A Tale of Two Continents: A Physicist's Life in a Turbulent World


The author of an immensely popular biography of Einstein, Subtle Is the Lord, Pais writes engagingly for a general audience. His "tale" describes his period of hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland (although he ended the war in a Gestapo prison) and his life in America, particularly at the newly organized Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, then directed by the brilliant and controversial physicist Robert Oppenheimer. Pais tells fascinating stories about Oppenheimer, Einstein, Bohr, Sakharov, Dirac, Heisenberg, ...
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The author of an immensely popular biography of Einstein, Subtle Is the Lord, Pais writes engagingly for a general audience. His "tale" describes his period of hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland (although he ended the war in a Gestapo prison) and his life in America, particularly at the newly organized Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, then directed by the brilliant and controversial physicist Robert Oppenheimer. Pais tells fascinating stories about Oppenheimer, Einstein, Bohr, Sakharov, Dirac, Heisenberg, and von Neumann, as well as about nonscientists like Chaim Weizmann, George Kennan, Erwin Panofsky, and Pablo Casals. His enthusiasm about science and life in general pervades a book that is partly a memoir, partly a travel commentary, and partly a history of science.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Einstein's biographer (Subtle Is the Lord) has now collected memories of his own life, strung together like beads, with nothing to link them but a slack chronological filament. Pais, one of the foremost physicists of this century and former professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has led his life at the center of a most interesting field at one of its most interesting times, and it is unfortunate that the reader of his autobiography gets so little sense either of the man or of his contributions to our understanding of the physical realm. Perhaps Pais himself sees no context or overarching theme to his life and therefore imparts one so seldom. Though admirable in a physicist, such reticence can be exasperating in an autobiographer. What he sees in retrospect as the important part of a trip to the Caribbean, for example, is a meeting with cellist Pablo Casals and not that he told his wife they should divorce. When he comprehends a larger framework for the events of his life, though, as in his story of the deportation of his sister to the death camp of Sobibor, his language becomes compelling and he is engaged in the tale. More often, we are left with a catalogue of a life's events related in a curious monotone that gives equal weight to all events: introduction to sex, arrest by the Gestapo, study with Niels Bohr, residence at Princeton, vacation trips, research papers, persecution of J. Robert Oppenheimer, birth of a son, deaths of parents and mountain climbing. This author has had a memorable life, but his account does little justice to it. Those who do not know Pais's work will find some interesting vignettes that are sometimes compelling, and those who are familiar with his name will enjoy these disjointed reminiscences of a chatty grandfather who, ultimately, seems like a tourist in his own existence. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
Library Journal
Pais's autobiography is truly "a tale of two continents"; the contrast between his World War II experiences and his later life are amazing. Pais, a Jew, was forced into hiding in 1943 and spent some of that time practically next door to Anne Frank. Ultimately discovered and arrested, he spent the last weeks of the war in a Gestapo prison. Within a year of his liberation he was working with Niels Bohr and shortly thereafter moved to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. As a physicist with an international reputation, he counts Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Andrei Sakharov, and Werner Heisenberg among his contemporaries. As such, this memoir is also a partial history of 20th-century physics. Pais is probably best known for his biography of Bohr (Niels Bohr's Times, Oxford Univ., 1991) and his very popular biography of Albert Einstein (Einstein Lived Here, LJ 6/1/94). This work is no less enjoyable. Recommended for general science and biography collections.-James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago
Kirkus Reviews
The author of a highly regarded biography of Albert Einstein (Subtle Is the Lord, not reviewed; Einstein Lived Here, 1994) sums up his own life.

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.

From the Publisher

"The author of a highly regarded biography of Albert Einstein sums up his own life. . . chronicle[s] his passage through momentous times, describing his experiences as a privileged onlooker. . . . Authoritative and valuable historically."--
Kirkus Review

"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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691600499
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/14/2014
  • Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
  • Pages: 552
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Table of Contents

1 Descent
2 Early Years
3 Bachelor's Degrees in Amsterdam
4 Of Music, Films, and Other Diversions
5 First Contacts with Zionism
6 Utrecht: M.Sc. and Ph.D.
7 War
8 Occupation of Holland
9 Sho'ah
10 Wartime Experiences of My Family and Me
11 War's Aftermath: A Last Lesson in Dutch History
12 My Final Months in Holland
13 Getting to Know Niels Bohr
14 It Is Time to Speak of America
15 The State of the Union 1946: The U.S.,
Princeton, and the Institute for Advanced Study
16 Enter Einstein and Other Interesting New Acquaintances
17 In Which Oppenheimer Becomes Director and
I a Long-Term Member of the Institute
18 Oppenheimer: Glimpses of a Complex Man
19 My Career Unfolds
20 About Unexpected New Physics, Old Friends, and a Grand Tour
21 Of the Beginnings of Theoretical Particle
Physics, Some Baseball History, and Two Long Summer Journeys
22 Of Symmetry and My Longest Journey
23 Greenwich Village, American Citizenship, and the Oppenheimer Affair
24 Of My Best Work and a Year's Leave of
Absence. Death of Einstein
25 My First Trip to Russia and My First
26 Enter Joshua. The 1950s, Concluded
27 Times of Great Change: The Early 1960s
28 Changing My Workplace from Princeton to New York
29 What Befell Me in the Late 1960s
30 The 1970s
31 A Career Change
32 My Final Years--So Far
33 Approaching the Millennium
Notes and References
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2004

    A divided life.

    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.

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