Apr 022016


Today is the birthday (1805) of Hans Christian Andersen, Danish author who was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, but best remembered for what in Danish are called eventyr, sometimes “fairy-tales” in English. I prefer to call them “fantasies.” In Danish “eventyr” has the cognate root meaning of “adventure,” and can also be translated as “fantastic tales” or “tales of fantasy.” Andersen’s tales, which have been translated into more than 125 languages, have become culturally embedded in the West’s collective consciousness, readily accessible to children, but presenting lessons of virtue and resilience in the face of adversity for all readers.

Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark. He was an only child. Andersen’s father, who had received an elementary education, introduced Andersen to literature, reading to him The Arabian Nights. Andersen’s mother, Anne Marie Andersdatter, was uneducated and worked as a washerwoman following his father’s death in 1816; she remarried in 1818. Andersen was sent to a local school for poor children where he received a basic education and was forced to support himself, working as an apprentice for a weaver and, later, for a tailor. At 14, he moved to Copenhagen to seek employment as an actor. Having an excellent soprano voice, he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theatre, but his voice soon changed. A colleague at the theater told him that he considered Andersen a poet. Taking the suggestion seriously, Andersen began to focus on writing.


Jonas Collin, director of the Royal Danish Theatre, felt a great affection for Andersen and sent him to a grammar school in Slagelse, persuading King Frederick VI to pay for part of his education. Andersen had already published his first story, “The Ghost at Palnatoke’s Grave” (1822). Though not a keen student, he also attended school at Elsinore until 1827.

He later said his years in school were the darkest and most bitter of his life. At one school, he lived at his schoolmaster’s home. There he was abused in order “to improve his character”, he was told. He later said the faculty had discouraged him from writing in general, causing him to go into a state of depression. Among other things, he was dyslexic, which is evident from his autograph manuscripts, which editors cleaned up prior to publication.


A very early tale by Andersen, called “The Tallow Candle” (Danish: Tællelyset), was discovered in a Danish archive in October 2012. The story, written in the 1820s, was about a candle who did not feel appreciated. It was written while Andersen was still in school and dedicated to a benefactor, in whose family’s possession it remained until it turned up among other family papers in a suitcase in a local archive.

In 1829, Andersen enjoyed considerable success with the short story “A Journey on Foot from Holmen’s Canal to the East Point of Amager.” Its protagonist meets characters ranging from Saint Peter to a talking cat. Andersen followed this success with a theatrical piece, Love on St. Nicholas Church Tower, and a short volume of poems. Though he made little progress writing and publishing immediately thereafter, in 1833 he received a small traveling grant from the king, enabling him to set out on the first of many journeys through Europe. At Jura, near Le Locle, Switzerland, Andersen wrote the story “Agnete and the Merman”. He spent an evening in the Italian seaside village of Sestri Levante the same year, inspiring the name, “The Bay of Fables”. In October 1834, he arrived in Rome. Andersen’s travels in Italy were reflected in his first novel, an autobiography titled The Improviser (Improvisatoren) which was published in 1835, receiving instant acclaim.


His initial attempts at writing eventyr were revisions of stories that he heard as a child. Andersen then brought this genre to a new level by writing a vast number of tales that were both bold and original. Initially they were not met with widespread acclaim, due partly to the difficulty in translating them and capturing his genius for humor and dark pathos.


It was during 1835 that Andersen published the first two installments of his immortal Fairy Tales (Eventyr). More stories, completing the first volume, were published in 1837. The collection comprises nine tales, including “The Tinderbox”, “The Princess and the Pea”, “Thumbelina”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The quality of these stories was not immediately recognized, and they sold poorly. At the same time, Andersen enjoyed more success with two novels, O.T. (1836) and Only a Fiddler (1837). The latter was reviewed favorably by the young Søren Kierkegaard.

After a visit to Sweden in 1837, Andersen became inspired by Scandinavism and committed himself to writing a poem that would convey the relatedness of Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians. It was in July 1839, during a visit to the island of Funen, that Andersen first wrote the text of his poem, Jeg er en Skandinav (“I am a Scandinavian”). Andersen composed the poem to capture “the beauty of the Nordic spirit, the way the three sister nations have gradually grown together”, as part of a pan-Scandinavian national anthem. Composer Otto Lindblad set the poem to music, and the composition was published in January 1840. Its popularity peaked in 1845, after which it was seldom sung.


