Tuesday, July 25, 2006

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES
Ashutosh S. Jogalekar


The name was Gottingen. It was a small town in Germany, not even a city. Modest in looks and in style it did not boast of anything that the big metropolises would. It hardly had any automobiles, hardly any crowded streets and hardly any very rich people. Distances in the town were small, and people preferred to walk, hesitating to even take a bicycle along with them, let alone a car. The inhabitants were carefree, simple, middle class people. They were happy living this simple life, free from worries. The streets of the town were safe at all times, and frequently would one find lone travelers cheerfully whistling a tune and walking with a swinging gait on some wide street at one o’ clock in the night. In this small town would soon start, however, the greatest revolution science had ever seen.

Even if the townsfolk didn’t boast of any very famous people, they did pride themselves on the fact that one of the greatest of all mathematicians resided in the University there at one time. He was Carl Friedrich Gauss. In 1866, a young mathematician named Felix Klein occupied his vacant chair in the University. Klein was a vigorous young lad, with a particular interest in increasing the prestige of the small University. He spared no efforts in inviting the greatest mathematicians and physicists of the day to his Institute. With his prodding and enticing, gradually, eminent and learned men started coming. In the early 1900’s, a prominent group of men occupied the chairs of mathematics and physics in the University. David Hilbert would be known as the foremost mathematician of the first half of the twentieth century, and one of the most brilliant of all time. James Franck was a gifted physicist who would soon win a Nobel Prize. Together, these men brought into the University, a vigorous and burgeoning atmosphere of learning. Students soon began to pour into the University attracted by the aura of these great men. But it was not only the academics. The atmosphere in the University served as an almost magical catalyst for learning. Discussions were very informal and heated, continuing frequently well into the night. Now, students came to be seen on the road at night, their heads up in the sky, thinking of some interesting theory or equation. The professors were extremely approachable; indeed, if Franck ever went wrong somewhere during his lecture, he would not hesitate to ask one of his students to take over.

A few years after these men had established the University as a well known center for physical science, a young man arrived who was destined to make it downright famous and start a kind of Aristotelian revolution in physics, along with his students. To him would come an extraordinary group of people who would turn the world of physics upside down. His name was Max Born. Having had the most thorough of German educations, the new Professor was a man of wide learning. When he was an undergraduate, his father told him to take all courses possible, so that he could finally select the one which he liked most. So Max took courses in Literature, Philosophy, Physics and Mathematics, and Astronomy. In the end, he chose Physics, of course. Born was a generous man who cared much for the welfare of his students. He strived to get the best as students and collaborators. His wishes were fulfilled sooner than he thought.

During the early 1920’s, a most remarkable group of young men arrived at the University to work with Born. Together, they would represent a tour de force, the likes of which had never been seen-or would be seen in the future- in the world of Physics. Born within a year of each other, these men would be unparalleled in their mathematical insight, physical intuition and interpretative abilities. They came to the university to grapple with the new physics, called quantum mechanics-the physics governing the world of subatomic and microscopic particles. Werner Heisenberg had been a precocious youngster who had finished his PhD at the age of 24 and had already started to make waves in the physical world. Paul Dirac from Cambridge studied Electrical Engineering at Bristol before finally switching to physics. A formidable mathematician, he would soon discover the fundamental equation of quantum mechanics governing the electron, which would also take into account the requirements of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Wolfgang Pauli impressed Einstein at age 19 by producing an authoritative tome on Relativity. A quick thinker with a sharp tongue, he could easily outwit anyone else around him. Together, these young dazzling minds collected around them the greatest collection of young thinkers that has probably ever gathered at a single place. Slowly, eager and brilliant minds started showing up from all over the world. They would call their stay in the small homely town, the beautiful years.

From America came the most interesting breed of the young boys. Within just a few years, the status of scientific excellence would shift from Europe to America. And these men were here to start just that tradition. The well-bred Germans would first look with disdain upon their foreign colleagues’ manners of eating junk food and exercising a superior air of authority, very casually, which they didn’t have the right to do at all. But gradually, disdain turned to mutual admiration. The beauty of Europe was balanced to some extent by the mechanical gadgets in the US. The strict adherence to traditions in Germany contrasted with the carefree attitude of the youngsters. Slowly, the two groups started to mix with one another. The Americans taught the Europeans how to dance wildly late into the night and nibble at chicken livers at the dinner table. The Europeans in turn taught them how to appreciate fine wine, sing and listen to Wagner, and dance on the tune of Strauss’ Waltzes. The Americans found housing in the apartments of the kind residents of the small town and thus began collaborations that would soon turn into strong friendships, and even marriage. It’s surprising how many American and British physicists have had the extra good fortune of finding more than just physics revelations in the small town. They also found loving and supporting life partners. For example, the youthful and brilliant Fritz Houtermans realized that the situation had become more serious than he thought when he began to make some unusually large number of trips for evening tea to the house of fellow physics student Charlotte Riefenstahl. Miss Riefenstahl soon justified his doubts by becoming Mrs. Houtermans in a few years. In this carefree, invigorating atmosphere, it is not surprising that new ideas literally crawled out of woodwork. Indeed, the period 1920-1932 is one of the most productive periods in the history of science, when the greatest discoveries were made in this small town by these young men.

