bridges vol. 15, Sept 2007 / Book Review

by Johannes Strobl

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Faust in Copenhagen - A Struggle for the Soul of Physics by Gino Segrè

Blegdamsvej Street, Copenhagen, 1932. In a truly remarkable assembly, 40 physicists gathered at Niels Bohr's Institute of Theoretical Physics. As a diversion from intense discussions and a celebration of the unique spirit of their collaborative efforts in the development of quantum mechanics - the grand theory they had shaped - the younger scientists performed a spoof of J. W. von Goethe's Faust.
In Goethe's classic drama, the devil Mephistopheles lures Faust - discontent with his limited wisdom - into a bargain that grants Faust universal insight and the love of the adorable virgin Gretchen in exchange for his soul.
Written by the German physicist Max Delbrück who later received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work in molecular biology, the skit satirizes the formation of quantum mechanics and makes fun of its founding fathers who took a seat in the first row - Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Paul Ehrenfest, Max Delbrück, and Lise Meitner, the only experimentalist in the group. Only one seat reserved for the revolutionaries remained empty. Mischievous Austrian Wolfgang Pauli - legendary both for his aphorisms and his inclination to Lucullian pleasures - preferred to go on vacation instead. Viennese Ehrenfest at times addressed him as Sanct Pauli, an allusion to the red light district in Hamburg, while Pauli in return signed his letters as "Scourge of God" (Geißel Gottes).

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(C) Bettina Hoerlin
Gino Segrè

In the spoof, Mephistopheles is turned into Pauli who tries to convince "Faust" Ehrenfest of the existence of the neutrino which takes on the role of Gretchen.
Gino Segrè uses the Copenhagen skit as a framework for his account of the evolution of quantum mechanics in his new book Faust in Copenhagen. The elusive neutrino, whose existence was postulated by Pauli in 1930, is also at the center of Gino Segrè's work. Segrè is a neutrino physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, and his family story makes the book a subtle autobiography:
Emilio Segrè - Gino's uncle - won the Nobel Prize for discovering the anti-proton and worked alongside Enrico Fermi on the Manhattan project. His father, on the other hand, was a historian. Gino elegantly overcame the fierce rivalry between the two: He became a world-class physicist and started writing books on science history.


The 1933 Copenhagen meeting. Front row, left to right, are Bohr, Dirac, Heisenberg, Ehrenfest, Delbrück, and Meitner.

The book focuses on the key characters involved, namely the first row of the attendees plus the absent Pauli. Segrè indulges in the ingenuity, the wit, and the awkwardness of the group that he calls the intellectual heroes of his youth. All of those traits he finds in abundance among his characters.
Whereas the other great theory of 20th century physics, general relativity, was the offspring of a single mind, Albert Einstein, quantum mechanics had many fathers. The breakthroughs in its development were achieved by intellectually daring men in their early 20s, a fact that shaped the expression "Knabenphysik" (boys' physics). By 1932 Pauli, Heisenberg, and Dirac, although only around 30 years old, already had their best days of research behind them. This didn't bother Pauli who claimed that any form of respect should be eradicated anyway. Accordingly, the skit ends with Pauli/Mephisto stating: "Pauli has here nothing more to say."

"When more than thirty years are told, As good as dead one is indeed." (Faust, part II)


Einstein and Niels Bohr walking on a Berlin street, 1920

The character Segrè evidently admires most is Niels Bohr. His institute in Copenhagen - 1932 marked its 10th anniversary - was the epicenter of theoretical physics in the 1920s. Significantly older than his colleagues, Bohr wasn't at the forefront of research any more. Yet his impeccable reputation and the challenging and motivating, almost playful, atmosphere he created attracted scientists from all over Europe to sharpen their ideas in legendary battles of rhetoric.
While the mathematical formalisms were well established, the interpretation of quantum mechanics lagged behind. The ideas that were shaped in Copenhagen are now commonly known as the "Copenhagen interpretation."
The thought that descriptions of nature are eventually probabilistic, and that the observer necessarily influences the outcome of an experiment, wasn't welcomed by everybody: "I, at any rate, am convinced that He (God) does not throw dice," Einstein remarked. Bohr responded dryly to his old friend: "Einstein, don't tell God what to do."
Faust in Copenhagen doesn't contain much in-depth physics - perhaps disappointing for those looking for a popular introduction to quantum mechanics, but more likely a relief to most readers. Rich with anecdotes and driven by a compelling story line, this book is a great pleasure to read.

Dawn of a new age

After the publication of Einstein's three landmark papers in 1905, 1932 was the second "miracle year" of modern physics. While most of the theoretical achievements in the field had already been made, 1932 marked the advent of "big science." The gathering in Copenhagen was surrounded by the discovery of the neutron and the positron in Cambridge. The discovery of the latter proved Paul Dirac's postulate of the existence of anti-matter, and the former soon became the bullet in nuclear chain reactions. At Berkeley, the first particle accelerators were developed - the basis for modern nuclear physics.
Years before the Manhattan project that ultimately led to the construction of atomic bombs, the concept of modern physics as a "Faustian bargain" was already being satirized by its leading figures.

The fate of Copenhagen's Faust

Lise Meitner standing in a Berlin garden, ca. 1910

The 1932 gathering was not only the heyday of the Copenhagen community, it was also the beginning of its end. Only a year later, Hitler had taken over power and the paths of the leading scientists slowly began to diverge. Bohr supported the escape of Danish Jews from his Swedish exile. Later he joined the Manhattan project as did Felix Bloch, one of the young scientists at the Copenhagen meeting, and many others.
Lise Meitner, born into a Jewish family in Vienna, was the first to explain nuclear fission in 1939, from exile in Sweden. Her long-time collaborator Otto Hahn stayed in Berlin, as did Werner Heisenberg. Their dubious role during WWII receives surprisingly little criticism from Gino Segrè - it is hard to accept the failures of intellectual giants.
Whereas in Goethe's magnum opus Faust is finally ransomed, the Copenhagen Faust - Paul Ehrenfest - did not find a happy ending: Struggling with depression since his childhood, he committed suicide in 1933.
German-speaking readers should hope for a German translation of Faust in Copenhagen. Reading the quotes from Faust and the excerpts from the skit in their original language can only increase their reading pleasure.


The author Johannes Strobl is a student of technical physics at the Vienna University of Technology. He is currently working on his master thesis at the Center of Computational Material Science. From July through September 2007, Johannes Strobl was an intern at the Office of Science & Technology at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC.


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