagues and peers gathered on Monday afternoon last week to thank him for his great service and to wish him well for the future. Graham was one of the speakers and titled his talk ‘Ask Finn’, long the reflex response of the many historians who have had queries about Niels Bohr, described by Dirac as ‘probably the cleverest person I ever met’.

It was a festive occasion, full of affection for Finn. The great historian John Heilbron led the tributes, highlighting the breadth and depth of Finn’s scholarship and leadership. In a witty and authoritative talk, Heilbron also gave him some pointed advice about how to handle requests to do consultancy work during his retirement – ‘Just say no’, except when the project is going to give pleasure to Finn.

Graham and John Heilbron
Graham with the eminent historian of science, John Heilbron

Graham has known Finn since 2003. At that time, Graham was researching his biography of Dirac, The Strangest Man, and was warmly welcomed by Finn and his colleagues to the archive, and indeed to Copenhagen. Like many other researchers, Graham spent many a happy evening in the Aaserud home, getting to know the family over a hearty meal and plenty of lively conversation with Finn, his wife Gro (who passed away two years ago) and their children Andreas and Karen. When Graham was researching Churchill’s Bomb, he returned to the Bohr archive for a second helping of Aaserud hospitality.

Graham brought good wishes from his friend Michael Frayn, who benefitted hugely from Finn’s assistance and friendship. Frayn had told Graham that the ‘delightful’ Finn ‘organised a couple of rewarding events at New Carlsberg in the years after the play was produced, which used it as a springboard to dive off in all sorts of interesting directions. He was surely the ideal director of the Institute, and he’s going to be greatly missed. Particularly by playwrights.’

Finn’s colleague Felicity Pors, head of the Bohr archive, also retired recently and many speakers praised her commitment, helpfulness and generosity. Immensely knowledgeable about Bohr, Felicity will be much-missed.

Finn and Felicity
Finn Aaserud and Felicity Pors

Finn’s successor is the energetic German historian of science Christian Joas, who set out his exciting plans for the Archive. ‘Christian is an excellent choice as Finn’s successor’, Graham said. ‘It is vital that the Danish authorities support him in his vision for preserving the memory of the greatest Dane of the past century.’