Andersen returned to the eventyr genre in 1838 with another collection, Fairy Tales Told for Children. New Collection. First Booklet (Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. Ny Samling), which consists of “The Daisy”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, and “The Wild Swans”.

1845 was a breakthrough for Andersen with the publication of four different translations of his tales. “The Little Mermaid” appeared in the periodical Bentley’s Miscellany. It was followed by a second volume, Wonderful Stories for Children. Two other volumes enthusiastically received were A Danish Story Book and Danish Fairy Tales and Legends. A review that appeared in the London journal The Athenæum (February 1846) said of Wonderful Stories, “This is a book full of life and fancy; a book for grandfathers no less than grandchildren, not a word of which will be skipped by those who have it once in hand.” Andersen continued to write eventyr, and published them in installments until 1872. He also liked to make paper cuts as illustrations:

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In Andersen’s early life, his private journal records his refusal to have sexual relations. Andersen often fell in love with unattainable women, and many of his stories are interpreted as references. At one point, he wrote in his diary: “Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee! Give me a livelihood! Give me a bride! My blood wants love, as my heart does!” A girl named Riborg Voigt was the unrequited love of Andersen’s youth. A small pouch containing a long letter from Riborg was found on Andersen’s chest when he died, several decades after he first fell in love with her, and after he supposedly fell in love with others. Other disappointments in love included Sophie Ørsted, the daughter of the physicist Hans Christian Ørsted, and Louise Collin, the youngest daughter of his benefactor Jonas Collin. One of his stories, “The Nightingale”, was written as an expression of his passion for Jenny Lind and became the inspiration for her nickname, the “Swedish Nightingale”. Andersen was often shy around women and had extreme difficulty in proposing to Lind. When Lind was boarding a train to go to an opera concert, Andersen gave Lind a letter of proposal. Her feelings towards him were not the same; she saw him as a brother, writing to him in 1844: “farewell… God bless and protect my brother is the sincere wish of his affectionate sister, Jenny”.

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Andersen certainly experienced same-sex love as well. He wrote to Edvard Collin: “I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.” Collin, who preferred women, wrote in his own memoir: “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.” Likewise, Anderson’s infatuation with Danish dancer Harald Scharff and Carl Alexander, the young hereditary duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, did not result in any relationships.

In the spring of 1872, Andersen fell out of his bed and was severely hurt; he never recovered. Soon afterward, he started to show signs of liver cancer. He died on 4 August 1875, in a house called Rolighed (literally: calmness), near Copenhagen, the home of his close friends, the banker Moritz Melchior and his wife. Shortly before his death, Andersen had consulted a composer about the music for his funeral, saying: “Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with little steps.” His body was interred in the Assistens Kirkegård in the Nørrebro area of Copenhagen.


You get two recipes today, one for an open faced sandwich (Smørrebrød) designed by a Danish chef using Anderson’s favorite meats, and his favorite raspberry slices (Hindbærsnitter), which he liked to eat with coffee. For the latter use the best raspberry preserves, preferably homemade. If you use store bought, add some extra crushed fresh raspberries. The commonest topping is hundreds and thousands, but some cooks prefer chopped nuts or chopped raspberries.


Hans Christian Andersen Smørrebrød

The image here gives the basic idea. Spread a slice of dark Danish rye bread with butter. Top with crisply fried Danish bacon. On one half place slices of liverwurst followed by a slice of beef aspic. On the other side place sliced tomatoes, then shavings of fresh horseradish. Garnish with chopped, fresh parsley.





350g plain flour
200g cold butter
125g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla pod seeds
1 egg, beaten


200g raspberry jam
250g icing sugar
Toppings (chopped nuts, freeze dried raspberries, hundreds-and-thousands)


Put the cold butter, cubed, flour and sugar into a food processor and pulse about 8 to 10 times. Add the egg, vanilla, and a pinch of salt, and pulse again until the dough is smooth and holds together.

