bridges vol. 15, Sept 2007 / Book Review

by Johannes Strobl

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cover_faust_in_copenhagen_small.jpgFaust in Copenhagen - A Struggle for the Soul of Physics by Gino Segrè

Blegdamsvej Street, Copenhagen, 1932. In a truly remarkable assembly, 40 physicists gathered at Niels Bohr's Institute of Theoretical Physics. As a diversion from intense discussions and a celebration of the unique spirit of their collaborative efforts in the development of quantum mechanics - the grand theory they had shaped - the younger scientists performed a spoof of J. W. von Goethe's Faust.
In Goethe's classic drama, the devil Mephistopheles lures Faust - discontent with his limited wisdom - into a bargain that grants Faust universal insight and the love of the adorable virgin Gretchen in exchange for his soul.
Written by the German physicist Max Delbrück who later received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work in molecular biology, the skit satirizes the formation of quantum mechanics and makes fun of its founding fathers who took a seat in the first row - Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Paul Ehrenfest, Max Delbrück, and Lise Meitner, the only experimentalist in the group. Only one seat reserved for the revolutionaries remained empty. Mischievous Austrian Wolfgang Pauli - legendary both for his aphorisms and his inclination to Lucullian pleasures - preferred to go on vacation instead. Viennese Ehrenfest at times addressed him as Sanct Pauli, an allusion to the red light district in Hamburg, while Pauli in return signed his letters as "Scourge of God" (Geißel Gottes).

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