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Gino Segre

Faust in Copenhagen

In the 1920's and 1930's, Niels Bohr organised annual meetings at his Copenhagen Institute. These informal conferences gave physicists the chance to exchange ideas on the what was happening at the forefront of physics. It became the tradition for some of the younger attendees to put on a skit poking fun at more experienced physicists. In Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, Gino Segrè links the 1932 skit with the progress of physics and the lives of physicists of this era.

1932 was the centenary of Goethe's death, and his Faust was an obvious basis for the skit. Thus characters from the story were linked to some of the well known physicists, most of whom were at the conference, each played by a young physicist. Thus the Lord (Niels Bohr) struggles with Mephisto (Wolfgang Pauli) over the soul of Faust (Ehrenfest). Segrè describes how these and many others played their part in advancing the understanding of the new physics of quantum theory, including Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Max Delbrück and Lise Meitner. Some of these were not much older than the students performing the skit, and it would have been assumed that these in their turn would take their place in the struggle to understand quantum theory. However, as it turned out, the coming years had something different for them - the development of nuclear fission and thus the atom bomb, showing an extra relevance of the Faustian link (although this aspect is covered less than you might expect from a first sight of the book) Its a skillfully written book, and gives the reader insight into the roles of the physicists of the 1920's and 30's. It helped me to understand why the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, despite its flaws, gained such ground. I'd recommend it to all readers who want to understand the people who had such inflence on modern physics.

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Hardcover 384 pages  
ISBN: 067003858X
Salesrank: 1343606
Weight:1.1 lbs
Published: 2007 Viking Adult
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Amazon.co.uk info
Hardcover 320 pages  
ISBN: 0224072560
Salesrank: 2913762
Weight:1.41 lbs
Published: 2007 Jonathan Cape Ltd
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Hardcover 320 pages  
ISBN: 067003858X
Salesrank: 1022203
Weight:1.1 lbs
Published: 2007 Viking USA
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Product Description
A fascinating look at the landmark 1932 gathering of the biggest names in physics

Known by physicists as the "miracle year," 1932 saw the discovery of the neutron and the first artificially induced nuclear transmutation. However, while physicists celebrated these momentous discoveries—which presaged the era of big science and nuclear bombs—Europe was moving inexorably toward totalitarianism and war. In April of that year, about forty of the world’s leading physicists—including Werner Heisenberg, Lise Meitner, and Paul Dirac—came to Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Institute for their annual informal meeting about the frontiers of physics.

Physicist Gino Segrè brings to life this historic gathering, which ended with a humorous skit based on Goethe’s Faust—a skit that eerily foreshadowed events that would soon unfold. Little did the scientists know the Faustian bargains they would face in the near future. Capturing the interplay between the great scientists as well as the discoveries they discussed and debated, Segrè evokes the moment when physics—and the world—was about to lose its innocence.