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A wonderful flood of colour

Minister for Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen's speech at the 100 year anniversary of the Niels Bohr Institute, March 3rd 2022.

Jesper Petersens's speech at the 100th anniversary of the Niels Bohr Institute
Minister for Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen's speech at the 100th anniversary of the Niels Bohr Institute, March 3rd 2022

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Your Royal Highness

Lord Mayor

Rector and everyone from the University of Copenhagen and the Niels Bohr Institute

Bohr family


It’s an honour to be speaking on behalf of the government today. Even though our thoughts are with the Ukrainian people and we condemn Putin’s warfare we will celebrate The Niels Bohr Institute’s anniversary today with great joy.

1921: The blinds go down

The date is March 3rd 1921. We are at the formal opening of the university’s new Institute for Theoretical Physics and Professor Bohr is giving his opening speech to the honourable guests. He presses a button, electric blinds go down, and the room goes dark.

Niels Bohr switches on an incandescent light bulb and instructs the guests to hold a small glass plate in front of their eyes. And the core of everything reveals itself to the audience on Blegdamsvej 17.

The whole colour spectrum unfolds before their eyes. A reporter from a local newspaper describes it as a “wonderful flood of colour”. The colours you see depends entirely on which element you observe. And Bohr was the very first person to explain how the electrons moving around the core of the atom created these colours.

The new institute was founded. On the foundation of a compelling and tiny world of atoms and the scientists there were already busy exploring it.

2022: A rainy Monday

The date is February 21st 2022. The rain is coming down hard on Blegdamsvej and a ministerial car is parking in front of the institute. The minister is visiting and he is sitting down at the old desk of Niels Bohr. He is in complete awe. That minister is me. And I have to say: In that moment I felt the wings of history.

But the wings of history are beating even harder through the halls of this institute – I believe Niels Bohr would agree with me on that.

You have taken the spirit of Bohr with you all the way to 2022. The Danish writer Peter Høeg wrote an essay about your institute where he gives a very precise description of the academic environment:

“The atmosphere in the hallways and between people is that of equals. When visiting the department it is difficult – if not impossible - to guess whether those you meet in the hallways are teachers, administrative staff, members of management or students. One gets the impression of a buzzing, warm, busy, horizontal, often humorous, not un-nerdy, flat structure. On top of a colossal human and scientific depth”.

It is quite amazing that students can come in here on an ordinary grey Monday. That they can discuss academic problems with professors, their equals. That they are pushed to the frontline of scientific research. That you - in this elite research institute - still manage to cultivate human characteristics invaluable to Danish society in your students:

Curiosity about the world around us. The ability to reflect and not just copy. The importance of basing important life decisions on interest.

The courage to go where your feet cannot touch the ground – and take both the hits and the insights that come with that. The value of community and the knowledge of how much further you can go when you go together.

Jesper Petersens's speaks at the 100th anniversary of the Niels Bohr Institute
Minister for Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen speaks at the 100th anniversary of the Niels Bohr Institute. Photo: Lars Svankjær

A pilgrimage destination

Two years ago, three students of physics did something extraordinary. They developed a method to classify all gamma-ray bursts. The scientific community has tried to do this since the 1970s. With no success. Three first year students from the Niels Bohr Institute succeeded.

They did not really know that much about astronomy. But they knew about machine learning. And they had the full support of their professor. The whole world can see the value of this.

One of your international scientists Anasua Chatterjee calls the institute “a pilgrim destination for scientists in the world of quantum physics”. You deserve honour and recognition for carrying the legacy of Bohr into 2022.

1,6 million Kilometres

The guests in 1921 saw the colour spectrum unfold before their eyes. They experienced the insights of Niels Bohr. The guests in 2022 are still seeing it unfold. We see how the legacy of this institute reaches far back into the past and forward into the future.

1.6 million Kilometres from earth the James Webb Space Telescope is ready to take photos deep into the past of our universe.

In Greenland, a thick layer of snow covers the research station after the corona-break. But Dorthe and her team has assured me that they will dig it out. That is good, we need the polar ice cores to learn about our climate – from past to present.

And somewhere on the horizon is the quantum computer. We know computers speak a language of 0s and 1s. It is complex but tangible. The quantum computer combines 0 and 1. In doing so, it brings new possibilities while it challenges our understanding and new questions arise.

The Danish Government and all the parties of The Parliament has decided that we need a Danish strategy for quantum research.

If we support Danish scientists and businesses in staying among the best in the world within this field of research it has a tremendous value for our society. Quantum technology has enormous potential to aid in everything from traffic jams to development of new medicine. But it is moving fast now. Huge investments is this field are happening globally and it is no secret that these new technologies can also be used to harm. We have to be strong in this field to protect ourselves.

Everyone is invited to participate in the dialogue prior to this strategy – after all, it is based on your expertise, the pioneer work of Niels Bohr and considerable investments in fundamental research and research infrastructure.

The finest task of the universities

Quantum research – like everything else our universities do – is about strengthening our society. Strengthening our health and welfare. Our export and jobs. The green agenda. And not least it is about elevating us as humans and opening our eyes. This is the noble task the universities has taken upon themselves. And something this institute has demonstrated for a 100 years.

In his own succinct way, Peter Høegh describes your role in society. As a child, he cycled past Blegdamsvej 17 and he writes: “They made the boy passing by feel unafraid to go in and ask for a drink of water”.

Congratulations. Denmark is proud of you.

Thank you.

last modified Mar 14, 2022