Twilight of the Quantum Idols

by David Kordahl

Physics writing, let’s face it, is usually pretty boring. In a recent essay for Tablet, Adam Kirsh diagnosed one reason for this. When physicists write non-technical literature, they often begin with the assumption that the world as revealed by physics is the real one, and that the job of physicists, when they speak to the poor math illiterates, is to show them how best to live with this tormenting truth. As Kirsh puts it, “Popular physics writing is best understood as therapy for this torment—as metaphysical self-help.”

Those of us who have spent time with physicists might question whether they (or we, if I include myself) are temperamentally suited, on average, to be therapists. We might also wonder if the world described by physics is the real one, though I’ll set that question aside for today. Today, I’m interested in a style that captures not the real world, whatever that is, but the real world of physics—or, more plainly, the social world of physicists.

To capture this world as it is (not, of course, as it should be) might require a certain anti-therapeutic nastiness. This possibility is on my mind because last month I read Quantum Profiles, Second Edition, by the physicist Jeremy Bernstein. Though Bernstein shares most of the baseline prejudices of his fellow physicists, he isn’t boring, and he certainly isn’t nice—after all, his subject is physicists, not just physics. The first edition of Quantum Profiles came out in 1990, and since then its size has nearly doubled, inflated with rants and investigations, a graveyard of settled scores.

This new edition is unlikely to draw a large readership, but for readers interested in physics history, there’s plenty of fat to chew. Bernstein has occupied many high places—he spent time at the Institute for Advanced Study as a physicist, and wrote for The New Yorker magazine for many decades—and the new material is based on Bernstein’s position as a genius Forrest Gump, zigging wherever the physics luminaries have zagged.

Before writing this review, I rummaged around to find the original Quantum Profiles—a book I became interested in after hearing the science writer John Horgan recommend it in a podcast. (Frankly, this was how I found out that the Second Edition had dropped, inverting the timeline of the past few paragraphs.) The 1990 version was elegantly structured, split into three parts with interstitial commentary, a slim volume with a fat scope.

It opened with a profile of John Stewart Bell and his famous theorem, a story which provided an excuse to expound the history and philosophy of quantum mechanics. Bernstein then profiled John Archibald Wheeler, mentor to Feynman and guru to physics (“black hole,” “wormhole,” and “it from bit” were all his phrases), which allowed for discussions on the cultural impact of the special and general theories of relativity. And since quantum mechanics and general relativity, those twin pillars of modern physics, were both shaped in profound ways by Albert Einstein, Bernstein closed the volume with a piece on Michele Angelo Besso, Einstein’s old buddy from the patent office, whose lifelong correspondence with Einstein granted a glimpse of the great physicist’s private self.

Bernstein’s writing wasn’t always as salty as it is now, perhaps because the earlier material was reported rather than overheard, produced for, if not published by, mainstream magazines. The Second Edition features seven new profiles, whose subjects are all male, and all dead except for Tom Lehrer. (Yes, the comedian; he and Bernstein were Harvard pals.) This new material is sometimes rough and abrupt. Yet whatever it lacks in formal neatness—and copyediting finesse—it makes up for in vituperate snarl.

Bernstein seems to have judged, probably rightly, that his readers in 2020 won’t have chosen this as their first book on physics, so the new pieces often zoom in quickly without much background. Three of the physicists he profiles are pretty obscure (they were Bernstein’s college profs), so when we learn, say, how Wendell Furry refused to rat out any of his fellow communists to Joe McCarthy, this functions as a freestanding anecdote, without any need to make the case for Furry’s importance to physics itself. This approach seems fine for obscure physicists, but is a little irritating for major ones. To title a piece “Victor Weisskopf” only to skip over his directorship of CERN and his work as a nuclear disarmament advocate, and just to focus on his Jewishness and to repeat a few of his favorite Jewish jokes…well, I don’t know, but I wanted a little more Weisskopf.

Still, there’s something in this that represents the scientific process better than straightforward biography. Because Bernstein is himself a physicist, he sizes up his colleagues with a brusque confidence. This is the “anti-therapeutic nastiness” I mentioned earlier—the norm among physicists to affect a sort of competitively uncharitable professional assessment.

