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Faust in Copenhagen

A Struggle for the Soul of Physics

Finalist in the Los Angeles Times Book Fair
Winner of the American Institute of Physics Award for Best Science Writing­­­­­­­­­

Faust in Copenhagen by Gino SegrèIn 1932 the glorious years of quantum mechanics’ discoveries were coming to an end and the focus was now turning to the atom’s very core, its miniscule but power-laden nucleus. With the discovery of the neutron in February of that year, it was clear that a new era in physics was about to begin.

In April of 1932 a group of 40 or so of the world’s leading physicists gathered at Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Institute, then the Mecca of theoretical physics, for a week-long informal discussion of how to begin thinking about this new subject.

I was fascinated by what they thought, but only began writing the book when I discovered a copy of a skit the younger physicists put on at the meeting’s end. Making fun of their elders, the skit was a parody of Goethe’s Faust, adapted to the world of physics.

What the physicists didn’t realize was that within a year Hitler’s ascent to power would change their world and within a decade their studies of the atomic nucleus would force them to make their own Faustian bargains.

As the skit prefigures in eerie ways, science, politics and personalities often form a curious mix.

Reviews

Faust in Copenhagen - UK edition

  • Disguised with makeup, younger physicists played the parts of their “elders.” …Faust’s tormented love, Gretchen, appeared as the fairylike neutrino. It was only in retrospect that the silliness became profound. The players were becoming possessors of “a truth with implicit powers of good and evil,” Gino Segrè writes in “Faust in Copenhagen,” his inventive new book about the era.
    New York Times
  • Segrè speaks to the reader with enthusiasm, at times unable to conceal his excitement about the fascinating story he’s sharing, yet his telling is deftly and dramatically structured, providing necessary historical and scientific context, clearly and concisely.
    San Francisco Chronicle
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