They were a diverse lot. Amongst them were the enthusiastic Fritz Houtermans, the introspective Richtmeyer, the prodigious Pauling, who often came down from Munich, and the conscientious Condon. All of these men were to make indelible marks in the world of Physics and Chemistry. In the winter of 1927, a young man arrived from America, who seemed outstanding even in this exceptional company of luminaries. Young Robert Oppenheimer had graduated from Harvard in just three years, instead of the customary four. He came to the University with a burning desire to learn the new physics. And his mind was more than worthy for this. Soon, the students began to get bewildered by his ability to solve complex problems, and to compose entire dissertations, almost on the spot, instantaneously, and seemingly without effort, so that no one else had even a chance to say anything about the topic anymore. His cultured manners made an impression on the German Herr Professors, especially Born, and he was easily the fastest thinker amongst the lot. But that was not all. He possessed an almost unbelievable amount of knowledge about diverse topics ranging from French literature to Oriental Philosophy. He had an exceptional aptitude for languages and could learn one in a very short period of time. To refute arguments, he could quote from the works of Goethe, Shakespeare and the Bhagvad Gita, which was one of his favourites. He could make others uncomfortable with his impeccable manners at the dining table. As one physicist put it, “Robert could make you feel as if you were a savage at the dinner table”. With a wealthy father’s money at his disposal, he soon was looked down upon with indignation by many of the other students, some of whom barely could make ends meet. However, he was not one to appreciate the problems of ordinary human beings. He could not reconcile his mind with the tough financial conditions that his colleagues faced. And he had a sharp tongue which could both insult and praise. In fact that was the gravest defect in his personality. And it was something that would have far reaching consequences, which no one could even dream of yet.
But everyone in general liked him because he was basically a very conscientious young man. He was like a small boy who sometimes could not control his bursts of temper. He himself admitted that his greatest fault was his ‘beastliness’ as he called it. Everyone would fondly remember rare instances, like the one in Charlotte Riefenstahl’s apartment, where, when Charlotte started to make tea, he suddenly leaped up and offered to heat the water. Robert also composed poetry, a fact which astonished fellow physicist Paul Dirac. Once, Dirac, who people joked, spoke ‘once a light year’, took Robert aside and said to him, “They told me that you compose poetry as well as work at Physics. How can you do both these things at the same time? In Physics, we try to tell people things which they didn’t understand before, in a simplified manner. In poetry, its exactly the opposite”. Robert took this as a compliment, but it was something which the reserved, monomaniac Dirac could never understand, with his single minded dedication to Physics.

The ‘boys’ had the time of their lives in the small town. Whenever there wasn’t Physics to be done, there was recreation. In the evenings, the cafes and bars soon would begin to get thronged with the youngsters. There they would discuss everything under the sun. A typical discussion would start with love affairs, then move on to the discussion of fine wine, and end with a heated argument about Goethe’s ‘Faust’. As the night would grow, so would the pace of the Polka and Hungarian dances. In the thick of it all would be Robert Oppenheimer. Once the Dutch physicists Uhlenbeck and Gouschmidt (who later discovered a key property of the electron called spin) were reading Dante’s works in the original. Robert was left out because he did not know Italian. For the next month, the lanky American was absent from the café. When he came back, he knew Italian as fluently as anyone in Italy.

As noted before, many great discoveries took place in those productive years. One of the most important would be the solving of the puzzle which concerned the source of energy in the sun. Now we know that it’s a process called fusion, or the fusing of Hydrogen nuclei, that is responsible for the generation of this energy. Once, Fritz Houtermans and his English colleague Atkinson were taking a walk in the night. They casually started discussing this age old puzzle, and by next morning, they had worked out at least the outline of the basic process. Houtermans recollects how, on that particular night, he was out with one of his friends who was a girl. They were sitting on a bench and the stars were shining bright overhead. “Oh! Look how pretty the stars are shining”, said his friend. “Yes, and right now I am the only person in this world who knows why they shine like that”, said Houtermans. He was describing a feeling of exhilaration that someone has when he is the lone owner of a new intellectual idea. But somehow, says Houtermans, his friend only laughed at this remark. Such ideas were to turn out in the dozens during those years.

