Merely Personalby Jeremy Bernstein
"Ever since I began studying science,” Jeremy Bernstein writes, “I have been struck by its human characteristics. Yet in his autobiography, Einstein said that he took up science precisely as an alternative to the ‘merely personal.’ In fact there is no alternative to the ‘merely personal,’ as Einstein’s own life demonstrates
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"Ever since I began studying science,” Jeremy Bernstein writes, “I have been struck by its human characteristics. Yet in his autobiography, Einstein said that he took up science precisely as an alternative to the ‘merely personal.’ In fact there is no alternative to the ‘merely personal,’ as Einstein’s own life demonstrates.” Thus the title of Mr. Bernstein’s sparkling new collection of essays, which represent much of his work over the past ten years. When he first began writing about science for the New Yorker years ago, its editor, William Shawn, suggested that Mr. Bernstein write about science as a form of human experience. This he has been doing with great aplomb and success since 1960—his book Einstein, for example, was nominated for a National Book Award. In The Merely Personal, his essays range from an attempt to explain the quantum theory through the use of Tom Stoppard’s play Hapgood, to a critical review of recent books on Einstein. They describe Mr. Bernstein’s encounters with such people as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Bobby Fischer, and W. H. Auden. Readers will find an explanation of the origin of Newton’s contention that he stood on the shoulders of giants; a description of a surreal encounter with the logician Kurt Gödel; a discussion of computer chess; and an analysis of the attempts of the Germans to build an atomic bomb during World War II. Most of all they will find a relentlessly curious mind at work, its product conveyed in a compulsively readable style.
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- Ivan R Dee
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* As I was reading over the essays that I wanted to include in this collection, I made a curious discovery. I have been writing about science for the general public for some four decades, but, as far as I can remember, I have never written a "popular science" article. By a popular science article I mean an article that attempts to explain some scientific subject in its own terms, without reference to the people and circumstances that produced it. All my articles on science involve people and places. I have been interested in this human side of science ever since I got involved with it. No one ever said to me that my articles should have people and places in them. It was just the way I thought about things. That is probably why my way of writing about these matters fitted so well with the New Yorkerat least until the balance shifted from science to people and places. Thus I do not see a very clear division between the articles I include in this section and the next except that in this section the weight is more on the science and in the next it is more on the people and places. But it is really a continuum.
The first article in the section is divided into two parts. The first deals with the chess match played in Iceland in the summer of 1972 between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. As the reader will discover, it was a scene that borders on the indescribable. The second part deals with the chess match played between the current world champion, Gary Kasparov, and a machineIBM's Deep Blue. Kasparov lost. Perhaps we all lost,forreasons I will explain. I will also explain my own interest in these chess-playing machines and how they work, which goes back a long way. I have owned several, including some of the early ones in which moves were signaled on an actual board when a light flashed on one of the squares. The present generation of "machines" are really computer programs. They don't make obvious mistakes, and if you make one they will, as the chess players like to say, cut you up like a chicken. That is what happened to poor Kasparov. I notice he has not been eager for a rematch.
The second entry in this section grew out of an invitation I received in the fall of 1994 to write a short commentary for the New Theater Review, a publication of the Lincoln Center Theater in New York. The theater was putting on a play by Tom Stoppard called Hapgood. Remarkably, this play had been inspired by Stoppard's reading about quantum mechanics. While I am second to no one in my admiration for Stoppard, having read the play I felt the connection was, to put it mildly, overdone. My dilemma was that I had only about a thousand words to explain this. I did the best I could, but the result, which was published in their fall issue, didn't really satisfy me. I then sat down and wrote what I really wanted to say without worrying about the word length. That is what I have included here. It has never been published before.
The final two selections in this section deal with, respectively, the cosmic and the cosmologic. The cosmic concerns the explosion that was witnessed in February 1987 of an unprepossessing blue star known as Sanduleak -69° 202. In a relatively short time it became a supernova (a very large and luminous explosion), which was then known as 1987A. I was especially interested in this because of what happened the day before the astronomers actually "saw" the explosionthe day before the visible light, which had been traveling for some 170,000 years, got here. The light was preceded by the arrival of a cohort of ghostly neutrinos"ghostly" because they scarcely interact with anything. That is why they escaped the detritus of the exploding star before the light, which took some time to diffuse through the matter. That they were detected was a bit of an accident. Experiments were under way to detect neutrinos but for an entirely different purpose. I describe both the experiments and the purpose in the essay. It was these experiments that rather accidentally detected the cosmic neutrinos. What I do not describe in the essay is the neutrino itself. I will fill in this lacuna here.
The neutrinoalthough not the namewas invented in 1931 by the Austrian-born theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli was responding to an apparent paradox in radioactive decays in which electrons are emitted. These are what physicists call beta decays. The prototypical beta decay is one in which a neutron decays into a slightly less massive proton and an electron. One can measure the various energies of the electrons produced in this decay when an entire sample of neutrons is studied. It turns out that this distribution of energies has a very characteristic shape. Most significantly, there is not a single energy but a continuum. This was very puzzling because one observed only two particlesthe electron and protonafter the decay. There was much consternation over this conundrum. Niels Bohr even made the radicaland incorrectsuggestion that energy might not be conserved. Pauli then solved the problem, but at a price. The price was the suggestion that an unobserved, electrically neutral third particle was emitted in the decay, and that it carried off the missing energy. Pauli was so embarrassed by this idea that he never published it. He presented it in a letter which was then circulated. One of the readers was Enrico Fermi, who created the first neutrino theory of beta decay and named the particle "the little neutral one" in Italian. For the next twenty-odd years the neutrino had a very peculiar role in elementary particle physics. Everyone agreed that it must exist, though no one had seen one. Thus it was always included in theories of beta decay but with a certain sense of embarrassment. That all changed in 1955-1956.
