Revolutionaries at work and play
Apart from Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which emerged from the mind of a single man, the other revolution in 20th-century physics (quantum mechanics) was a group effort. In this case, it could be argued that it is the more profound achievement and could not have emerged from a single mind. Each person developing it needed the others to help explain what it was they had achieved. But the personalities were hugely different from one another.
This article could be considered as a lesson for democratic procedure in politics, as well for Italian community of scholars who work in our universities, generally speaking. The article can teach nothing our “barons”, though: “mafia’s method” is their philosophy, simply.
From the Economist print edition, Jul 12th 2007
PHYSICS was revolutionised by quantum mechanics almost a century ago. The bizarre consequences include the fundamental truth that it is impossible to know everything about the world; the meaning of quantum mechanics still provokes head-scratching by physicists and philosophers alike. A portrait of the great personalities who drove the revolution is provided by these two books.Perhaps because the subject was mathematically complex and ran counter to classical notions of physical laws, the community of physicists who developed it was small and overwhelmingly young. In “Faust in Copenhagen” Gino Segrè identifies seven people who devised quantum mechanics: six men and a woman. Five of them went on to become Nobel laureates, and the city in which they did much of their work has become synonymous with the dominant philosophical understanding of the subject.
The “Copenhagen interpretation” says that the world people experience is decided upon when the many possibilities of the quantum world collapse to become the certainty of the classical one. (A rival to this view is that the many possibilities of the quantum world all continue to be real and that there are thus many worlds.The book takes as its organising theme a short comedy written and performed by the more mischievous members of this community as entertainment at the end of an informal academic gathering held in April 1932. The sketch was based on Goethe’s “Faust” where the hero, famously frustrated by the limits to his learning, makes a pact with the devil.
Unlike the other revolution in 20th-century physics, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which emerged from the mind of a single man, quantum mechanics was a group effort. Indeed, it could be argued that it is the more profound achievement and could not have emerged from a single mind. Each person developing it needed the others to help explain what it was they had achieved. But the personalities were hugely different from one another. Niels Bohr, the elder statesman of the community, was an athletic team worker and family man who needed constant companionship to test his thoughts. He played God in the comedy and is seen above, on the right, studying a spinning top with Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli (who had the part of Mephistopheles) was a portly womaniser given to drinking and smoking; his razor-sharp wit was both scathing and hilarious.
Paul Dirac would today be diagnosed with a personality disorder: he could not grasp anything other than the direct logic of the spoken word. Werner Heisenberg was intensely competitive and a tacit supporter of Nazi Germany. Mr Segrè’s tome is a mostly engaging tale: well-researched and fully aware of the political backdrop. He remains true to the scientific language and thought of the time, not resorting to modern concepts. But despite a warning that “there is a good deal of science in the book, as much as can be accommodated without the machinery of equations”, the story neglects the physics. It misses the opportunity to give some appreciation of the beauty of quantum mechanics—and to explain exactly where the subject becomes so confounding.
By contrast David Lindley’s volume puts a more equal weight on the science and the personalities who devised it. The book is charmingly written and a delight to read. It has, however, the wrong title: “Uncertainty” is but a single part of quantum mechanics and Mr Lindley covers far more ground, taking readers through a history of atomic and nuclear physics. This enables him to include Einstein who, despite receiving his Nobel prize for early work on quantum mechanics, devoted much of his efforts to opposing the Copenhagen interpretation of it. Both books highlight the human element of science. Although a Nobel prize is awarded to no more than three individuals, fundamental physics is often done as teamwork. Biographies that capture not only the people involved but also how they interact are a welcome antidote to the impression that the best science is done by the genius alone in his garret.
Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics. By Gino Segrè ; Viking, 320 pages; $25.95. Jonathan Cape; £20
Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science. By David Lindley. Doubleday; 257 pages; $26