Divide the dough in two, wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out each piece of dough to a 25 x 25 cm square. Line two baking trays with baking parchment and place one square of dough on each. Refrigerate again for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F

Bake the pastry until golden (10-12 minutes, depending in your oven), then remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly for just a few minutes.

Meanwhile add the icing sugar to a bowl and incrementally add 2-4 tablespoons of hot water. Stir until it has a thick consistency.  You want it spreadable but not runny.

Spread the raspberry jam on one of the pastry sheets. Line up the second pastry sheet on top. Spread the icing on the top sheet (not too thick), and immediately sprinkle with the topping of your choice.

Put the pastry back into the refrigerator for 30 minutes or more to completely harden.

Using a very sharp knife trim the pastry into an even square, then cut it into bars. You can make 10 to 16 depending on the size you want.





Oct 072015


Today is the birthday (1885) of Niels Henrik David Bohr, a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr was also a philosopher and a promoter of scientific research. Bohr developed the Bohr model of the atom, in which he proposed that energy levels of electrons are discrete and that the electrons revolve in stable orbits around the atomic nucleus but can jump from one energy level (or orbit) to another. Although the Bohr model has been supplanted by other models, its underlying principles remain valid. He also conceived the principle of complementarity: that items could be separately analyzed in terms of contradictory properties, like behaving as a wave or a stream of particles. The notion of complementarity dominated Bohr’s thinking in both science and philosophy.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into Bohr’s physics because I know I will lose a big chunk of my audience before I get started. But I will make one point before I fly off in different directions. Long-time readers know that I have a bee in my bonnet about certain superlatives – the BEST painting/painter or composer or mathematician or whatever. There are lots and lots of smart and talented people throughout history. If this were not so, this would be a very limited blog. My main limitation is that their birthdays are not spread evenly through the year, coupled with my intrinsic favoritism. In the latter case I am allowed because it is MY blog. I make the rules. What gets me wound up is the popular idea that the yardstick of hyper-genius is Einstein. He had a phenomenal mind – no question. He was, however, far from being the ONLY genius of the 20th century, yet his is the name that automatically comes to mind. I’ve always countered this prejudice when it comes up by mentioning Niels Bohr.


The first half of the 20th century was almost wallpapered with brilliant mathematicians and physicists, not to mention anthropologists, writers, philosophers, painters, and all the rest of it. Niels Bohr is one of them, but he is far from being a household name. Yet he helped usher in the age of quantum mechanics (with other brilliant minds), the dominant model of atomic physics to this day.


Bohr was born in Copenhagen, the second of three children of Christian Bohr, a professor of physiology at the University of Copenhagen, and Ellen Adler Bohr, who came from a wealthy Danish Jewish family prominent in banking and parliamentary circles. He had an elder sister, Jenny, and a younger brother Harald. Jenny became a teacher, while Harald became a mathematician and Olympic footballer who played for the Danish national team at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London. Niels was a passionate footballer as well, and the two brothers played several matches for the Copenhagen-based Akademisk Boldklub (Academic Football Club), with Niels as goalkeeper. My son and I love goalies.


In 1910, Bohr met Margrethe Nørlund, the sister of the mathematician Niels Erik Nørlund. Bohr resigned his membership in the Church of Denmark on 16 April 1912, and he and Margrethe were married in a civil ceremony at the town hall in Slagelse on 1 August. Their honeymoon was delayed, however, because Bohr had an insight into the nature of orbiting electrons within the atom that he felt could not wait. For reasons that are not clear to me, he was unable to sit and write the paper himself, so he dictated it to Margrethe. Maybe this was his idea of marital bliss?

Planetary models of atoms were fairly recent but not new. Bohr’s treatment was. The old planetary model could not explain why the negatively charged electron did not simply collapse into the positively charged nucleus. He advanced the theory of electrons travelling in nested orbits of different energies around the atom’s nucleus, with the chemical properties of each element being largely determined by the number of electrons in the outer orbits of its atoms. He introduced the idea that an electron could drop from a higher-energy orbit to a lower one, in the process emitting a quantum of discrete energy. This became a basis for what is now known as the old quantum theory. In 1922 Bohr received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work.