At this time two experimental physicists, Frederick Reines and Clyde Cowan, were able to make use of a very large nuclear reactor at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. The spent fuel elements from this reactor contain radioactive isotopes that beta decay. These decays produce a huge flux of neutrinosactually anti-neutrinos. I will discuss the difference shortly. Some [10.sup.13] anti-neutrinos per square centimeter per second are emitted. For our purposes, what is important is that when an anti-neutrino collides with a proton it can produce a neutron and a positive electronthe positron. The positron wanders around until it finds a stray electron that it annihilates, producing a very characteristic burst of radiation. This is what Cowan and Reines observed, but not often. Because of the weakness of the neutrino's interactions, they saw only some three events an hour. It took many months to collect enough events to be sure that there was an effect. Now, with large accelerators, it is routine to produce beams of neutrinos and anti-neutrinos. In any event, after 1956 there was no question that the neutrino existed. Then came the Glorious Revolution.
The Glorious Revolution began in the summer of 1956 and was in full cry by early 1957. It involved the overthrow of what had been an accepted canon of symmetry in physicsthe symmetry of left and right, also known as parity symmetry. This is a bit abstract, but in essence what it said was that you could make a coordinate systema frame of referenceusing three fingers of your right hand or three fingers of your left hand held at right angles, and it didn't matter in terms of the physical laws. But it turned out that it did matter. The weak interactions that produced beta decay were not left-right symmetric. Much of the theoretical work done on this was done by two Chinese-American physicists, T. D. Lee and C. N. Yang. My first serious scientific profile for the New Yorker was a dual profile of them and an explanation of the Glorious Revolution. I think it was the first really serious scientific article the magazine published. The new results opened up some dramatic possibilities. It turned out that if the neutrino masses were exactly zero, one could revive a very elegant theory of the neutrino that the mathematician Hermann Weyl had created many years earlier but which had been abandoned since it seemed to violate parity symmetry. This theory suggested that as a neutrino moved, it spun in a fixed direction while the anti-neutrino spun in the opposite direction. (This is a bit homespun, but I don't want to go into the question of the spin of elementary particles here.)
All of this was very unexpected and therefore very exciting, but there was more to come. In 1962 it was shown that there was more than one kind of neutrinomore than one "flavor," as one would now say. The neutrinos emitted with ordinary electrons are called for obvious reasons electron neutrinos. But there is a heavy electron that is known as the muon. Neutrinos emitted with it are called muon neutrinos, and in 1962 it was shown that they are a distinct kind of particle. Thirteen years later it was shown that there was a third kind of neutrino which physicists call the tau neutrino since it is emitted with a still heavier electron, the tau. As far as we know, this is the extent of it. It is possible that we have found all the types of neutrinos that exist. But the fact that there were these distinct types raised a new possibility. The Weyl theory required that the neutrino have exactly zero mass. Experiments showed that at least the electron neutrino had a tiny mass, if it had any at all. But no one could find any good theoretical reason why the mass should be exactly zero. When the new neutrinos were discovered there seemed to be even less reason. Hence people began exploring the consequences of the neutrinos having small masses. One of these consequences is very remarkable. It turns out that if you produce a neutrino of a given flavorsay, an electron neutrinothen if, say, the muon neutrino has a different mass, some of the electron neutrinos can convert themselves into muon neutrinos or tau neutrinos. This is a testable proposition because you can look for the different flavors as the neutrinos evolve in time. Indeed, this has been done and is still being done. It appears as if this transformation actually does take place. This would imply that at least one of the neutrinos has a mass. Pauli, what have you wrought! Now to the cosmology.
In 1917 Einstein produced the first modern cosmological theory. As I discuss in the essay, his view of what the universe was is totally different from our own and totally different from the universe as Einstein came to know it four decades later. Einstein's 1917 universe consisted of only our Milky Way galaxy, and this, he decided, was stationary, neither expanding nor contracting. But he found that he could not produce such a universe with his new theory of gravitation, which suggested that all massive objects attract each other gravitationally. Thus he modified his theory by introducing a new force of unknown origin which counteracted gravity in the large and kept the universe stationary. This he called the "cosmologic member," and its strength is characterized by a number we call the cosmological constant. In my essay I trace the rise and fall of this constant and its possible resurrection. Einstein came to believe that its introduction was his biggest scientific "blunder." But was it? Read the essay and decide.
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Meet the Author
For nearly three decades Jeremy Bernstein wrote profiles of scientists for the New Yorker. Many were prize–winners, and his book Einstein was nominated for the National Book Award. Mr. Bernstein, a theoretical physicist best known for his nonscientific work, has also written The Dawning of the Raj and Oppenheimer as well as Hitler's Uranium Club; Three Degrees Above Zero; and Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos. He lives in New York City and Aspen, Colorado.
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