Interesting NY.Times Book Review.. June 24, 2007
FAUST IN COPENHAGEN- A Struggle for the Soul of Physics.
By Gino Segrè. Illustrated. 310 pp. Viking. $25.95.
As though their knowledge of the quantum secrets came with the power of prophecy, some three dozen of Europe’s best physicists ended their 1932 meeting in Copenhagen with a parody of Goethe’s “Faust.” Just weeks earlier, James Chadwick had discovered neutrons — the bullets of nuclear fission — and before long Enrico Fermi was shooting them at uranium atoms. By the time of the first nuclear explosion a little more than a decade later in New Mexico, the idea of physics as a Faustian bargain was to its makers already a cliché. Robert Oppenheimer, looking for a sound bite, quoted Vishnu instead: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Innocent of all that lay before them, the luminaries gathering at Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics were in a whimsical mood. Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac and Lise Meitner were there. Max Delbrück, the young scientist charged with writing the spoof — it happened to be the centennial of Goethe’s death — couldn’t resist depicting Bohr himself as the Lord Almighty and the acerbic Wolfgang Pauli as Mephistopheles.
They were perfect choices. The avuncular Bohr, with his inquisitive needling, had presided over the quantum revolution, revealing the strange workings within atoms, while the skeptical Pauli, who famously signed his letters “The Scourge of God,” could always be counted on for a sarcastic comment. (“What Professor Einstein has just said is not so stupid.”) Faust, who in the legend sells his soul for universal knowledge, was recast as a troubled Paul Ehrenfest, the Austrian physicist who despaired of ever understanding this young man’s game in which particles were just smears of probability.
Disguised with makeup, younger physicists played the parts of their “elders.” (Pauli, who skipped the meeting, was just turning 32.) Faust’s tormented love, Gretchen, appeared as the fairylike neutrino. It was only in retrospect that the silliness became profound. The players were becoming possessors of “a truth with implicit powers of good and evil,” Gino Segrè writes in “Faust in Copenhagen,” his inventive new book about the era. And “the devil … was in the details.”
The story of the quantum revolution has been told so many times that it has become as ritualized as the stations of the cross. How Max Planck, faced with some curious observations about hot glowing objects, reluctantly proposed that light is sputtered out in packets — the quanta. How Albert Einstein, seeing deeper, realized that light must also travel that way, that its waves were also particles. How Bohr brought the graininess into the atom, with electrons hopping between orbits in quantum jumps. How Heisenberg, marooning himself on the bleak isle of Helgoland, saw that there were no orbits, that what happened inside atoms was different from anything that could be pictured by a human brain.
Any reluctance I had to revisit these shrines was quickly overcome by Segrè’s inviting touch. A theoretical physicist at the University of Pennsylvania and a nephew of Emilio Segrè, who collaborated with Fermi on radioactivity research, the author begins with the “Faust” parody and circles back to it again and again. It acts like a magnet, reshaping the familiar into an interesting new design.
One of the most striking things about the quantum revolutionaries was their youthfulness. Heisenberg was 23 when he had his epiphany. Pauli, when not quite 25, came up with a fundamental tenet called the exclusion principle. Dirac was just a little older when he predicted the positron — another particle discovered the same year as the Copenhagen fest. By then the threesome was already past its prime. “Old age is a cold fever / That every physicist suffers with!” the actor playing Dirac complained. “When one is past 30, / He is as good as dead!”
Bohr at 46 was the grand old man. Absent altogether was Einstein, past 50 and out of the loop, trying to overthrow quantum mechanics with a wastebasket full of crumpled ideas. In the Copenhagen “Faust” he has a cameo role — the king leading his pet fleas. In Goethe’s telling, no one in the court dared complain about the pests, and so it was, the devilish Pauli proclaims, with the aging Einstein:
Half-naked, fleas came pouring
From Berlin’s joy and pride,
Named by the unadoring:
“Field Theories — Unified.”
In the end the most inspired part of the production was the transformation of Ehrenfest into Ehrenfaust. Assailed by self-doubt and family problems, and overwhelmed by the rapid pace of the new physics, he was falling into a dark depression. Trading his soul for enlightenment might have seemed like a good deal. The shocking details of his suicide the following year, and the way Segrè ties them back to the Faust legend, brings a solemn close to a memorable retelling of one of science’s most heroic eras.
George Johnson’s most recent book is “Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe.”