Here is the intensely personal and often humorous autobiography of one of the most distinguished theoretical physicists of his generation, Sir Rudolf Peierls. Born in Germany in 1907, Peierls was indeed a bird of passage," whose career of fifty-five years took him to leading centers of physicsincluding Munich, Leipzig, Zurich, Copenhagen, Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford, and J. Robert Oppenheimer's Los Alamos. Peierls was a major participant in the revolutionary development of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and 1930s, working with some of the pioneers and, as he puts it, "some of the great characters" in this field.
Originally published in 1985.
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Bird of Passage
Recollections of a Physicist
By Rudolf Peierls
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Origin and Background
I was born in 1907. The suburb of Berlin where 1 was born and grew up was dominated by the cable factory of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (A.E.G.), of which my father, Heinrich Peierls, was the managing director. He came from a family of Jewish merchants in Breslau (now Wroclaw) and had risen rapidly in the new industrial empire of the A.E.G. He had not been a great success at school; his abilities were not in academics, and the teaching seems to have been very uninspired. So, at the suggestion of the school, he left early. At this time the death of his father had left the family short of money, and he took up a commercial apprenticeship. In his time this involved a very tough regime. Working hours were long. When he asked his employer for permission to leave early on his last day before leaving town on a night train, so that he could have a farewell dinner with his mother, permission was given rather grudgingly: "Your train does not leave until 11." He moved to Berlin to take a junior post in the A.E.G. In approximately twelve years he became the managing director of a large factory.
My father was respected as an outstandingly efficient administrator. He would always anticipate ways in which plans, big or small, could go wrong because of misunderstandings or because people did unexpected things, and he would try to prepare for such mistakes. One of his favourite sayings was, "No man is wise enough to think of all the ideas that can occur to a fool." I am told he was the first to introduce time-and-motion study in German industry.
As a busy man who had to husband his time, he had a device to get rid of visitors who stayed too long. There was a button under his desk that he could press without being noticed, and this would alert a secretary to come in and say he was wanted urgently somewhere in the factory. He once told this to a colleague he visited in his office, who in turn confided his own scheme: when a long-winded visitor would arrive, he would say a code word to his secretary, and she would appear after a reasonable interval to tell him that the deputy director wanted him urgently. At that very moment, the secretary appeared and said just that. My father departed hurriedly in spite of the colleague's protestations that it was all a mistake.
He was good with people because he understood them, and because he respected them with all their frailties. Even now, nearly forty years after his death, I still encounter people who remember his help or kind advice with gratitude. He was not religious and did not like philosophical discussions of ethical principles; but it was obvious to him, and he made it obvious to us, that certain things were just not done.
He was a great raconteur and had an inexhaustible stock of jokes and anecdotes. Many of these were Jewish jokes of the kind that Jewish people liked to tell about each other but did not like to hear from Gentiles. The jokes often poked fun at the stereotypical characteristics of Jews, as in the one about the difference between Jews and Gentiles: "If a Gentile has had a glass of beer and is still thirsty he will say 'Waiter, another glass!' If a Jew has had a glass of beer and is still thirsty, he will go to his doctor and ask 'Have I got diabetes?'" Then, there was the question of what every Jewish housewife possessed: "The best husband, the sweetest children, one room too few, and nothing to wear." He was also not above a rather more primitive kind of humour, as in the riddle: "What is this: You eat with it, you drink from it, you write with it, and you sleep in it?" The answer: "A spoon, a glass, a pen, and a bed."
He also had a great stock of amusing happenings. One of his favourites was the story about the factory director's wife in a small suburb of Dresden, who returned from town on the last suburban train at night, and went to the toilet at the station. She found that the door lock was faulty and could not be opened from the inside. She called for help, but the station staff had gone home, and she was trapped inside. Hours later she heard steps and again shouted for help. The night watchman heard her and opened the door: "But Frau Direktor, what are you doing here?" She explained that the door would not open from the inside. "Nonsense," he said, "I will show you," and before she could stop him, he was inside, and of course the door did not open for him either. So there they both remained until the station staff came on duty in the morning and released them. They promised each other, and also made the station people promise, not to talk about this incident; but because the watchman had not clocked in on his rounds, he had to appear at a disciplinary hearing. The lady had to testify where the watchman had spent the period from midnight to 6 A.M. The result was such embarrassing ridicule that her husband had to move to another town and another job.
Father claimed that people from Breslau were afraid of appearing ostentatious. He used to tell us how, in a train on holiday abroad, some passengers had ticket booklets whose coupons indicated, by their colour, that the travellers had left home, and were returning home, by second class, while all intermediate travel was by first class. Evidently they did not wish to be seen travelling in luxury. He then said, "These people must be from Breslau." And so they were.
