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'Faust In Copenhagen' is a revealing read

January 06, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

Modern educators emphasize the concept of continuing education, which encourages all citizens to keep an active mind throughout life. This is a worthy goal as the inevitable decline takes its toll. This awareness has motivated extensive reading in several fields of science to connect the findings of science with philosophy. It is an understatement to say that the effort has been rewarding.

"Faust In Copenhagen: A Struggle For The Soul Of Physics" is, without a doubt, one of the most challenging as well as one of the most revealing pieces of literature among these books. Authored by Gino Segre;, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, we are treated to a rich and biography-filled account of the evolution of nuclear physics.

The story is primarily about seven brilliant physicists who met annually, beginning in 1932, in Copenhagen, to share the known developments in what is called quantum mechanics — the world of the atom and of its various particles. Albert Einstein was not present, but his popularity and expansive reputation made it necessary to include his opinions on all developments discussed.

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Almost to a person, these standouts among other geniuses were young — in their early 20s — and were driven to add their creative talents to science. Those familiar with the advances in physics will recognize these gifted mathematicians, experimental and theoretical physicists — Miels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Delbriick, Paul Ehrenfest and the only woman, Lise Meitner. 

A host of other equally brilliant scientists such as Ernest Rutherford, Max Plank, George Gamow, Max Born and Enrico Fermi were important contributors to the study of the atom and its various particles. These and others shared with each other the results of experiments, their leading edge theories and equations of support.

A feature of science in practice at the time, but not as practical now, was the open exchange of information about science across national lines. The cooperative activity creating the LEP (Large Electron-Positron collider) is an exception. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the consequent race to apply atomic fission to military purposes required secrecy. 

A word is in order about the lifestyle of such enormously gifted people. When so much genius and strong will in competition for personal and national recognition collided, individual idiosyncrasies made their appearance in debates about theory, facts and interpretation and relations were strained. One seemingly irresolvable difference in viewpoint that invites interest is the well-known opposition of Einstein to the "uncertainty principle" put forward by Heisenberg.

This was, in effect, a conflict between classical physics with its time-honored reverence for the concept of universal causality supported by Einstein and the possibility of an exception proposed by Heisenberg regarding the unpredictable behavior of subatomic particles. Younger physicists tended to accept the new theory, but Einstein went to his grave without a change of mind. This situation is what prompted Einstein to declare, "The theory produces a good deal, but hardly bring us closer to the secrets of the Old One. I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice." On other occasions, Einstein said, "I do not believe God plays dice with the universe." 

It appears that the gift of genius comes at a cost. With respect to intelligence, they are truly exceptional people with awesome talents. Trying to learn the secrets of the universe from such gifted mathematicians, theorists and experimentalists is an overwhelming experience. Understanding is, at best, partial and those with lesser intellectual endowments recognize and appreciate their contributions.

While their lives are blessed with experiences unknown to more or less average people, they are cursed with much tragedy. One physicist, renowned as a gifted teacher, suffered from depression and was afflicted with feelings of inferiority. He eventually shot his retarded son and then ended his life. 

Only two women were recognized for their skills as researchers of equal ability to the men, Meitner, a very brilliant analyst in both chemistry and physics, suffered grievously at the hands of male scientists who were unrelenting in their discrimination. 

Despite the challenge to absorb the full story of the workings of our universe, there is a special satisfaction in being empathetically near those who are qualified to describe the things we cannot discern without the help of their gifts.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College

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