Saturday, November 15, 2008

Faust in Copenhagen

Faust in Copenhagen : a struggle for the soul of physics / Gino Segrè
New York: Penguin, 2008, c2007.
310 p.

In the interests of full disclosure, I will start by saying I am in no way a scientist, and yet I loved this book. LOVED IT!! I was inspired to read this for a couple of reasons; because I am trying to finish up my Science Book Challenge reads, because it was new and shiny at the library, and because it reminded me of how much I enjoy reading about physics.

The author is a nephew of the famous physicist Emilio Segre, who was part of the great development of quantum physics in the early part of the 20th century. Gino Segre is also a practicing physicist, as is his brother, and a large number of their cousins. I could tell throughout this book that he was involved with physics; the scientific explanations and vast understanding of his subject showed. But I could also feel the influence of his father, an historian, by the excellent writing and felicitous choice of detail which made this history really live. The book is structured around a satirical skit based on Goethe's Faust, which was performed in 1932 at an annual gathering of physicists in Copenhagen. 1932 is referred to as 'the miracle year' because of all the stunning discoveries that pushed quantum physics forward, and the meeting in Copenhagen (home of Nils Bohr, a towering figure in physics) was the last one untouched by the beginnings of war. At that meeting, the younger scientists in the crowd wrote a skit of the type enjoyed by the people involved; they took Faust and played around with it, making Bohr into The Lord, and the notoriously sarcastic Wolfgang Pauli into Mephistopheles. The triumph of this book lies in how Segre takes a scene and explains it to us, going into the background of each personality and the significance of each of their discoveries, so that we understand the skit and all the in-jokes by the time we are done reading. When I laughed heartily at an in-joke half way through the book, I suddenly realized Segre's talent at making us feel part of the crowd ourselves.

This really isn't a scientific read as much as a history of a moment in science. What I like about books like these is to have the import of the science explained in a way I can understand -- which was done extremely well here. I feel as if I now comprehend more fully how discoveries build on other research and how even the geniuses in the field could start off in the wrong direction and have to begin again. Oftentimes the genius' work was superceded by that of another hardworking physicist who was not as much of a star. That leads to another element of such books that really appeals to me, that of explaining who all the players really were. I loved reading about all these people and learning about their relationships, their flaws and their admirable qualities, their families, how nationality affected them during the war, why they might have done the things they did... essentially, all the good gossip. And Segre is a wonderful gossip! He tells us all the facts that we might want to know if we were sitting around having coffee and talking about people known to us. He sketches out Pauli's caustic personality (which led to his nickname of "The Scourge of God"), he talks about Heisenberg's roots in Germany and his love of the outdoors, he mentions Paul Dirac's very unusual taciturn personality - he was often known not to speak for days - and points out how surprised everyone was when they learned he was going to be married. There are lots of photos included, many of them from his uncle's collection.

One caveat: as a non-scientist, I was unaware until reading a few reviews that the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics is not, in fact, widely accepted nowadays (as Segre suggests early on in a toss away sentence). In reality, as one reviewer states, the debates about the Copenhagen interpretation - and in particular about causality and indeterminacy - have a resonance far beyond quantum mechanics. From nuclear fission to silicon chips, the quantum revolution has helped transform the modern world. Yet the interpretation of the quantum world developed by Bohr and his colleagues remains controversial and contested.
(any physicists out there to weigh in on this?)

Also noteworthy is the excellent index and bibliography. In his chapter notes Segre includes suggestions for further reading; his recommendations for the best biography on a subject, or the best source for further scientific exploration. It has inspired me to continue on.

A good indication of how much I enjoyed this book is that when I finished it, I immediately turned to the front and wished I could again read it for the first time. It is a wonderful book, highly recommended to anyone with the slightest interest in physics during that golden period, or in any of the personalities involved. (Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, Rutherford, Meitner, Ehrenfest... the list goes on and on)


  1. You've got me really excited about this book! I'll look for it today when I'm out and about at the bookstore!

  2. I've had mixed results with science books. While I really enjoy Stephen Hawking's writing (who's competing in this week's Great Wednesday Compare by the way-- A little self-promotion, sorry!). But I absolutely loathed Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach which, although I call it a science book, may have been a philosophy book. Or math. I'm not sure.

  3. Michele - great to hear!

    John - I've never been able to even start Hofstadter's book. I prefer a bit more science-y. I really liked A Brief History of Time though.

  4. Contrary to the majority, I adored Hofstadter's GEB when I read it years (decades!) ago. But there's no reason everyone has to love all books--how dull publishing would be.

    Since you asked for a physicist, which I conveniently happen to be, I've never been a fan of the "Cophenhagen Interpretation", which always has seemed to me both silly and overlooking the obvious interpretations in favor of something far too mystical and outside the bounds of necessary to the physics as well.

    I'm sure we could talk at great length about the topic, but the confines of this little comment box is probably not the place to do it.

    Thanks for the fab note about this book! I bought it awhile back (remaindered!) but haven't read it; now it's moved up in the TBR pile.

  5. Thanks! I'm adding this one to my list.


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