Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics

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Overview

Known by physicists as the miracle year, 1932 saw the discovery of the neutron and antimatter as well as the first artificially induced nuclear transmutations. At their annual gathering in Copenhagen, the world's top scientists conferred on their work and celebrated these momentous discoveries, which presaged the nuclear era and the emergence of big science. Europe, however, was moving inexorably toward totalitarianism and war. Within less than a year, Hitler's ascent to power changed the lives of these ...

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Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics

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Overview

Known by physicists as the miracle year, 1932 saw the discovery of the neutron and antimatter as well as the first artificially induced nuclear transmutations. At their annual gathering in Copenhagen, the world's top scientists conferred on their work and celebrated these momentous discoveries, which presaged the nuclear era and the emergence of big science. Europe, however, was moving inexorably toward totalitarianism and war. Within less than a year, Hitler's ascent to power changed the lives of these scientists and rendered it impossible to re-create the exuberant atmosphere of the 1932 gathering. With intimacy, clarity, and passion, physicist Gino Segre evokes the fleeting, magical moment when physics-and the world-was about to lose its innocence forever.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In physics, 1932 was the "Miracle Year," but in most of Europe, it was the beginning of a nightmare. While world-class scientists struggled to assimilate the discovery of the neutron and the world's first artificially induced nuclear transformation, fascism sunk its claws into the center of the continent. In April of that year, scores of the world's leading physicists converged at Copenhagen Institute for their annual informal gathering about developments in their specialty. Among those in attendance were Werner Heisenberg, Lise Meitner, Paul Ehrenfest, Wolfgang Paul, Paul Dirac, and, of course, Denmark's own Niels Bohr. In Faust in Copenhagen, world-renowned physicist Gino Segrè recounts this momentous conferences and the hauntingly prophetic skit that served as its final encore.
George Johnson
Any reluctance I had to revisit these shrines was quickly overcome by Segrè’s inviting touch. A theoretical physicist at the University of Pennsylvania and a nephew of Emilio Segrè, who collaborated with Fermi on radioactivity research, the author begins with the “Faust” parody and circles back to it again and again. It acts like a magnet, reshaping the familiar into an interesting new design.
— The New York Times
Susan P. Williams
Gino Segre, a theoretical physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, relates how scientists discovered the inner workings of the atom. But what really propel this book are his insights into quantum theorists' lives—their attractions, repulsions, pairings and collisions as Hitler rose to power and war loomed over Europe.
—The Washington Post
San Francisco Chronicle
[A] fascinating story, insightfully told and consistently engaging . . . Segrè speaks to the reader with enthusiasm, at times unable to conceal his excitement about the fascinating story he's sharing, yet his telling is deftly and dramatically structured, providing necessary historical and scientific context, clearly and concisely.
Time
Cracking good narrative history.
Publishers Weekly

