Review of A Passion for Discovery by Peter Freund

bridges vol. 17, April 2008 / Book Reviews

Reviewed by Walter Thirring

A Passion for Discovery
"A Passion for Discovery"

The 20th century had terrible and magnificent times in store. Once the madness of the Nazi regime had been disposed of, the western world enjoyed the longest period of peaceful development in its history. As soon as the human spirit can unfold freely, it becomes aware of the mysteries of the world we live in and the possibilities they offer. The resulting advances in technology in turn stimulate progress in science, and what results can be called a metamorphosis of the species Homo sapiens. On this canvas Peter Freund paints his picture of the protagonists of this evolution. They come from all countries, all social levels, they have different political and religious views, but they have a common motive: The Passion for Discovery.

Freund himself has a multicultural and multilingual background:  As child he spoke German and Hungarian, then he went to a Romanian school, did his graduate studies in Vienna, and had a postdoc in Geneva. Retiring from the famous physics department of the University of Chicago, he finds time to order his memoirs, which embrace most of the greats in physics and mathematics. He paints a vivid picture not only of the scientific but also the human aspects of these individuals. This entails a balancing act between too much or too little of their private lives, and however one does it there will be critics who find too much on one side. So I will not make any judgment about that, but only state that it certainly is fascinating reading.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Freund starts his narrative with the four greats: Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and Pauli. However, he does not waste much space on glorifying them further, but studies how they were misguided by their Passion for Discovery in their later days. This does not mean that they only produced papers without value, but somehow their information channel with the rest of the physics community no longer worked. As Freund mentions, at that time Heisenberg introduced the notion of spontaneous symmetry breaking, and Pauli proved the TCP-theorem. So it would be fair to mention that Einstein wrote a paper at Princeton on gravitational lensing and Schrödinger proposed in a letter to Nature a Higgs-type model, where the photon acquires a mass without violating gauge invariance. Maybe because these papers fell short of the expectations these gentlemen had raised, the response was meager. They had lost their magic touch.

Being brought up in a country with a Communist dictatorship, Freund is well qualified to talk about science in Nazi Germany and the eastern block. He ponders the old question of why an intelligent person like Heisenberg would stay in such a country and work for such a government. Today it is difficult for someone who has not had this experience to understand. In the same way, it is difficult to see why the Soviet scientists went en bloc to build the hydrogen bomb for Stalin. However, they knew from bitter experience that he had no respect for human life, and in the memoirs of Andre Sakharov it appeared as an act of self-preservation, since it made you politically invulnerable. From political terror, Freund  turns to religious discrimination. For instance in the American universities there was a Jewish quota which made even people like Gell-Mann and Feynman unacceptable. This was soon corrected, but poor Abdus Salam remained a persona non grata in his home country since he belonged to the wrong Muslim sect.

The book is obviously not an historical account but an assortment of stories that have accumulated in his mind during his long research career. It tells about old problems and some things that reach into the future. For instance, what he says about frame-dragging is a nice story about my father but it will have to be revised at the end of 2008 when all the data from Gravity Probe B become available. By that time one hopes to know more about the standing of supersymmetry from the large hadron collider (for more information on the LHC, click here ), and the book will have to be augmented by a chapter on that.

Peter Freund is particularly qualified to tell this story, and not only because he had met Wess and Zumino in the old days in Vienna long before supersymmetry. When it was first discussed,  he was one of the pioneers to recognize its importance. He wrote the first textbooks on this subject, which contain a lot of material - of course not the latest developments, but instead facts which have since been forgotten.   
His book can be recommended as a fascinating read, and a vivid testimony to the spirit of scientific research.


The author of this review, Walter Thirring, is a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Vienna and the honorary president of the Erwin Schrödinger Institute. {/access}