I recently came to know of an anecdote about Niels Bohr that the philosopher Slavoj Zizek claims to have read in a biography of Bohr. He doesn't specify the author or the biography.

The anecdote goes as follows: Bohr used to keep a horseshoe on the door of his house. In European (and Indian) superstitions, the horseshoe is believed to be an object that guards the house against the evil spirits. A friend, upon seeing the horseshoe on the door of Bohr's house, asked Bohr as to whether he subscribed to the relevant superstitions. Bohr replied that he didn't believe in them but he was told that the horseshoe works whether or not one believes in their power.

I tried to find an authentic historical account of the story but I could only find sparsely sourced articles which only claimed the story to be an anecdote. Is there an authentic historical account of the story being either true or false? Thanks!

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    $\begingroup$ I would Google Scholar and Google Books. Just found this article Quotable physics Seweryn Chomet 2008 Phys. World 21 (03) 38. iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2058-7058/21/03/37/meta $\endgroup$ – M. Farooq Mar 15 '19 at 1:29
  • $\begingroup$ @M.Farooq Thanks! It's an interesting article. But, nonetheless, it claims the story to be an anecdote. $\endgroup$ – Dvij D.C. Mar 15 '19 at 1:32
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    $\begingroup$ It is very difficult to trace quotes. Historical research is very layered, you start from a recent reference and move back to older references finally going to the oldest. I was looking for a quote from Max Planck, it took me six month to locate it. It was in German and the English version was highly distorted. Most references even in books were wrong. See this page, it investigates the very first appearance of Bohr's quote. quoteinvestigator.com/2013/10/09/horseshoe-luck $\endgroup$ – M. Farooq Mar 15 '19 at 2:17
  • $\begingroup$ @M.Farooq Yes, I realize the issue. I think Bohr's son is still alive and active--maybe one can mail him. :P $\endgroup$ – Dvij D.C. Mar 15 '19 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ Really? I was not aware of that. Often children have little interest in their parent's achievements. $\endgroup$ – M. Farooq Mar 15 '19 at 3:17

One can spot a fabricated story by a number of tells: absence of the original citation, shifty dates (in Heisenberg's version, Bohr was telling it in 1927), proliferation of mutually exclusive details (in some versions, the horseshoe was over Bohr's desk). As for the origin, aside from Kenyon's and Droke's popular retellings of 1956, linked in the comments, we read the following in Samuel Goudsmit's editorial Bias (Physical Review Letters 25 (1970) 419-20):

"There are still authors who believe that referees and editors are biased against them. We doubt that they can be convinced that this is not so. A necessary condition for being a successful research worker is a touch of paranoia... I have known a few physicists who lack this essential trait. When someone publishes their results, they take it as proof that their work was worthwhile and they are happy to start on something else... I did not feel it that way at all. Unfortunately I could not blame any referees or editors for having been scooped; instead I just blamed my stars... In my study hangs a fine old horse shoe, which I found in an abandoned Western ghost town. I don't believe in superstitions, but it is supposed to work even for a nonbeliever$^2\!\!$. It hasn't so far.

$^2$For historians: This fact was conveyed to me in 1941 by I. Bernard Cohen, the historian of science at Harvard University. I passed it on to Niels Bohr in 1954 when he visited Brookhaven. It is now known as "Bohr's story". W. Heisenberg, in his book Der Teil und das Gauze, incorrectly has Bohr telling it already in 1927."

The irony. Those interested in Goudsmit can consult Bederson' scientific biography, but the story would lose its gloss without Bohr's name in it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity, did you somehow dig up all this or did you know the crucial bits already? Thanks for the amazing answer! :-) $\endgroup$ – Dvij D.C. Mar 15 '19 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ @DvijMankad I vaguely remembered Heisenberg's mention, which gives the story some plausibility. But my fakery radar was flashing, so I looked further. Finding Bederson's memoir was a bit of luck. $\endgroup$ – Conifold Mar 15 '19 at 6:10

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