He also delighted in teasing my grandmother, his mother-in-law, about the story of the partridge. She was in charge of the household when my mother was away, and the canteen manager, who had been shooting partridge, offered some to us, as was his practice. But my grandmother told him we could not use them. When Father remonstrated, she replied; "You men don't understand these things, but I have checked: they will not keep till Sunday!" The thought of eating partridge on a weekday evidently had not occurred to her.
Father was not very good with his hands, and, for example, he never learned to tie a knot. He had his boots fitted with special hooks on which he could anchor the laces without tying them. He also could not shave himself, and the barber came daily to shave him.
My mother, his cousin, nee Elisabeth Weigert, was eleven years younger. She was a gentle person and very attractive. I do not remember her very clearly because from the beginning of the First World War, when I was seven, she was very busy with charitable and other volunteer work, and we did not see much of her. Later she suffered from depression, from which she had barely recovered when she developed Hodgkin's disease and died in 1921.
I was the youngest in the family, being eight and six years junior to my brother and sister, respectively. I was looked after by an adoring nanny, who complied somewhat reluctantly with the injunction not to spoil me. She had originally come into the family to look after the two older children, and when a third child was due she wanted to leave. But she was persuaded to stay. Eventually I became her favourite, for which I can claim little credit. As a small boy I must have been rather spoiled. It was the custom in the household to give two rings on the bell to summon the maid, in order to avoid confusion with the doorbell, and, being a logical child, I decided to extend the principle to using three rings for calling the nanny. She put up with this until the family stopped the practice.
She was a Roman Catholic, and another injunction was not to indoctrinate me, which she observed quite fairly. We children were actually baptised as Protestants. Although our parents were not religious, my father thought this would allow us to make our own choices when we grew up. (I did make my choice when I came of age by leaving the Church.)
We attended Scripture lessons at school, and only gradually became aware of our Jewish origins. In pre-Hitler Germany, being Jewish was a bearable handicap. There was no official discrimination, and discrimination by "private enterprise" was sporadic and could usually be avoided. But one learned to be on one's guard in social encounters. Any new acquaintance might be an anti-Semite, and if one's name and appearance were not too obviously Jewish, one always had to gauge the point at which it would be wise to explain the position, to forestall embarrassment. In some way this was a good education.
Our flat was in a house owned by the factory and was adjacent to it. The address was Kunheimstrasse 1, but the street itself ceased to exist once it was bought by the A.E.G., and we felt distinctly superior living in a nonexistent street. Our suburb Oberschoneweide ("upper beautiful pasture"; its colloquial name, expressing typical Berlin humour, was Oberschweineode, "upper swine desert") was close enough to the city by train and tram for visits to theatres and concerts, and to entertain guests from the city and other suburbs. My parents entertained a good deal. Many of their friends were musical, some professionally, and both parents had good voices. My mother played the piano a little, and my brother became a good accompanist on the piano, so we had music on most of these social occasions. We had guests on most weekends, and enjoyed games with them in the garden in the summer and indoors in the winter.
Life changed, of course, when the war broke out in 1914. My father became much busier than before and had less time for the family. He also took less time for lunch, which he usually had at home; but he retained the habit of a brief siesta, during which he slept in an armchair for fifteen minutes and awakened rested.
In his attitude toward the war he was a realist and was not caught up by the war fever. Rather, he cursed the inefficiency and stupidity of the government that had involved the country in an unnecessary war. He realised quite early that Germany was going to lose; but he fulfilled his duty in converting the factory to wartime needs, and he worked on committees that organised the use of scarce materials and substitutes. I was too young in 1914 to comprehend the gravity of the situation. For example, one day a guest gave me a little rubber stamp which printed "Gott strafe England" (God punish England), and I delightedly stamped the message onto any object within reach, until my horrified parents noticed and confiscated the stamp.
The wartime shortages made no deep impression on me. There was enough to eat, and if the food was simpler and less interesting than before, I hardly noticed. I do remember that we were not allowed to have both butter and jam on our bread, and even today I feel slightly wicked in taking both.
One day, about a year after the outbreak of war, we were visiting friends, who said they had a special treat for me. They presented me with a bread roll. Rolls had not been baked since the start of the war, and I was specially fond of them, so I bit into this one with great delight. It seemed delicious, if a little dry. Our hosts were amazed. The roll was left over from prewar days, and served as a joke; it was so hard that other visitors had been unable to make an impression on it. A change brought on by the war that pleased me particularly was that the car that was at my father's disposal for official journeys could no longer be used for private purposes, and we used a carriage and horse instead — a much more interesting mode of transportation from the point of view of an eight-year-old.
No close relations were fighting in the war. My brother was called up in 1918, and after completing basic training was sent to France; but the war ended before he had to go to the front. An uncle did serve in the medical corps, and he brought back some interesting stories of his adventures.
