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Faust in Copenhagen is an account of an extraordinary group of people who explored the mysteries of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and early 1930s. The author is Gino Segre, a physicist himself, and in the Acknowledgments of this finely written and carefully researched volume he says, “Writing this book has been a labor of love, allowing me to spend time in the company of many of the intellectual heroes of my youth.” Indeed, the figures he writes about were heroes to many of us who had a youthful interest in physics.
In Segre’s book, the lines of history converge on April,1932, in Copenhagen. There a group of physicists meets to review the advance they’ve made in understanding the baffling world of quantum mechanics. They’ve made amazing progress and 1932 was a “miracle year.” At the end of the meeting they’re entertained by a small theatrical production, a comic skit written by fellow-physicist Max Delbruck. It’s a light parody based on Goethe’s culturally heavy Faust, but with the names and personalities changed to resemble the physicists themselves. Of course, we know what they did not, that the political storm gathering in Europe would make their swift gain in knowledge look like a bargain with the devil, a Faustian bargain to be paid for with the horrific birth of the atomic bomb.
Faust in Copenhagen is written for the general reader. It focuses on the physicists, their friendships and conflicts with each other, their competing attempts to understand the structure of the atom, the twists and turns in their lives. For readers with an interest in physics and physicists, this is a fascinating stretch of history — those not interested in such things would probably not pick up the book. There are no equations in this volume, no mathematics at all.
I wonder if you can say much about quantum mechanics without saying at least a little about numbers. One of the people at the center of Segre’s story, Lise Meitner, was an experimentalists, but the others — Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Delbruck, Paul Ehrenfest — dealt primarily with numbers, the results of experiments which were expressed in numbers. What made quantum mechanics so baffling was that these physicists had to figure out what was happening when they couldn’t see what was happening – they couldn’t peer inside an atom. All they had were numbers and the relationship between certain numbers, and from that they had to work backward to guess at would produce those numbers. It took a while to figure things out because, as they discovered, the weird rules governing the sub-atomic world were nothing like the familiar laws of Isaac Newton that determine the world we experience.
Of course, the same set of experimentally derived numbers can mean different things to different people. Certain numbers might suggest that an electron makes elliptical orbits around the nucleus of an atom. But you can’t really trace the orbit and see it do that; maybe the electron does something else that merely produces the same effect as an elliptical orbit. Werner Heisenberg, very young and very bright, hoped to erase what he felt were false visualizations, and he came up with a way of handling the numbers that didn’t depend on a theory of orbital motion but did produced the right results.
At the same time, another physicist who wasn’t part of the Copenhagen group, Erwin Schrodinger, did like to visualize the sub-atomic world and he came up with a completely different way of dealing with numbers and, like Heisenberg’s mathematics, his produced the right answers, too. The two men soon hated each other’s math. Of course it’s possible to discuss their conflicting ideas simply as ideas, but explaining a little bit about Heisenberg’s matrices and Schrodinger’s wave equations might allow the reader a better sense of how different those approaches were.
As it happens, one of the physicists not able to attend that meeting in 1932 was George Gamow, who was detained in Russia by the Soviets. He had had a couple of sojourns in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen in the past and he eventually escaped Soviet Russia, rejoined the physics community in Europe and settled in the United States. Gamow, who was writing important papers in quantum mechanics when he was twenty-four, later wrote a series of books on physics for the general reader; one of those books, Thirty Years That Shook Physics, tells the story of the people who developed quantum theory, much the same tale that Gino Segre tells at greater length and with more detail fifty years later.
Thirty Years That Shook Physics is lighter in tone than Segre’s book and has anecdotes, illustrations, sketches and cartoonish drawings by Gamow himself. It also has some mathematics — not a lot, not blindingly difficult, but real and useful in giving the reader a sense of what the physicists were doing. Segre’s work, with its extended conceit of the Faust story, has more artistry to it, and happily Gamow’s book is still available as a follow-up for interested readers of Faust in Copenhagen. After all, if you don’t like the look of an equation you can always skip it, but if it isn’t there, you won’t know what you’re missing.
Maybe you’ve read “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the poem by William Butler Yeats that begins:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
William Butler Yeats may not be the grand exciting figure he was some decades ago, but his major poems still retains their beauty and mystery. “Innisfree” is one of his earlier, simpler verses. Marilyn Robertson is acquainted with”The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and has named her own poem “Innisfree.” Here it is:
When I can’t sleep, I often recite a poem I’ve memorized,
taking deep breaths between the lines, but not so much
that I ruin the meter. Last night it was Yeats.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…
But I soon realized it was a poor choice, because
the last ting I wanted to do was rise.
