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Pais is clearly temperamentally unsuited to discuss intimate matters; what he does instead is to chronicle his passage through momentous times, describing his experiences as a privileged onlooker. Growing up in the blue-collar Jewish community of Amsterdam, Pais encountered no prejudice and, because of the exciting developments going on in quantum mechanics, determined upon a career as an experimental physicist. Then the Nazis invaded Holland, and Jews were slowly marginalized and then sent to "labor camps." Some were able to flee the country and some, like Pais, went into hiding, Pais stayed underground nearly three years before being spotted by an SS officer and arrested. Luckily, his imprisonment began just as the war was ending, and Pais was spared the fate of Anne Frank, who had been concealed with her family nearby. While in hiding Pais had kept up his study of physics, and when the war ended, his career quickly flowered. He worked for some time with Niels Bohr and offers a lengthy portrait both of the man and his philosophy, particularly as it relates to the reconciliation of classical and quantum physics. He knew Robert Oppenheimer and describes his sufferings during the McCarthy hearings. He also offers stories of Einstein, Sakharov, Heisenberg, and, because his interests extended beyond the laboratory and the classroom, of such acquaintances as Pablo Casals and George Kennan. He chronicles the time he spent at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and at Rockefeller University, and speaks usefully about his research and about the writing of the Einstein biography.
Authoritative and valuable historically, though because of Pais's remoteness, not widely appealing as an autobiography.
"Mr. Pais was not just an internationally acclaimed physicist; he was also a Jewish survivor of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. . . . [He] includes some lively and evocative sketches of the famous people he knew over the decades. . . . [H]is book has many gripping, informative and charming passages, . . . a valuable addition to our store of 20th-century lives."--Richard Bernstein, The New York Times
"Abraham Pais is the Samuel Pepys of 20th-century physics. . . . Until now, Pais concentrated on other scientists' work. In A Tale of Two Continents, however, he tells us about his own extraordinary life in the charming, rather formal style that has become his hallmark. Autobiography is an unrivaled way of telling the truth about other people and Pais takes full advantage of this, drawing well-observed portraits of some of his most illustrious acquaintances, including 50 Nobel laureates (yes, he has counted). . . . Pais seems to have met just about everyone important in shaping modern physics. He draws finely observed vignettes of a host of superstars. . . . "--Graham Farmelo, New Scientist
"Written in a straightforward, unpretentious, literate manner, A Tale of Two Continents is an engrossing and gripping document."--Silvan S. Schweber, Physics Today
Posted November 8, 2004
Abe Pais was in hiding during WWII in Holland (actually just across the street from where Anna Frank was hiding); but he was a few years older than Anna Frank, and he survived. While in hiding, he studied physics. That part of the story reads like a thriller. But the narrative throughout is compelling, and honest. After the war, through a sequence of small miracles, and a stunning intelligence, he ended up in Copenhagen to work with Niels Bohr, and then to the US, at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, where he became a Professor. And in fact, he became a leading and exceptionally successful nuclear physicist. Throughout his career as a physicist, he knew Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein well, and a host of the other pioneers; and he worked with them too. He is fluent in at least 7 languages, and knows many more. All of this is part of his autobiography, which is also filled with charming observations about cultural differences, and observation of human affairs; including affairs of the heart. His whole life was divided between two Continents, hence the title of the book. But Abe Pais's life was divided in several other ways too: The first half was science, and the second writing. Marriages further marked dividing lines. He wrote a number of extremely well received biographies, the best one perhaps `Subtle is the Lord¿ about Albert Einstein (I have a weakness for biographies!); and his last was his autobiography! In fact, he finished it only a few years before he died. The last 10 years of his life was spent in Denmark; so in some sense closing the circle. Review by Palle Jorgensen, November 2004.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.