Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics and the Birth of the Nuclear Age

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2007, 12:00am

Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics and the Birth of the Nuclear Age

by Gino Segre

Jonathan Cape, HK$208

It's often enjoyable reading people's accounts of their passions. Gino Segre, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, is passionate about physics and its modern development.

His book centres on the lives and careers of his intellectual heroes. In particular, it focuses on Neils Bohr, one of the founders of quantum physics, and his 1932 conference at the Copenhagen Institute which was crucial for the birth of the nuclear age.

At the conference, a skit on Goethe's Faust ridiculed some of the major participants, particularly Bohr. Segre's use of the skit reflects his desire to make the story accessible.

Bohr, the Danish genius of theoretical physics, was an attractive character - athletic but gentle, persistent but patient, hospitable and generous.

He guided the evolution from mechanical to quantum physics, and Segre enables the reader to feel some of the excitement of theoreticians and experimentalists exploring the ever smaller and more elusive components of creation with results that changed the world.

Some of the explorers were rigorous mathematicians; others such as the German Erwin Heisenberg seem to have intuited the structure of matter.

Segre, the nephew of Emilio Segre (a pioneering Italian physicist and Nobel prize winner), has great admiration for the members of this scientific community, drawn mainly from Europe. But, the nagging thought arises that these were also the people who brought on Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl. It may seem unfair to recall these things and ask if it would have been better if these brilliant scientists, nearly all Nobel prize winners, had been banned from their laboratories.

Why were so few of them anxious about the possible consequences of splitting the atom? They were on a roller coaster of discovery without foreseeing where it would lead. Would more political awareness have helped?

A few of the scientists had Nazi or at least patriotic German sympathies, but many were victims of totalitarianism, either communism or fascism. They fled to the US or Britain.

As the second world war progressed, the priority of many was to beat Hitler in the race for the atomic bomb and, when that had been done, prevent destruction of humanity by the new weapons.

Several of the protagonists of the book ended up at Los Alamos in New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer was guiding the development of the bomb and Bohr was preaching disarmament and world peace.

The scientific community was divided about the new discoveries in much the same way as it is today about issues from global warming to bioethics.

Segre celebrates a period when outstanding scientists worked with few collaborators and simple means, in marked contrast to the huge teams and machines of contemporary science that cost billions of dollars.

He profiles a host of physicists, including Albert Einstein, New Zealand's Ernest Rutherford, Italian Enrico Fermi, American Oppenheimer and many more. Indeed, there are probably too many and some names are confusingly similar (such as Bohr and Born).

At times, the chronology switches backwards confusingly. Surveys lack punch, but Segre provides an informative insight into a community that ultimately ran into Faustian challenges.