kings of quantum


Who can ever tire of learning about the great discoveries in physics during the first forty years of the twentieth century, and about the men and women who were responsible? The benchmark texts are the surveys and biographies written by the late physicist and historian Abraham Pais, though all the essentials are gathered in a more condensed—and, to my taste, somewhat more digestible—form in the relevant chapters in William H. Cropper’s Great Physicists (2001). Now here is Gino Segrè with an original and worthwhile contribution to the field. Faust in Copenhagen is an exceptionally thorough account of the emergence of modern quantum mechanics over the years from 1925 to 1933, aimed at a general reader—which is to say, there are no equations. This is a difficult story to tell in any straightforward way. So many different and concurrent threads have to be woven together that a simply chronological narrative can’t be given. Some more subtle organizing principle is called for. Segrè has used the Copenhagen conference of April 1932 as his focus, returning repeatedly to it, and to its participants, as a way of keeping us oriented.

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