Saturday, January 19, 2008

Book review: Faust in Copenhagen

Gino Segrè: Faust in Copenhagen - A Struggle for the Soul of Physics

I just finished this book a few days ago, and I quite liked it. I picked it up because I've seen it mentioned a few places, generally positively, and because it relates to Copenhagen.

Segrè tries to not only tell us about a satirical production of Faust made at an informal gathering at the Niels Bohr Institute (in Copenhagen) in 1932, but to use it as a basis for a biography of not only the birth of an entire field of Physics (Quatum), but also provide biographies of several of the people present at that meeting, and explain their contributions to the field.

Considering that most of these people were giants of the field (e.g. Heisenberg or Ehrenfest), and one towered even above them (Niels Bohr), the later alone would seem an impossible task. Yet, Segrè manages not only that, but also manages to explain the role of other important people, like Einstein, Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Schrödinger, and actually gives a quite interesting introduction to the field, and the discoveries that created it.

Segrè is a theoretical physicist himself, and this book is a work of love to the field, and a deep appreciation of those who made it possible.

On a more nationalistic level, it's interesting to see Segrè revere towards Niels Bohr, who is certainly considered a great physicist in Denmark, but is not hold to the same high esteem as Segrè holds him (and which his fellow physicists apparently held him). This esteem comes not only from Bohr's direct contributions to the field, but also to this role as a mentor for some of the greatest minds of the field (Segrè attributes much of the informal tone of theoretic physics to Bohr and his institute).

All in all, I can only recommend the book highly.

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