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Culture, history and society

Culture, history and society

German hyperinflation, and what it has to do with a Nobel Prize

01 Oct 2023
Otto Stern in the laboratory
Star player Otto Stern was a physical chemist by training but became interested in physics after being taken under the wing of Albert Einstein at the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague in 1912. Stern attended Einstein’s lectures and closely followed developments in quantum mechanics. However, he was not convinced that the theory was correct and devised a test, later known as the Stern–Gerlach experiment, to try to disprove it. However, the experiment showed that quantum mechanics was the real deal and Stern was forced to admit that Niels Bohr, one of its founding fathers, was correct. (Courtesy: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Segrè Collection)

Many of us are feeling the sting of inflation. But did you know that run-away prices could well have prevented Otto Stern from receiving a Nobel Prize?

Stern was a German physicist who is best known for the Stern–Gerlach experiment, which was done in 1922 with fellow German Walther Gerlach. While the experiment was first interpreted as important evidence for quantum mechanics, the theory it was based on turned out to be wrong. However, it was still an astonishing result and today the Stern–Gerlach experiment is regarded as evidence for the intrinsic angular momentum (quantum spin) of particles such as electrons.

But, the experiment may have never happened because in 1922, hyperinflation was rampant in Germany and Stern and Gerlach were struggling to pay for their expensive equipment. Max Born, who Stern worked for, helped out by donating money raised from his public lectures on quantum mechanics. Heeding the advice of a friend, Born also wrote to Henry Goldman, a prominent American banker and son of the founder of Goldman–Sachs. Goldman, who had actually retired from his father’s firm by this time, was a philanthropist and sent Born a cheque for “some hundreds of dollars” (somewhere around £10,000 today) that saved the experiment. Albert Einstein also donated some money to the Stern–Gerlach cause. He had been a mentor of Stern’s.

Thanks to these generous donations, the experiment was a success, but neither Stern nor Gerlach won a Nobel prize for their famous experiment. However, in 1943 Stern received the Nobel Prize for Physics “for his contribution to the development of the molecular ray method and his discovery of the magnetic moment of the proton”. Both achievements came about in part because of his efforts on the Stern–Gerlach experiment.

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