Monday, July 16, 2007

218)Two books about giants of 20th century Physics: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg; quotes of Aga Khan IV.

Book details
1)Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics By Gino Segrè

2)Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science By David Lindley

History of science

Revolutionaries at work and play

Jul 12th 2007
From The Economist print edition

The giant brains who devised quantum mechanics, whatever that means.

PHYSICS was revolutionised by quantum mechanics almost a century ago. The bizarre consequences include the fundamental truth that it is impossible to know everything about the world; the meaning of quantum mechanics still provokes head-scratching by physicists and philosophers alike. A portrait of the great personalities who drove the revolution is provided by these two books.

Perhaps because the subject was mathematically complex and ran counter to classical notions of physical laws, the community of physicists who developed it was small and overwhelmingly young.

In “Faust in Copenhagen” Gino Segrè identifies seven people who devised quantum mechanics: six men and a woman. Five of them went on to become Nobel laureates, and the city in which they did much of their work has become synonymous with the dominant philosophical understanding of the subject. The “Copenhagen interpretation” says that the world people experience is decided upon when the many possibilities of the quantum world collapse to become the certainty of the classical one. (A rival to this view is that the many possibilities of the quantum world all continue to be real and that there are thus many worlds.)

The book takes as its organising theme a short comedy written and performed by the more mischievous members of this community as entertainment at the end of an informal academic gathering held in April 1932. The sketch was based on Goethe's “Faust” where the hero, famously frustrated by the limits to his learning, makes a pact with the devil.

Unlike the other revolution in 20th-century physics, Einstein's general theory of relativity, which emerged from the mind of a single man, quantum mechanics was a group effort. Indeed, it could be argued that it is the more profound achievement and could not have emerged from a single mind. Each person developing it needed the others to help explain what it was they had achieved. But the personalities were hugely different from one another.

Niels Bohr, the elder statesman of the community, was an athletic team worker and family man who needed constant companionship to test his thoughts. He played God in the comedy and is seen above, on the right, studying a spinning top with Wolfgang Pauli:

Pauli (who had the part of Mephistopheles) was a portly womaniser given to drinking and smoking; his razor-sharp wit was both scathing and hilarious. Paul Dirac would today be diagnosed with a personality disorder: he could not grasp anything other than the direct logic of the spoken word. Werner Heisenberg was intensely competitive and a tacit supporter of Nazi Germany.

Mr Segrè's tome is a mostly engaging tale: well-researched and fully aware of the political backdrop. He remains true to the scientific language and thought of the time, not resorting to modern concepts. But despite a warning that “there is a good deal of science in the book, as much as can be accommodated without the machinery of equations”, the story neglects the physics. It misses the opportunity to give some appreciation of the beauty of quantum mechanics—and to explain exactly where the subject becomes so confounding.

By contrast David Lindley's volume puts a more equal weight on the science and the personalities who devised it. The book is charmingly written and a delight to read. It has, however, the wrong title: “Uncertainty” is but a single part of quantum mechanics and Mr Lindley covers far more ground, taking readers through a history of atomic and nuclear physics. This enables him to include Einstein who, despite receiving his Nobel prize for early work on quantum mechanics, devoted much of his efforts to opposing the Copenhagen interpretation of it.

Both books highlight the human element of science. Although a Nobel prize is awarded to no more than three individuals, fundamental physics is often done as teamwork. Biographies that capture not only the people involved but also how they interact are a welcome antidote to the impression that the best science is done by the genius alone in his garret.

Qutes of Aga Khan IV:

God has given us the miracle of life with all its attributes: the extraordinary manifestations of sunrise and sunset, of sickness and recovery, of birth and death, but surely if He has given us the means with which to remove ourselves from this world so as to go to other parts of the Universe, we can but accept as further manifestations the creation and destructions of stars, the birth and death of atomic particles, the flighting new sound and light waves. I am afraid that the torch of intellectual discovery, the attraction of the unknown, the desire for intellectual self-perfection have left us. (Aga Khan IV,Speech, 1963, Mindanao, Phillipines)

It (Surah of Light from the Quran) tells us that the oil of the blessed olive tree lights the lamp of understanding, a light that belongs neither to the East nor West. We are to give this light to all. In that spirit, all that we learn will belong to the world and that too is part of the vision I share with you. (Aga Khan IV, Speech 25 Sept. 1979)

The truth, as the famous Islamic scholars repeatedly told their students, is that the spirit of disciplined, objective enquiry is the property of no single culture, but of all humanity. To quote the great physician and philosopher, Ibn Sina: "My profession is to forever journeying, to travel about the universe so that I may know all its conditions." (Aga Khan IV, Speech, 16 March 1983, Karachi, Pakistan)

In this context, would it not also be relevant to consider how, above all, it has been the Qur'anic notion of the universe as an expression of Allah's will and creation that has inspired, in diverse Muslim communities, generations of artists, scientists and philosophers? Scientific pursuits, philosophic inquiry and artistic endeavour are all seen as the response of the faithful to the recurring call of the Qur'an to ponder the creation as a way to understand Allah's benevolent majesty. As Sura al-Baqara proclaims: 'Wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah'.The famous verse of 'light' in the Qur'an, the Ayat al-Nur, whose first line is rendered here in the mural behind me, inspires among Muslims a reflection on the sacred, the transcendent. It hints at a cosmos full of signs and symbols that evoke the perfection of Allah's creation and mercy. (Aga Khan IV,Speech, 2003, London, U.K.)


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4(2006)
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3(1952)
Our interpretation of Islam places enormous value on knowledge. Knowledge is the reflection of faith if it is used properly. Seek out that knowledge and use it properly:Aga Khan 4(2005)