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A Fluffy Frolic With Jeremy Bernstein

The Life it Brings: One Physicist's Beginnings. Jeremy Bernstein. Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1987. 192 pp. $16.95. Most of us, of course, know Jeremy Bernstein through his extensive New Yorker essays on the world of physics, essays that have included fascinating profiles of such great physicists as Hans Bethe and I.I. Rabi. In The Life It Brings, also based on a recent New Yorker series, Bernstein takes up his pen in the cause of autobiography. He travels from his childhood in Rochester and fo

By | April 6, 1987

The Life it Brings: One Physicist's Beginnings. Jeremy Bernstein. Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1987. 192 pp. $16.95.


Most of us, of course, know Jeremy Bernstein through his extensive New Yorker essays on the world of physics, essays that have included fascinating profiles of such great physicists as Hans Bethe and I.I. Rabi. In The Life It Brings, also based on a recent New Yorker series, Bernstein takes up his pen in the cause of autobiography.

He travels from his childhood in Rochester and four years at the Columbia Grammar School to his undergraduate and postgraduate years at Harvard, to two years at Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and thence onward to Paris where the book closes. It is a journey that brings Bernstein into contact and often friendship with some of the mid-2Oth century's leading physicists, among them Rabi, Lee and Yang, Murray GellMann and Julian Schwinger.

I imagine that nonphysicists will find the story charming and engaging. Bernstein comes across as a rather sensible and normal fellow who wandered into physics almost by accident when he took Harvard's required freshman course. This healthy individual likes to eat, drink and play tennis and has a red-blooded eye for the pretty girl. All of which would seem very ordinary except that Bernstein finds himself surrounded by a collection of eccentric geniuses who sleep during the day and anonymously solve fellow students' incomplete problems during the night.

The tale is told with Bernstein's usual grace and he is aided by a subtle sense of irony that prevents him from taking matters too seriously. A good and pleasurable time is had by all, which is what the book's title, from an Oppenheimer quotation—"the obvious excellences of the life it brings"—intends to impart.

However the lightness of touch does not always serve Bernstein well—at least from the physicist's point of view. Physicists reading the book will search in vain to find portraits comparable to the author's earlier renderings of Bethe and Rabi. Bernstein says that T.D. Lee became his close friend. Yet other than his generosity when co-authoring a paper with Bernstein, we never discover anything about Lee or the basis for their friendship. Freeman Dyson, with whom Bernstein has had a long association, is given a few paragraphs as a mathematical wizard.

The aim of charm rather than depth also leads Bernstein into some peculiar lapses. Friends are invariably described as "brilliant" (which in truth they were), whereas those equally worthy of praise but with whom Bernstein is not acquainted rate lesser encomiurns. For instance, after describing the "extraordinar[il]y mathematically gifted" Marvin Minsky and Charles Zemach, Bryce De Witt is mentioned as a "young physicist now a professor at the University of Texas." De Witt, the father of quantum gravity, is also a major figure of modern physics and, were Nobel Prizes handed out in his field as they are in particle physics, he almost certainly would have won one.

On another occasion Bernstein describes Gell-Mann's unusual habit (for a great physicist) of collaborating and points to the famous Feynman-Gell-Mann paper on the weak nuclear force as an important result of such collaboration. This paper was probably a bad example to choose, especially in light of Dirac's statement that "the really good ideas are had by only one person," which Bernstein uses to frame the discussion. The first theory of the weak nuclear force was in fact subject to a rather bitter priority dispute; certain partisans still consider the theory to belong to Sudarshan and Marshak.

Be that as it may, the lack of introspection and analysis that permeate the book may leave the physicist reader with the impression that Bernstein is more interested in dropping names than in researching his subjects. The result is, alas, a series of New Yorker articles rather than a true autobiography.

In short, The Life It Brings will be a pleasurable excursion for the nonphysicist who wants to learn a little about the type of creatures who inhabit that world. The physicist will likely be left with the wish that Bernstein someday girds up his loins and undertakes a more searching memoir.

Rothman, a physicist, currently writes for Discover magazine.
His most recent book is Frontiers in Modern Physics (Dover, 1985).

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