Frits Zernike’s forgotten archives found at the UB
128,278 guilders and 77 cents. That’s the amount from the Nobel Prize the Amsterdamsche Bank deposited in Frits Zernike’s bank account on December 14, 1953. They deducted a small fee for the transfer: 89 guilders and 84 cents.
Zernike used the receipt as a bookmark. That is, until someone, most likely a family member, gave it to physicist Hendrik Brinkman, who was working on a biography of the Groningen inventor of the phase-contrast microscope.
Letters and telegrams
These days, the receipt resides in a brown filing box, in a blue folder, in some white tissue paper to keep it safe. Leafing through the folders, we find telegrams: ‘Undoubtedly, this joyful event will motivate your employees to make the Groningen lab even more famous, which I’m sure they will succeed in under your deliberate and competent leadership STOP.’
And letters: Zernike, on a trip through the United States, explaining how he would only be able to attend if he could give several lectures paying a hundred dollar each. A letter from J.C. Kapteyn’s son-in-law, Ejnar Hertzsprung, inviting Zernike to an observatory in Switzerland, promising him a room ‘close to the stars’. Formulas and other incomprehensible doodles in the physicist’s scratchy handwriting cover the back.
University historian Annelies Noordhof rifles through the papers, visibly excited. ‘Look!’ she says, turning over the last letter. ‘They’re everywhere. He doodled on everything.’
Up until last week, we didn’t know very much about who Zernike was as a person. The University Museum had a few letters and a bell and hammer game the UG’s first Nobel Prize winner had made as a student for a contest, which he won.
But that was about it.
Last week, everything changed. That’s when Noordhof, entirely by accident, found Zernike’s archives neatly tucked away in the UG’s Special Collections department’s vault. Almost everyone had forgotten they were there.
‘I was doing research at Special Collections because I’m doing a research project on the fifty-year history of UKrant’, she says. ‘I was collecting information on Zernike for the University Museum and I found a footnote that referred to the archives.’
Everything for a biography
She was basically done with her work on Zernike, but since she was at the UB anyway, she decided to inquire after the archives. A clerk handed her a piece of paper that detailed the contents.
‘I was like, what? That’s amazing!’ she says. There were transcriptions of tape-recorded interviews with people who knew Zernike well, letters, bank statements, photos, negatives, you name it. Sixteen boxes in all.
‘I just opened the one that looked best’, she says. ‘I found Zernike’s high school diploma, telegrams, newspapers clippings, everything you’d need to write a biography on the man.’
It’s no wonder really; the person who put together the collection, physicist Hendrik Brinkman, had been planning to write a biography on the Nobel Prize winner. He didn’t just talk to Zernike’s family, but also approached his colleagues and PhD candidates. When Brinkman died, the collection ended up at the UG. The university put the collection on a shelf to gather dust.
Noordhof spent the rest of the week going through the boxes and browsing through the letters. The pieces present a nuanced picture of Zernike that we didn’t know about before, she says. ‘For an exhibition on Zernike, Brinkman wrote that family was really important to Zernike. But here, his daughter talks about how their father always wanted to have his children at the dinner table. “Father wanted to talk to each of us”, she says. It adds so many layers to what Brinkman wrote.’
The letters detail how Zernike’s wife taught a PhD candidate some manners, when the latter, over for dinner, jumped up from the dinner table and announced he had to ‘make water’. They also reveal that he felt his famous UG colleague Dirk Coster was ‘a champagne socialist’. In one letter, his PhD candidate Bouwkamp expresses his sympathy for Zernike after he’d won the Nobel Prize. ‘The next few weeks will not be easy for you. You will be face with a myriad of receptions, celebratory speeches, and other business you’ve always tried to avoid in the past. You won’t be able to escape them now, and I wish you good luck.’
Noordhof is itching to sort it all out, but she can’t, she says. Other research projects are waiting for her. And while she’s fascinated by who Zernike was as a person, she doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of physics to do justice to the scientific side of his life. ‘But this would be a great project for a master student. They could catalogue and filter everything’, she says. ‘Perhaps it’s something for a PhD candidate, too. It’s everything you’d need to write a biography.’