Bohr became convinced that light behaved like both waves and particles, and in 1927, experiments confirmed the de Broglie hypothesis that matter (like electrons) also behaved like waves. He conceived the philosophical principle of complementarity: that items could have apparently mutually exclusive properties, such as being a wave or a stream of particles, depending on the experimental framework. He felt that it was not fully understood by contemporary philosophers. Einstein never fully accepted quantum mechanics and complementarity. Einstein preferred the determinism of classical physics over the probabilistic new quantum physics to which he himself had contributed. Philosophical issues that arose from the novel aspects of quantum mechanics became widely celebrated subjects of discussion. Einstein and Bohr had good-natured arguments over such issues throughout their lives.


Bohr’s model of the atomic nucleus helped him explain the nature of nuclear fission which he published in a paper in 1939, “The Mechanism of Nuclear Fission,” along with John Wheeler. Thus the age of nuclear energy and the atom-bomb was born.

Bohr was aware of the possibility of using uranium-235 to construct an atomic bomb, referring to it in lectures in Britain and Denmark shortly before and after the war started, but he did not believe that it was technically feasible to extract a sufficient quantity of uranium-235 (fissionable material). In September 1941, Werner Heisenberg, who had become head of the German nuclear energy project, visited Bohr in Copenhagen. During this meeting the two men took a private moment outside, the content of which has caused much speculation, as both gave differing accounts. According to Heisenberg, he began to address nuclear energy, morality and the war, to which Bohr seems to have reacted by terminating the conversation abruptly while not giving Heisenberg hints about his own opinions.

In 1957, Heisenberg wrote to Robert Jungk, who was then working on the book Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists. Heisenberg explained that he had visited Copenhagen to communicate to Bohr the views of several German scientists, that production of a nuclear weapon was possible with great efforts, and this raised enormous responsibilities on the world’s scientists on both sides. When Bohr saw Jungk’s depiction in the Danish translation of the book, he drafted (but never sent) a letter to Heisenberg, stating that he never understood the purpose of Heisenberg’s visit, was shocked by Heisenberg’s opinion that Germany would win the war, and that atomic weapons could be decisive.


In September 1943, word reached Bohr and his brother Harald that the Nazis considered their family to be Jewish, since their mother, Ellen Adler Bohr, had been a Jew, and that they were therefore in danger of being arrested. The Danish resistance helped Bohr and his wife escape by sea to Sweden on 29 September. The next day, Bohr persuaded King Gustaf V of Sweden to make public Sweden’s willingness to provide asylum to Jewish refugees. On 2 October 1943, Swedish radio broadcast that Sweden was ready to offer asylum, and the mass rescue of the Danish Jews by their countrymen followed swiftly thereafter. Some historians claim that Bohr’s actions led directly to the mass rescue, while others say that, though Bohr did all that he could for his countrymen, his actions were not a decisive influence on the wider events. Eventually, over 7,000 Danish Jews escaped to Sweden.

When the news of Bohr’s escape reached Britain, Lord Cherwell sent a telegram to Bohr asking him to come to Britain. Bohr arrived in Scotland on 6 October in a de Havilland Mosquito operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). The Mosquitos were unarmed high-speed bomber aircraft that had been converted to carry small, valuable cargoes or important passengers. By flying at high speed and high altitude, they could cross German-occupied Norway, and yet avoid German fighters. Bohr, equipped with parachute, flying suit and oxygen mask, spent the three-hour flight lying on a mattress in the aircraft’s bomb bay. During the flight, Bohr did not wear his flying helmet as it was too small, and consequently did not hear the pilot’s intercom instruction to turn on his oxygen supply when the aircraft climbed to high altitude to overfly Norway. He passed out from oxygen starvation and only revived when the aircraft descended to lower altitude over the North Sea.

On 8 December 1943, Bohr arrived in Washington, D.C., where he met with the director of the Manhattan Project, Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves, Jr,and went to Los Alamos in New Mexico, where the nuclear weapons were being designed. Bohr did not remain at Los Alamos, but paid a series of extended visits over the course of the next two years. Robert Oppenheimer credited Bohr with acting “as a scientific father figure to the younger men”, most notably Richard Feynman. Bohr is quoted as saying, “They didn’t need my help in making the atom bomb.”