Segrè (A Matter of Degrees) once again applies a human scale to important physics topics in a way that's as informative and accessible as it is appealing. Beginning in 1929, Niels Bohr hosted an annual gathering in Copenhagen for his fellow physicists, where they joked and argued about the new theory of quantum mechanics. Tradition demanded that the younger physicists entertain with a skit, and in 1932, the centenary of Goethe's death, the entertainment was Max Delbrück's parody of Faust, with the proponents of classical physics and the new quantum mechanics fighting for primacy. The discovery of the neutron and the positron had disturbed classical atomic theory, while quantum mechanics raised troubling issues, such as how one could find the true position of an electron and how the photon could be both a particle and a wave. Segrè brings the scientists and their ideas to vivid life, from convivial Bohr and iconoclastic Wolfgang Pauli (nicknamed "Scourge of God"), to emotionally guarded Werner Heisenberg, gracious Lise Meitner, reclusive Paul Dirac and others, as well as the consequences of their discoveries. For after 1932 came Hitler and WWII, and a new physics that could never be as intimate, or as innocent, as it had once been. (June 18)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
The story of a 1932 meeting at the Niels Bohr's Copenhagen Institute that brought together some 40 physicists, among them the founders of quantum mechanics. The title comes from an impromptu spoof of Goethe's Faust staged by the junior physicists at the meeting, lightheartedly lampooning their famous elders. Some of those "elders" were barely in their 30s, notably Paul Dirac and Werner Heisenberg, the brightest physics stars of their day. The one they all acknowledged as a father figure was Niels Bohr, host of the conference. Lise Meitner, the only woman present, was perhaps the finest experimental physicist there, or anywhere. Two giants were absent: Albert Einstein, who was leaving Europe in response to Germany's turn toward Adolf Hitler, and Wolfgang Pauli, perhaps the age's sharpest critical intellect. Segre (Physics and Astronomy/Univ. of Pennsylvania; A Matter of Degrees: What Temperature Reveals About the Past and Future of Our Species, Planet, and Universe, 2002) gives a clear, non-technical summary of the discoveries and advances that led up to the Copenhagen meeting, and he explores the personal relationships of the key figures. Bohr, whom the authors of the Faust skit put in the role of God, tended to find his ideas in dialogue with others, often pushing them to the edge of exhaustion with his questioning. Heisenberg, Bohr's prize pupil, was the most daring innovator, best known for his "uncertainty principle" defining the limits of what can be measured in physics. Dirac, whose extreme literalness became legendary, laid down the mathematical underpinnings of the new science. And Meitner was shortly to hit upon the key to nuclear fission-the discovery that transformed physicsinto a genuine Faustian bargain with its application to warfare. Segre effectively combines science history with the personal lives of the conference participants, offering an enlightening look at a key event in modern science and those who took part in it.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615599554
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 6/14/2007
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Gino Segrè is professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania. An internationally renowned expert in high-energy elementary-particle theoretical physics, Segrè has served as director of Theoretical Physics at the National Science Foundation and received awards from the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. This is his first book.

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Table of Contents


Introduction     1
Munich Then and Now     9
The Changing Times     17
The 1920s
The Birth of the Quantum
Why Copenhagen?
The Meetings Begin
The 1932 Meeting
Goethe and Faust     39
In the Glow of Goethe
The "Copenhagen Faust"
The Front Row: The Old Guard     51
Niels Bohr
Paul Ehrenfest
Lise Meitner
The Front Row: The Revolutionaries     71
Old Age Is a Cold Fever
Werner Heisenberg
Wolfgang Pauli
Paul Dirac
Classical Mechanics versus Quantum Mechanics
The Front Row: The Young Ones     95
The Curse of the Knabenphysik
Max Delbruck
The Coming Storm     101
The Periodic Table
The New Kepler
Gottingen in 1922
Triumph and Crisis
The New Optimism
The Revolution Begins     129
Helgoland
Another Sleepless Night
Waves or Particles
Heisenberg versus Schrodinger
Uncertainty and Complementarity
The King in Decline     155
The Crucial Solvay Conference
Einstein-The King
The Great Synthesis     165
Dirac's Equation
How Max Delbruck Joined Knabenphysik
Physics Begins to Split
Delbruck's Choices
Conservation of Energy     181
The Mysteries of the Nucleus
The Barrier Is Too High
Heaven and Earth
The Revolutionary Proposals
The Three Young Geniuses Each Write a Book
The New Generation Comes of Age     207
TheApprenticeship
Copenhagen 1932
The "Blegdamsvej Faust"
Delbruck's Dilemma
The Miracle Year     229
The Discovery of the Neutron
Copenhagen and the Neutron
The Miracle Year
Big Science Is Born
The Hammer and the Needle
Ehrenfest's End     249
Epilogue: Or What Happened Afterward to the Front Row's Other Six     257
How Meitner Discovered Nuclear Fission
How Bohr Lived Happily Ever After
How Dirac Got Married
How Heisenberg Inspired His Friend to Paint Like Titian
How Pauli's Anima Made Him Leave the United States
How Delbruck Became a Biologist
Coda     271
Acknowledgments     273
Notes     276
Bibliography     293
Index     298
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