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Quantum tale

August 12, 2007|Sara Lippincott

THEORETICAL physicists can be an exotic bunch. Gino Segrè makes the point in "Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics" (Viking: 310 pp., $25.95), his gentle, rambling chronicle of the 20th century's quantum-mechanical revolution. He focuses on the 1932 conference of quantum theorists at Niels Bohr's physics institute in Copenhagen, at which a skit was presented based on Goethe's "Faust," parodying the titans in attendance. The real work on quantum theory was a few years behind them, but the Faust skit provides Segrè with a frame -- a somewhat artificial one -- for his dramatis personae and an opportunity to comment (as if additional comment were needed) on the supposed "Faustian bargain" physics struck with the warring powers in enabling the atomic bomb.

Nevertheless, there's much to enjoy in his account. The physics itself -- quantum mechanics, tried and true but mind-boggling in its counterintuitiveness -- is not gone into deeply enough to produce more than a superficial understanding, but Segrè's real aim is to present the culture of theoretical physics and portraits of the heroes of its golden age: among them Bohr, the pioneering father figure; Werner Heisenberg, the brilliant, athletic youngster; the dour and unfathomable Paul Dirac; and Wolfgang Pauli, the overweight, hedonistic wit. ("So young," Pauli remarked of one struggling researcher, "and he has already contributed so little.") The result is a pleasing stroll in the company of some of the most fascinating individuals you'd ever want to spend time with.

-- Sara Lippincott

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