Then I began to wonder where Innisfree was, exactly,
and could you get there in a rowboat
with all the things you’d need for a long stay.
Gardening implements. String for the beans to climb.
The beehive, of course. A couple of warm sweaters—
who knows what the weather will be like?
I’m thinking it would be summer and, with any luck,
someone else will have built the cabin—
maybe Yeats himself—and left behind a basket
of wattles to use for kindling, plus a few poems
to read on the porch after supper as I watch
the linnets busily fluttering away the Irish light.
At Critical Pages we have an ongoing campaign to encourage reading, support independent bookstores and save writers from starvation. And we think the best way for you to do all three Good Works is to visit your independent bookstore and buy a book. Or splurge and buy half a dozen. Or a dozen and a half. And keep in mind our upbeat motto: Book Lovers Never Have To Go To Bed Alone.
That photo up there is charming, but what we meant was that if you were a reader you could always take a book to bed. So you’d never need to be alone. You’d have the company of all the characters in the book. That’s what we hoped you’d understand. The photo below is an excellent example of what we mean.
That’s better. Book Lovers Never Have To Go To Bed Alone. Book lovers can take a book to bed.
Marilyn Robertson feels pretty much the way we do when it comes to finding good reasons to do what we want for our aching muscles, our morale, our spiritual well being and — oh, yes — our sanity. And it’s pretty good therapy after listening to the news or reading the paper’s editorial page. Here’s a new poem from her new collection, Living With Light.
That Time of Day
Don’t you love that time of day when
you can shed those dirty clothes and head for the bath?
This feels so good, I always say,
easing down under the bubbles, knowing that
a clean person can no longer go out and do more
yardwork, move more rocks, trap more gophers.
A clean person may sit at the piano and play
an etude, may read an old book
on an old couch, may have some cashews
and a piece of gorgonzola.
Evening will come the the clean person
as it will to the dirty one, but the clean person
will be better able to enjoy it,
having had both the nuts and the cheese,
plus a little something in a minor key.
We hope to use a bubble-bath graphic is by Sasukexkaname, but thus far we’re unable to find Sasukexkaname’s e-mail address.
On the PRS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff, talking with Mark Shields and Rich Lowry, asked Shields about the cost of college tuition nowadays. Shields responded with his usual vigor, plus some interesting economic statistics. Is there a problem with college costs today? His reply:
“I think it’s a real problem. To be very frank, since 2001 in this country,the cost of a four-year college, a public university, room and board, tuition, has gone up 73 percent, 73 percent in 10 years, between 2001 and 2011. At the same time, the median household income in this country has dropped by $3,400. So, I mean, is it a problem? Is the cost of college a problem?”
Mark Shields’ figures are probably based on a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics. The big picture is even more dramatic. (We would say worse, but we don’t want to discourage you.) FinAid, an objective site devoted to information about college costs and college financial aid, notes that “On average, tuition tends to increase about 8% per year. An 8% college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every nine years.” In other words, if you have a nine-year-old child that you hope to send off to college, you — or you and your child — will be paying twice as much as you’d pay today. Here’s a graph displayed by FinAid showing that for thirty years the cost of going to college has always risen faster than the general rate of inflation.By the way, keep in mind that the graph displays the rate of inflation, so when the line turns down that doesn’t mean that the cost of college tuition declines; it’s still going up, but the rate at which it’s going up has slowed.
And, as if you needed any more bad news on this subject, here’s a chart showing that workers have been getting more and more productive, but their wages have remained essentially flat. In other words, workers have been getting better at turning out goods and providing service, but their income hasn’t risen and the cost of sending their kids to college has gone through the roof. Wages have been essentially flat for decades. ECI is the abbreviation for Employment Cost Index, and ECEC is the abbreviation for Employer Cost for Employee Compensation. The chart comes from the Economic Policy Institute.
From time to time we remind you to patronize your local, independent book store.It’s part of our effort to stamp out starving writers by buying their books. In the past, when we suggested that you buy a book, you may have thought we had in mind only a literary novel or a heavy work of non-fiction. We never mentioned pulp fiction, even though it’s one of our guilty pleasures. And by pulp fiction we mean everything from Westerns and mystery stories, to science fiction and romance novels. Pulp fiction writers get paid by the word, and only pennies per word. Buy some pulp fiction and you’ll help stamp out starving writers!