Consider “J. Robert Oppenheimer,” the most formally interesting new profile in the collection. Oppenheimer has been the subject of many books, including one in 2004 by Bernstein himself, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma. But instead of writing about Oppenheimer as such, here Bernstein focuses on fellow physicist-historian Abraham Pais. Pais wrote a few classics of physics history—Subtle is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein is perhaps the best scientific biography of that particular subject—but he died before completing his Oppenheimer opus. The first part of “J. Robert Oppenheimer” responds to a potential publisher on the question of whether Pais’s unfinished manuscript should be put out posthumously. Bernstein argues that it shouldn’t, but the publisher disagrees, so in the second part Bernstein reviews Pais’s final work.

Pais was thanked in the preface to the first edition of Quantum Profiles, but such gracious nods have now been removed. Now that Bernstein doesn’t need to hide his dislike for Pais, he takes the opportunity to salt the earth.

Pais claimed that Oppenheimer lived a “wretched life,” but Bernstein thinks he got this wrong, and whips this scrutiny around to analyze what, indeed,was wrong with Pais. In Bernstein’s version, Oppenheimer had to struggle valiantly against anti-Semitism, and his rough edges should be interpreted in that light. Bernstein’s “Oppie” was, on the whole, an admirable guy with real achievements. Even beyond the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was the first to recognize how gravitational collapse follows inevitably from general relativity—a Nobel-worthy discovery, had he lived into the era of black-hole physics—and his administrative work at the Institute for Advanced Study enhanced its status as a haven for physics research. “He could have had a much happier life, but so could we all.”

This allows Bernstein to lash out at Pais for being the uncharitable one. When Pais calls Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty the most despicable woman he ever met, Bernstein counters, “There is no doubt that she was an alcoholic, something that must have given Oppenheimer a great deal of pain. But they stuck it out, which is more than Pais did with his first two wives.”

That’s a low blow, but Bernstein’s comments on Pais as a physicist are even lower:

Pais’s real problem was that he was incredibly competitive about everything. I played squash with him a few times, and it was like going to war. As a physicist, he was competent but not really in the first rank. He is remembered for a couple of things he did in the theory of elementary particles. When cosmic-ray particles began to appear that no one had anticipated, Pais formulated a rule for how they should be produced in association. But he was never able to produce a theory for them. This was done by Murray Gell-Mann, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work. It was also clear that Pais was the least gifted of the physics professors at the Institute. They included T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang, who also won the Nobel Prize for their work, and Dyson, whose genius was universally recognized. Pais did not have a chance, and all the self-aggrandizing in his book is, I imagine, a reaction.

The insistent name-dropping here is characteristic, and not too flattering for Bernstein himself. (The Oppenheimer piece ends with Bernstein running into George Balanchine at a Pilates gym in Manhattan, and finding out why Balanchine picked the music for Oppenheimer’s funeral.) Some readers might just ask why are you like this? and leave the question as rhetorical. But what grabs me in this is the sense that Bernstein shares with his generation of physicists that something monumental had been achieved, something permanent, whose greatness justified the squabbles over priority.

As these figures recede into the past, the sense that the early achievements in quantum physics were due to the extraordinary qualities of individual physicists is almost certainly doomed to fade. While Bernstein balances the good and the bad, revisionist portraits of the quantum forefathers have begun to emerge that are unambiguously negative—articles on Einstein as a xenophobe, say, or on Feynman as a misogynist. Even works pitched to celebrate these figures seem to undercut them. David Kaiser’s new book, Quantum Legacies: Dispatches from an Uncertain World, gives us nice thumbnail portraits of the greats, but it only sings once it’s deep in the weeds of a structural analysis, telling us, say, how the Cold War allowed for the sort of luxurious research funding that today’s scientists can only envy.

Yet that glamour tempts a piker like me to read Quantum Profiles, Second Edition with a certain uncomplicated zeal. From Jeremy Bernstein, I know that John Bell was a vegetarian, and that John Wheeler swam daily in his indoor pool. Does that count as “self-help” for physicists? Is any of this actionable advice? I’m not sure, but I know that stories of old physicists pull more strongly on my imagination, at times, than memories of my own past. The old idols may crumble, but they’re still lively in Bernstein’s book.