Bohr recognized early that nuclear weapons would change international relations. In April 1944, he received a letter from Peter Kapitza, written some months before when Bohr was in Sweden, inviting him to come to the Soviet Union. The letter convinced Bohr that the Soviets were aware of the Anglo-American project, and would strive to catch up. He sent Kapitza a non-committal response, which he showed to the authorities in Britain before posting. Bohr met Churchill on 16 May 1944. Churchill disagreed with the idea of openness towards the Russians to the point that he wrote in a letter: “It seems to me Bohr ought to be confined or at any rate made to see that he is very near the edge of mortal crimes.”

Oppenheimer suggested that Bohr visit President Franklin D. Roosevelt to convince him that the Manhattan Project should be shared with the Soviets in the hope of speeding up its results. Bohr’s friend, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, informed President Roosevelt about Bohr’s opinions, and a meeting between them took place on 26 August 1944. Roosevelt suggested that Bohr return to the United Kingdom to try to win British approval. When Churchill and Roosevelt met at Hyde Park on 19 September 1944, they rejected the idea of informing the world about the project, and the aide-mémoire of their conversation contained a rider that “enquiries should be made regarding the activities of Professor Bohr and steps taken to ensure that he is responsible for no leakage of information, particularly to the Russians”.


Bohr died of heart failure at his home in Carlsberg on 18 November 1962. He was cremated, and his ashes were buried in the family plot in the Assistens Cemetery in the Nørrebro section of Copenhagen, along with those of his parents, his brother Harald, and his son Christian. Years later, his wife’s ashes were also interred there.

I’ve mentioned traditional Danish cuisine several times before. It shares features with the other Sandinavian countries, and, like them as well as Britain, tends to be unfairly disdained by foreigners. Danish food does not involve a lot of herbs and spices, but it is noted for combinations of flavors and colorful presentation. Historically lunch was usually an open faced sandwich known as smørrebrød. Smørrebrød (originally smør og brød, meaning “butter and bread”) usually consists of a piece of buttered rye bread (rugbrød), a dense, dark brown bread. Pålæg (“put on”), the topping, which can be cold cuts, pieces of meat or fish, cheese or spreads. More elaborate, finely decorated, varieties have contributed to the international reputation of the smørrebrød. A slice or two of pålæg is placed on the buttered bread and decorated with the right accompaniments to create a tasty and visually appealing lunch or snack. Standards include:

Dyrlægens natmad (Veterinarian’s late night snack). On a piece of dark rye bread, a layer of liver pâté (leverpostej), topped with a slice of saltkød (salted beef) and a slice of sky (meat jelly). This is all decorated with raw onion rings and garden cress.

Røget ål med røræg Smoked eel on dark rye bread, topped with scrambled eggs, herbs and a slice of lemon.

Leverpostej Warm rough-chopped liverpaste served on dark rye bread, topped with bacon, and sauteed mushrooms. Additions can include lettuce and sliced pickled cucumber.

Roast beef, thinly sliced and served on dark rye bread, topped with a portion of remoulade, and decorated with a sprinkling of shredded horseradish and crispy fried onions.

Ribbensteg (roast pork), thinly sliced and served on dark rye bread, topped with red cabbage, and decorated with a slice of orange.

Rullepølse, (rolled stuffed pork) with a slice of meat jelly, onions, tomatoes and parsley.

Tartar, with salt and pepper, served on dark rye bread, topped with raw onion rings, grated horseradish and a raw egg yolk.

Røget laks. Slices of cold-smoked salmon on white bread, topped with shrimp and decorated with a slice of lemon and fresh dill.

Stjerneskud (lit. shooting star). On a base of buttered toast, two pieces of fish: a piece of steamed white fish on one half, a piece of fried, breaded plaice or rødspætte on the other half. On top is piled a mound of shrimp, which is then decorated with a dollop of mayonnaise, sliced cucumber, caviar or blackened lumpfish roe, and a lemon slice.

Here’s a small gallery to get you thinking:

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