When the Nazis invaded Copenhagen in 1940, physicist Niels Bohr was in possession of two Nobel Prize medals. But they were not his medals. The first belonged to Max von Laue, winner of the 1914 Prize for physics, the second to James Franck, the physics winner in 1925.
Not wanting to attract unwanted attention to themselves, each had sent his medal to Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen for safekeeping. But with Nazis marching through the streets of the city, the medals now posed a particularly serious threat to Bohr. NPR’s Robert Krulwich writes:
Inconveniently, [these medals were] now sitting in Bohr’s building, clearly inscribed “Von Laue”…and “Franck” — like two death warrants. Bohr’s institute had attracted and protected Jewish scientists for years. The Nazis knew that, and Niels Bohr knew (now that Denmark was suddenly part of the Reich) that he was a target. He had no idea what to do.
On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (he would one day win a Nobel of his own) was working in Bohr’s lab. He wrote later, “I suggested that we should bury the medal(s),” but Bohr thought no, the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, search everywhere in the building. Too dangerous.
So Hevesy’s thoughts turned to chemistry. Maybe he could make the medals disappear. He took the first one, he says, and “I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue’s and also James Franck’s medals.”
It was a painstakingly slow process (gold is a notoriously stable element), but Hevesy managed to pull it off; when the Nazis ransacked Bohr’s institute, they found no trace of the medals.
Or rather, they never noticed them. The gold from the two medals had been dissolved into a bright orange, but otherwise unassuming, liquid. A liquid that the Nazis left untouched. A liquid that Hevesey later extracted the gold from and sent back to the Nobel Foundation to have recast into two brand-spanking-new medals.
The moral of the story? Science wins, bitches.
Check out the full story on how Hevesy saved the day, including a video on how to dissolve gold, over at NPR