In our suburb, my father was an important person, but my parents were insistent that this should not make us feel important. One episode left an impression on me. A cleaner from the factory, called Lehmann, would come to our house to empty the dustbins and perform other small jobs, and by some members of the family he was referred to as "the little dustbin-Lehmann." So I also adopted this usage when talking about him. This brought a sharp rebuke from my parents: "Who are you to talk in this tone about a man who does an honest day's work?" I saw the point of this remark, and took it to heart. Ever after, I tried hard not to presume.
But sometimes my effort at humility became a little pedantic. My morning walk to school took me past the factory gate, where the uniformed porter would salute me. Now, in the German etiquette of the time, there was a firm rule that the socially inferior person must greet the more respected person first. I therefore felt it intolerable that the porter should salute me before I would greet him, so I doffed my school cap before he had time to salute me. But then he started saluting earlier, forcing me to take my cap off at a greater distance, until the exchange of greetings took place as soon as I was visible. No doubt he and his colleagues found this an amusing game. But stripped of the exaggeration, I always remembered the lesson of the little Lehmann.
I recall another episode that illustrates my concern not to exploit my father's status. Our school required its pupils to wear a cap of a different colour, or with different stripes, for each form (grade). One year I had left it too late to order the new cap, and went to the local hatter's shop only a few days before the beginning of the new school year. The hatter was cross and made sarcastic remarks about young gentlemen who could not bring their orders in time and then wanted the work done in a hurry, and he would not promise to have the cap ready in time. When he took down the particulars and heard my name, his attitude suddenly changed: "Oh, the son of Herr Direktor Peierls? We shall certainly have the cap ready." I went home distressed by this flagrant social discrimination. I discovered only much later that this hatter had arrived many years before as a penniless Jewish immigrant, and that my father had helped set him up in business and sent him customers. So the apparent class discrimination was only one kindness done in return for another.
I started school a year late. I had to wear glasses for reading, and my parents felt that I could not be trusted to handle this problem at school without losing or breaking my glasses. They were probably right. So for the first year I was taught at home by my mother. I considered this a great deprivation, of course, and counted the days until I could get to school. Within a week, however, I felt school was rather boring. I continued to feel that way for the next two years in preparatory school and for the following nine years in the local Gymnasium in our suburb. The standards in the latter were not high, and I could get good marks without exerting myself, and I was usually at the top of my form. So I never really learned to work hard while I was at school, and that became a handicap later, because learning to work when you are older is much more painful.
In subjects such as history or geography, where one has to know facts, I often failed to know the answers to the teachers' questions. My remedy was to raise my hand enthusiastically, when the teacher would say, "I know that you know it; I want to hear it from the others." On the rare occasions when he could not get an answer from the others and called on me, he would not believe that I knew nothing. "You obviously are not in good form today," he would say.
But I had no such problems with languages. The emphasis was on translating from a foreign language, and I soon discovered that you can understand and translate a text if you know only about half the words in each sentence; it is usually easy to guess the rest. This was a rather unorthodox education in languages, but it was useful, and I have enjoyed translating ever since.
Speaking foreign languages was another matter. In our school the principal foreign language was French, which we were taught for nine years. The teacher was, for most of this time, a man whose command of spoken French was very poor. He explained, "Our object is not to teach you to speak French fluently; any waiter can learn that. We teach you to appreciate the grammar." Our principal was a specialist in French and had written a textbook. So when my parents had some French guests, they invited the principal to dinner, thinking he would enjoy the opportunity to converse in his specialty. But the poor man was afraid to open his mouth the whole evening. After having been taught this way for nine years, I am not surprised that I am fairly good at French grammar, but quite inadequate in conversation. Fortunately I fared better with English, which was taught only for the last four years. We had two young teachers who had been to England and who managed to convey to us their feeling for English as a live language.
Excerpted from Bird of Passage by Rudolf Peierls. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. vii
- Acknowledgments, pg. ix
- Preface, pg. xi
- 1. Origin and Background, pg. 1
- 2. The Student Years, pg. 16
- 3. Assistant to Pauli, pg. 46
- 4. Rockefeller Fellow, pg. 82
- 5. Growing Roots in England, pg. 99
- 6. A Provincial Chair, pg. 127
- 7. War, pg. 145
- 8. Manhattan District, pg. 182
- 9. Settled in Birmingham, pg. 211
- 10. Teaching, pg. 249
- 11. Travelling and Other Sidelines, pg. 261
- 12. Problems of Nuclear Weapons, pg. 282
- 13. Oxford, pg. 289
- 14. "Security" Troubles, pg. 321
- 15. Retirement, pg. 326
- Epilogue, pg. 340
- Brief Chronology, pg. 342
- Index, pg. 343