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Merely Personal

Merely Personal

by 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


"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.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Enjoyable and enlightening.
— Christine Kenneally
Christine Kenneally
Enjoyable and enlightening.
New York Times Book Review
New Scientist
The essays are outstanding for their lucidity and their easy flow, rare virtues that any reader should delight in.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this collection of 13 essays, some original, some previously published in the American Scholar, Commentary and elsewhere, Bernstein, a theoretical physicist and veteran writer of the "human side of science," whose Einstein was nominated for a National Book Award, sketches some of the giants of science he has encountered during his career. These include J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb and head of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton during Bernstein's time there; mathematician Kurt G del, who slowly descended into mental illness; and the taciturn Paul Dirac, one of the founders of quantum theory. In writing about scientists and others, like the poets W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, Bernstein explores the difference between "genius" and the "merely very good." In an engaging historical digression, he describes how he investigated the circumstances of a portentous meeting between two contemporary geniuses, poet John Donne and astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1619. He goes on to discuss science as a muse for writers, and then explains what Tom Stoppard--whom he admires immensely--got wrong about quantum physics in his play Hapgood. In another piece, he suggests that Isaac Newton was not in fact being humble when he said, "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." For a former staff writer at the New Yorker, Bernstein is stylistically flat in many essays, although the writing perks up toward the end of the collection. Fans of scientific biographies probably won't find much they haven't already read elsewhere in his character sketches, but they will enjoy the rest, and readers without much knowledge of modern science will learn from his carefully laid-out explications of relativity and quantum mechanics. (Apr. 6) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Bernstein (a physicist who has published numerous articles for non- scientists) focuses his discussion on the human experience within stories about science, the "merely personal" of the quote (Einstein wrote that he went into science to avoid the merely personal). These well-written essays (some were previously published), written for the lay public, describe the famous chess match of Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky, that of Gary Kasparov and IBM's computer Deep Blue, Tom Stoppard's reading of quantum mechanics in this play , a 1987 explosion of a star and the resulting supernova, and give a lengthy history of the experiments with neutrinos. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
This essay collection gathers writings over the past ten years, exploring a range of scientific theories, encounters with scientists, and explanations of how scientific concepts relate to everyday living. The focus on both science and scientists provides a series of lively discussions of how scientific process works.
Kirkus Reviews
A comprehensible, inviting journey into the inner lives of scientists and the relation of the"merely personal" to outsized realms of thought, from chess computers to cosmology. Bernstein (Dawning of the Raj, 2000, etc.) pioneered attempts in the 1960s and '70s to bring cutting-edge scientific thought to the mainstream; he notes that, initially, his articles for the New Yorker (where he was a staff writer from 1961 to 1993) were published anonymously to avoid an intellectual blackballing. This well-executed anthology of unpublished pieces and encores from venues like American Scholar and Commentary concentrates Bernstein's endeavors to clarify both hard-scientific and philosophical inquiries. He steers somewhat elaborate essays back to the titular concept, derived from Einstein's notion that the emotional, social lives of great scientists were of little concern relative to their discoveries. Despite his veneration of Einstein, Bernstein takes issue with this, confronting the resonance of scientists' personal odysseys in a variety of forums. He begins by revisiting the chaotic 1972 Spassky-Fischer chess match (which he'd covered in an aborted Playboy article), comparing it with the existential trauma visited upon human excellence by the 1997 defeat of Gary Kasparov by IBM's Deep Blue."Tom Stoppard's Quantum" provides an original exploration of the incursion of controversial theories into such cultural arenas as the theater, and the inaccurate yet trenchant ways in which they become re-worked. In"Enough Einstein?," he wryly considers biographical problems regarding this famously private genius, discussing competing positions from the lurid to the insightful, as well as the clashofpersonalities involved in preserving Einstein's thought and his estate, which were at odds."The Merely Very Good" again relates physics and the arts, with touching consideration of the fates of those in both fields who are inevitably eclipsed by genius. Other essays offer moral exploration regarding compromised figures of the nuclear age, including Robert Oppenheimer's post—Manhattan Project fall from grace, and those who contributed to or abstained from the Nazi atomic effort. A varied, insightful collection, albeit one steeped in scientific arcana, this will appeal to a select few.

Product Details

Ivan R Dee
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6.26(w) x 8.64(h) x 0.99(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


* 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 Yorker—at 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 machine—IBM'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 explosion—the 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 neutrino—although not the name—was 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 particles—the electron and proton—after the decay. There was much consternation over this conundrum. Niels Bohr even made the radical—and incorrect—suggestion 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 neutrinos—actually 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 electron—the 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 physics—the 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 system—a frame of reference—using 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 neutrino—more 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 flavor—say, an electron neutrino—then 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.

What People are Saying About This

Gerard Piel
Jeremy Bernstein's readers find themselves enjoying his stories about science before they realize they are understanding the science in the stories with the same pleasure.
Hugh Downs
It brings the reader an almost gustatory satisfaction in its balance of flavors and moods.
Joseph Epstein
In these essays Jeremy Bernstein reminds one of how full of surprise and pleasure the world is. He enlightens and entertains. It's a rare combination, but then Mr. Bernstein is a rare bird.
Marvin Minsky
Sparkling observations on science and scientists by one of these few who still know how to tell us what scientists do.
Bernstein's readers find themselves enjoying his stories about science before they realize they are understanding the science...

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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