If theoretical and often boring physics can be delivered in an exciting novel style, Manjit Kumar has done it. His Quantum Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality is an engrossing account of the high caliber intellectual and academic debates, sometimes acrimonious, on the then evolving concept of Quantum, in the 20th century.
And this debate was raging amid huge human suffering during the two World Wars, the first and only nuclear bombing of a population, the holocaust and political mistrust between nations. The men involved in the debate were also drawn in separate ways by their own nationalities and identities. But academics reigned supreme. Perhaps, the description in the Prologue of the book, of the scene of a conference conveys the mind power of that time.
“The photograph of those gathered at the fifth Solvay conference on ‘Electrons and Photons’, held in Brussels from 24 to 29 October 1927, encapsulates the story of the most dramatic period in the history of physics. With seventeen of the 29 invited eventually earning a Nobel Prize, the conference was one of the most spectacular meetings of minds ever held. It marked the end of a golden age of physics, an era of scientific creativity unparalleled since the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century led by Galileo and Newton.” The only woman in the picture is Marie Curie, who already had two Nobel Prizes – one in Chemistry and one in Physics.
‘Quantum’ has had a rather lisp-full early history. Max Planck, the man who discovered it in December 1900, tried his best to get rid of it. He was a “revolutionary against his own will” who finally came to the conclusion: “It doesn’t help. We have to live with quantum theory. And believe me, it will expand.” One of the first people who learnt to live with it was Einstein, who till the end of his life struggled to grasp it.
‘Quantum theory’ is related to radiation and energy. It is distinguished from the classical physics in two aspects – discreetness and indeterminism, i.e, it states that energy can only be absorbed or radiated in discrete values or quanta and all particles are subject to quantum theory. Well, this is one of the most simplistic ways of putting it. This differs from classical physics where there is no indetermination.
The reading of the book is made interesting also by the brief biographies of the dramatis personae. Hence it is amusing to read that Einstein was a ‘patent clerk’ processing forms, while he was contributing papers some of the most prestigious papers. His job application for teaching was rejected more than once. J J Thompson was the son of a book seller. Neil Bohr’s father was a respected physicist of his time. Rutherford was the fourth of 12 children of a mill worker and school teacher.
The encounters between Einstein and Bohr, through mail and in person were always stormy, one cutting the other’s arguments down. In 1923 they both met at a station. Recollecting the meeting 40 years later Bohr said, “We took the street car and talked so animatedly that we went much too far.” They rode back and forth missing their stop several times. Einstein died in 1955, when he was 76. But Bohr continued to deal with him, as if he were alive. He said ‘I can still see Einstein’s smile, both knowing, humane and friendly.’ Often his first thoughts, when thinking about some fundamental issues in physics was to wonder how Einstein would have reacted to it. Bohr died in 1962 and the last drawing he had done, the night before he died was Einstein’s light box.
Neither Bohr nor Einstein was able to resolve their positions on quantum theory. But both men worked on it, ceaselessly in the belief that “the aspiration to truth is more precious than its assured possession.”
The book mentions the political events, but only so much that it does not deviate from the plot. There is this offer of post of President of Israel to Einstein and the graceful words with which he declines. The slight barbs on him for not taking a very forceful stand on holocaust and the German scientists attack on him because he was a Jew. There is also reference of capitalist-communist politics etc. but they do not distract the flow of the story. An interesting reading, especially to those who may have even a passing interest in science.
The author has degrees in philosophy and physics. He writes from and lives in London.
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