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Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics Paperback – May 27, 2008


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (May 27, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143113739
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143113737
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #907,958 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Segrè (A Matter of Degrees) once again applies a human scale to important physics topics in a way that's as informative and accessible as it is appealing. Beginning in 1929, Niels Bohr hosted an annual gathering in Copenhagen for his fellow physicists, where they joked and argued about the new theory of quantum mechanics. Tradition demanded that the younger physicists entertain with a skit, and in 1932, the centenary of Goethe's death, the entertainment was Max Delbrück's parody of Faust, with the proponents of classical physics and the new quantum mechanics fighting for primacy. The discovery of the neutron and the positron had disturbed classical atomic theory, while quantum mechanics raised troubling issues, such as how one could find the true position of an electron and how the photon could be both a particle and a wave. Segrè brings the scientists and their ideas to vivid life, from convivial Bohr and iconoclastic Wolfgang Pauli (nicknamed "Scourge of God"), to emotionally guarded Werner Heisenberg, gracious Lise Meitner, reclusive Paul Dirac and others, as well as the consequences of their discoveries. For after 1932 came Hitler and WWII, and a new physics that could never be as intimate, or as innocent, as it had once been. (June 18)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“ [A] fascinating story, insightfully told and consistently engaging . . . Segrè speaks to the reader with enthusiasm, at times unable to conceal his excitement about the fascinating story he’s sharing, yet his telling is deftly and dramatically structured, providing necessary historical and scientific context, clearly and concisely.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“ Cracking good narrative history.”
Time --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

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Well written book consists of a lot of interesting historical information.
Boris Ovetsky
I quickly read through a translation of Faust, while in the middle of this book, and it was worth it.
David R. Ingham
This is a brilliant retelling of a fascinating story of scientific discovery.
David B Richman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Wesley L. Janssen VINE VOICE on October 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Some years ago I read, and greatly enjoyed, George Gamow's `Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory,' so I new something of Segre's theme as soon as I saw his title (Segre is a professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania). In Gamow's book, the account of the Copenhagen "Faust" of 1932 had been a postscript, included to show how great minds--the discoverers and framers of quantum theory--were given to playfulness. Gamow, unfortunately, wasn't present that evening, having been denied travel to Denmark by the Soviet police state, but he not only included the script of the skit in his book, his own drawings illustrated it. Appropriately, Segre's book is dedicated to the memory of Gamow. But the `Faust' skit/ parody is just a poignant `thumbnail' of a hugely fascinating period of explosive intellectual achievements.

Segre's book starts slowly, perhaps awkwardly from a literary perspective (at least it struck me that way as I began to read it), but immediately he foreshadows that his accounts are pregnant with fascinating scientific, human, and historical insights. Segre does not fail to make good on the promise.

1932 proved to be "the miracle year" and something of a triumphal culmination for quantum theory, not because all of its problems were then solved--they still are not--but because by the end of that year its startling cadre of guiding geniuses, most notably Bohr, Pauli, Heisenberg, Fermi, and Dirac, had all done their finest work (though still admired by the `boy physicists,' Planck and Einstein had made their great contributions two and three decades earlier). It was the golden year of the golden age of physics, the headiest time in the whole history of science.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By David B Richman on October 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Gino Segre is a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania and who's uncle Emilio Segre studied under Enrico Fermi. In his new book "Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the soul of Physics" he effectively uses a skit parody of Goethe's "Faust" to introduce the reader to the founders of Quantum Theory and especially to the "Copenhagen interpretation" of Quantum Mechanics. The skit was conceived by George Gamow (who later published it in one of his own books) and mostly written by Max Delbruck. It was to be performed by the younger scientists at Niels Bohr's annual gathering at his Copenhagen Institute in 1932. The attenders were many of the then and future big names of theoretical physics, plus Lise Meitner, the lone woman and an experimental physicist. These included Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Meitner and Delbruck. Wolfgang Pauli did not make it, but was portrayed as "Mephisto" in the skit. Einstein never attended these meetings because he was not happy with the whole turn of Quantum Mechanics, which seemed to make the universe a victim of chance.

This is a brilliant retelling of a fascinating story of scientific discovery. Segre also weaves some of his own family history into the tale, which gives the reader a taste of the personal and political, as well as the scientific, turmoil of the times. The year also saw Adolph Hitler's rise to power in Germany, an event that would soon affect them all. Such connections help us understand the monumental difficulties and the strengths and weaknesses of the people involved in this remarkable period. In fact 1932 was called "The Miracle Year" by many physicists, although Einstein, for one, was not satisfied.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Chad Davies on July 21, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In "Faust in Copenhagen", Gino Segre takes the reader through the history of the development of the theory of quantum mechanics by looking at the people and their work that made the revolution possible. The book wisely focuses more on the personalities and lives of the young and brilliant minds that reshaped humanity's understanding of the world of the very small than on the specifics of the highly technical and mathematic science done by those minds.

The centerpiece of the narrative is the 1932 meeting at Neil Bohr's Copenhagen Institute in what is called by many the "Miracle Year" of science and the the touchstone of this narrative is the parody of Goethe's Faust written and performed by the junior attendees at the conference. It is through the lines of this parody that Segre introduces us to the principle players in the narrative and shows us the issues facing them as they passed from being the young, upstart visionaries they came into the story as to becoming the wisened old hands (so to speak).

The central figure in the story is Neils Bohr and I can honesty say that I've never read an account that is as good at revealing the deep character of the man who shepherded physics through a tumultuous time by nurturing and encouraging the brightest young mind around the world in peering into unknown. Additionally, much time is spent discussing the other great figures, Heisenberg and Pauli.

The final thing that sets the narrative apart is the deep sense of poignancy the story has as the events unfold in the shadow of Hilter and that Nazi party's growing power and rise within Germany.
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