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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.