Remarkable Physicists

During the latter stages of June 2005, I read

Title: Remarkable Physicists
Sub-title: From Galileo to Yukawa
Author: Ioan James, 2004
ISBN: 0521 01706 8

I must have purchased this shortly before Christmas 2004, during a visit to Cambridge: it gives short accounts of the lives of a selection of physicists, over the period from Galileo (born 1564) to Yukawa (born 1907), in order of date of birth. The lives are given largely divorced from their discoveries: the author's aim is overtly to give an over-view of the diversity of personal lives. This is also (again overtly) expressed in the choice of subjects: diversity is pursued, while selecting a small enough subset of the many worthy subjects to make the book manageable (under 400 pages). Although the book sets out to give ten groups of five, there are actually several cases where the author slides in a fair deal of detail about a close associate – J.J. Thomson's son and Marie Curie's husband, for example – under the heading of one of the selected lives.

The saga is not without its moments of tears for a physicist – Giordano Bruno, in 1601, imprisoned, tortured and burned at the stake for believing that stars were other suns, with their own planets, some of them Earth-like; the Curies discovering the harmful effects of radiation by dying of them; a tenth of a million civilians dying, in a pair of brief moments, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even allowing several seconds for each, the last imply many thousands of deaths per second. No matter how firmly you believe this to have been better than the likely alternatives, if it does not bring tears to your eyes you are not human.

The poignancy of this is all the more acute for the book ending with its life of Yukawa (neé Ogawa; on marriage, he took the family name of his wife, a classical Japanese dancer), one of whose closest colleagues was Tomonaga – who came from a family of Nagasaki samurai descent. Both had their first faculty positions in Kyoto. Although Tomonaga's house in Tokyo was destroyed in an air raid, in April 1945, he survived. Both Tomonaga and Yukawa were founding members (with Einstein and Bertrand Russell) of Pugwash.

The first hint that the atom could be split came from Lise Meitner making sense of a discovery by Otto Hahn and his assistant, Strassmann – in work theese two did after Hahn had helped Meitner (a jew) to escape (to Sweden) from the Nazi regime taking power in their native country. Fermi, who (working forward from the above) built the first nuclear pile (in Chicago), had barely escaped from Italy before the Fascists got round to so closely mirroring the Nazis as would have detained him. It is terrifying to realize just how close a ghastly mess came to being worse.

Understatement of the century:

It was obvious that a community like Los Alamos would be deeply concerned with the ominous implications of the atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer and Bohr did everything they could to contain the nighmare, but statesmen were not receptive to their message. I think it must have taken the greatest charity and courage for Oppenheimer to limit his remarks, after his persecution in the 1950s, to only

I think it is just possible, Mr President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today.

when accepting President Johnson's decent efforts (initiated by JFK) to make amends.

Nor is the tale without moments of pride, quite apart from that attached to the triumphs of physics itself: the Curies' daughter Irene (not, herself, profiled) and her husband Jean-Frédéric Joliot (profiled) taking an active part in the resistance to the Nazis and, subsequently, taking active parts in the swords into ploughshares side of the subsequent history of nuclear power (though both, ultimately, succumbed to radiation sickness, like her parents, after a life of research in the same field); and (with the lamentable exception of Heisenberg, who comes across as an apologist) the general contempt for the Nazis even among such eminently aryan fellows as Schroedinger (on whose grave I chanced, with my friend Tim, during a ski-ing holiday in the late 1990s, where our instructor was of that family – the head-stone is engraved with his famous partial differential equation).

The word aryan always reminds me of arian, which has a quite different meaning, in theological circles: it names a heresy which – in the version of it that Newton ascribed to – denies the trinity of God. The same name is given to the heretical belief that the devil holds any power in the realm of mortals. The ancient church was rather prone to lumping separate heresies together !

Denizens of the United States of America might beneficially be reminded that positive discrimination has a history (not a glorious one, nor such as commends the institution) predating its modern form: when Oppenheimer was a boy, his access to schools was limited by analogous rules that favoured white anglo-saxon protestants in preference to jews, in so far as the latter would otherwise have filled a greater proportion of places in the school than in the population at large. Positive discriminateion cannot, then, be said to be a universal blessing: though its proponents may fairly defend its value where its beneficiaries are demonstrably subject, without it, to unfair exclusion. Perhaps some self-righteousn indignation (on both sides) can be deflated by such information, who knows.

Altogether, a book I can recommend to any physicist, especially any with an interest in history; and to any historian of science.

Written by Eddy.
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