And as long as were talking about pulp fiction we should mention The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. Yes, it was news to us, too. Their web site says, “We’re a group of friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, and complete strangers, who love good books and sunny days and enjoying both as nearly in the altogether as the law allows. Happily, in New York City, the law allows toplessness by both men and women. So that’s the way we do our al fresco reading. If you’re in New York and the weather’s good, won’t you join us sometime…?” The photo above comes from their website. Finish reading this page first, the whole page, then go off and do what you will. We hope that will include buying a book.
It’s here — a dress that becomes transparent when you’re in the mood. (And you thought only Steve Jobs had cool ideas.) Advanced tech artist Daan Roosegaarde and fashion designer Anouk Wipprecht produced the dress. It’s called Intimacy 2.0 — the name doesn’t sound like haute couture, but it does suggest the high degree of science and technology that went into the garment.
The dress is made of leather and — here’s the good part — conductive e-foils that become transparent when exposed to electricity. It’s possible to design a circuit that is activated by an accelerated heart beat or an increase in body heat. And the subsequent flow of electricity will cause the e-foils to become transparent.
According to Studio Roosegaarde’s web site, “Studio Roosegaarde creates interactive designs that explore the dynamic relation between space, people, and technology.” And “By creating interactive designs that instinctively respond to sound and movement, Roosegaarde explores the dawn of a new nature that is evolving from technological innovations.” (more…)
Here’s something to brighten your gray wintry day — a Cara Cara orange. The Cara Cara has an unknown parentage. It’s a kind of bastard orange. It’s believed to have sprung from a mating of the Brazilian Bahia navel and the Washington navel. The orange was found in 1976, growing shamefully on a tree that regularly bore Washington navel oranges at the Hacienda de Cara Cara in Valencia, Venezuela. It could be a mutation. But that kind of immaculate conception excuse doesn’t convince us. We’re not naive. We think this is what happens when young and foolish oranges fool around. (By the way, this is a true story. You can look it up on Wikipedia. Go ahead. We’ll wait here.)
As for the taste of the Cara Cara, it’s been described as having a bit of cherry flavor, but some tasters add that it also has a bit of rose petal and blackberry. We at Critical Pages haven’t eaten any rose petal, but we’ve dined on Cara Cara oranges. In fact, you might say we’ve binged on them. To our jaded palates they taste mostly like oranges. As our high-school teacher liked to say, “De gustibus, non disputandem est.” That’s Latin for “Don’t tell me what it tastes like, I’ll taste it for myself.” You can get into trouble that way, too.
We thought the Flexible Flyer sled was gone forever. True, it remained in memory, but we thought the Flexible Flyer was a victim of indifferent history, tossed on the pyre of worthless junk like the Rosebud sled that closes “Citizen Kane.” But fortunately we were wrong! The Flexible Flyer in the cellar is no longer lonely — Flexible Flyers are being made and sold today
The S.L. Allen Company of Philadelphia patented the Flexible Flyer in 1889. It was revolutionary, because you could actually steer the sled. Prior to that, sleds were built like small sleighs — they had immovable runners. But the Flexible Flyer was flexible; the front section of each runner could be aimed left or right by pulling on a wood crosspiece that was pivoted at its center and attached to the front part of the runners. Soon the Flexible Flyer was the most popular sled in the United States. The next improvement came in the late thirties or forties when the straight back end of each runner was twisted up and around until it faced forward and was bolted safely to the underside of a wooden rail. Prior to that improvement, the back end of the sled was simply lethal. Fortunately, thick winter clothing prevented most kids from getting impaled.
The Flexible Flyer sled gradually disappeared from sight in the 1960s when the S. L. Allen Company was sold. Just about then the two-steel-runner sled began to be replaced, first by aluminum saucers, which were lighter and maybe safer than sleds though they had no steering ability, and then by sheets of sturdy, bright colored plastic that were much cheaper and even safer than metal saucers — and they went down a snowy slope faster. That’s pretty much what you’ll find on the snowy slopes today. Sure, kids fall off and even when they don’t they bump into each other, but the chances of their getting badly hurt are minimal compared to what it used to be like on those old fashioned sleds.
Today we learned from NPR’s “Only A Game” that the Flexible Flyer is back. The company that ended up owning S. L. Allen Company’s patent went bust and sold the Flexible Flyer rights to an old, old sled making rival of the S. L. Allen Company, namely the Paris Manufacturing Company, now known as Paricon. (The business started in South Paris, Maine – not France.) The excellent and informative Flexible Flyer article at “Only A Game” is by Doug Tribou. The Flexible Flyer sled in the photo above comes from our childhood, which was a long, long time ago.