In 1929, Robert Oppenheimer left the University for his homeland after obtaining his PhD. Soon, he would head a secret laboratory at Los Alamos and the development of the most horrifying weapon in mankind’s history, in the process becoming world famous. He would also become infamous as the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’, and it would be a truth that would terrifyingly haunt him throughout his life. He would realize that, during those years in the University, he had set the stage for changing the world along with his young friends, and that it would never be the same again. And it never was. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor, and in principle, the dictator of Germany. World War 2 would soon begin.
The young physicists had to leave the town, some because they were foreigners, others because they were Jews. Each of them had had the time of their lives there. And each would weave his own story later on. Heisenberg would face enormous moral scruples as head of the German atomic bomb project. Houtermans would have a nasty time being interrogated and beaten up by Soviet KGB Agents. Pauli would settle at Princeton, but would be faced by fits of depression during his later life. Condon would clash with Oppenheimer over security problems at Los Alamos and end up not having contributed to the bomb work. Linus Pauling would revolutionize Chemistry with the application of Quantum Physics. In later years, he would strongly speak against nuclear disarmament. Max Born would decide to migrate to Cambridge, James Franck to the US. Almost all of these men had been, or would be future Nobel Laureates.

But gone would be the days in the University, the quiet, carefree life, the intense devotion to physics, the indefatigable desire to understand the secrets of the Universe. Gone would be the invigorating discussions about Shakespeare in pretty cafes and the walks at late nights on the streets, thinking about physics, with the head in the clouds.
Gone were the beautiful years.

- A. J.
September, 2001

5 Comments:

Anonymous Chetan said...

Haven't commented for quite some time here because every post would elicit pure awe in me about your immense reading, intellect, perseverence and unlerlying humanity. And I didn't want my praise to sound fulsome. But this post took the cake. I loved your earlier long essay on Oppenheimer and learnt a lot about his ambivalence and also got a glimpse about the reasons behind his seeming abruptness through that piece. But what I liked about this post was the pithyness. In such a short post you have not only captured the mood and significance of those times, but documented the highs and lows, the catalysts, issues of diversity, the purposes, the reasons and the ultimate tragedy of it all. Truly amazing!

And come to think of it, you wrote this is 2001 during last year of BSc. while we guys were busy with our daily regimen of sitting at the Fergusson katta and bunking the last two lectures to eat at Vaishli.

At the risk of sounding unecessarily profuse in my praise (which is sincere) I think you should write a book on history of science in the 20th century. You already have read a great deal on the subject and are wonderful at capturing the essence without wasting too many words.

Please keep blogging. It has been an immensely satisfying experience reading your posts ever since I discovered your blog in October of 2005.

P.S. I know your views on reservations in India. You have been pretty clear about them and I understand and empathise to a certain extent. Could you write a piece about what you feel about affirmative action (assuming you have a different view about it than you have about reservations). Given the fact that you celebrate diversity and the resulting intellectual exchange it brought about in the field of science could you elaborate upon whether you think people from different socio-cultural backgrounds and their resultant socialisation can prove to be beneficial to scientific thought despite the lack of merit( the way it is brought forth in an Indian educational setting).

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All your posts have always been fascinating ... it terms of conten, thought aad writing. This one I think is one of your best ever :) ....

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The above comment was mine ...
BTW have you considered creating a script out of this post.... I can almost see it made as a movie.

~Neelesh

6:41 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Chetan: Thanks for your lavish praise...I am quite flattered! But I am surprised you liked this piece, because I wrote it years ago, when my writing was very green and juvenile (which it is now too, but a little less so). At that time, I had no qualms about sacrificing diction and style for idealistic portrayals! And as for 2001, I can assure you I was mostly doing the exact same things as you were, except that I used to spend the rest of my time in these trivial pursuits rather than 'studies'.
As for you comment about something on affirmative action, yes, I think I would like to make a post about that sometime. But as you know, it's a pretty complicated question, and one has to ruminate quite a bit before he can end up actually not taking sides.
But you raise a very interesting question about people without merit actually contributing to the progress of knowledge. In science, I don't think this can really happen, but a lot of exceptions may defeat this opinion of mine. First of all, merit is defined quite clearly in science, but lack of merit, less so. Sometimes the people who 'lack merit' are simply those to don't stick to conventional thinking and are disorganised in their thoughts, the latter one especially being a bad quality for scientists. But there have been so many in the history of science, who simply because of their disorganised thinking and 'lack of merit' brought a totally naive and sometimes revealing viewpoint to a problem. So I think it's difficult to say' the conventionally defined 'lack of merit' need not at all impede scientific contribution, and may in fact speed them up. What probably won't ever work in science in terms of diversity of personality, thought and background, is lack of interest!

Neelesh: Danke schon! I knew it was you from your first comment. Just like Bernoulli recognised Newton's anonymous letter, I too have come to 'recognise the lion from the print of its paw'!!
In any case, I always thought that atomic history and the history of physics in the 20th century will make a fascinating theme for a movie (and perhaps even a commerical success). I possibly could write the script sometime. Will you handle other matters?! :)

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you guessed it was me by the numerous typos :p ? ..... Just a very loooooong day at work.

8:14 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home