Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Einstein & Heisenberg

Whew! It has taken me weeks to get through this last book I was reading, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the nature of reality by Manjit Kumar. Since I find both science and the history of science fascinating, this book was right up my alley. But it was dense, and I was busy so it took me a while to get through. Saturday afternoon I approached those last few chapters like a marathon runner reaching out for that ribbon. We need not speculate about whether or not I actually lapped the living room with the book held above my head. Let’s just move along.

Amongst all of the interesting scientific advancements and attempt to peer into the universe’s weave was a very human story that has stuck with me. Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg were both highly respected German theoretical physicists who were on opposite side of the great debate over quantum mechanics. (I promise I will not bore you here with particles, etc.) Before WWII, Einstein refused to return to Hitler’s Germany and settled in Princeton, NJ. Many Jewish scientists were exiled from Germany and many non-Jews left in support of their colleagues. Heisenberg stayed and went on the head the German nuclear weapons program.

In his book’s penultimate chapter, Kumar tells a brief story about Heisenberg visiting Einstein in 1954 in Princeton during a speaking tour after the war. Einstein claimed that the men avoided the subject of politics and discussed physics. It is a brief aside in the book, but it has stuck with me for days. How do you do this? This wasn’t like reconciling scientists after WWI where people ended up on opposite sides of a continental meltdown almost by chance. How do you sit down with an old acquaintance and pretend? How does one not ask, how did you try to help this man succeed, this man who wanted to see me and everyone like me dead? After learning about the camps and the slaughter, how do you sit across from someone and sip coffee? How do you not ask if he knew what was going on and what he did about it? If Heisenberg has built the bomb first, how horrible the outcome would have been, and yet they sat, and discussed particles and old times. For that matter, what did Heisenberg say? How do you suggest that bygones be left to be bygones after the government you helped tried to wipe out the other person’s entire race? Did he even attempt to say he was sorry?

I don’t understand this. I don’t even know if I admire Einstein’s equanimity or if I am appalled as his lack of demonstrated outrage. I’ve been thinking about this story for days and I have imagined it playing out in numerous fictional ways. Physics and its waves that are also particles are complex and fascinating, but we humans are each little universes ourselves and the stories or why we do what we do is the world’s most interesting puzzle.

1 comment:

  1. "I do not believe in freedom of will. Schopenhauer's words, 'Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants', accompany me in all life situations and console me in my dealings with people, even those that are really painful to me. This recognition of the unfreedom of the will protects me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and judging individuals and losing good humour."
    (Albert Einstein in Mein Glaubensbekenntnis, August 1932)