Physicists on Wall Street - and Other Essays on Science, Politics, Language and Literature

July 31, 2008

Jeremy Bernstein has had a fine dual career as theoretical physicist and writer. Combining the two, his efforts to take readers inside the minds of other physicists have offered insight into some of the greatest intellectual endeavours of the past century. In books, articles and essays, he has combined a gift for clear exposition with a passionate curiosity about what really makes scientists tick.

There have been occasional books and more frequent essays on other subjects. Here, Bernstein's touch has been less sure. His latest offering is a collection of 16 mostly unpublished pieces, where each follows a topic that took his fancy.

The result is a kind of intellectual car-boot sale. Here is an investigation of Heisenberg's decision to visit Nazi-occupied Poland to lecture in Cracow, offering some well-researched details but leaving much unresolved about matter and motive. Over there, you can dip into comments on science and maths references in the novels of Michel Houellebecq. On the way, mind you do not bump into a lay account of the decoding of Linear B, or knock aside that reminiscence about the effort to design a spaceship propelled by nuclear explosions, or get distracted by an account of the life of 17th-century luminary Sir Henry Wotton.

These offerings stem from a life that has combined the advantages of both Bernstein's careers - a stint at the Rand Corporation here and a travel grant from the Ford Foundation (or failing that The New Yorker) there. Although haunted by the twin spectres of nuclear weapons and the Holocaust, his writing fits into an agreeable world of intellectual comradeship, travel, teaching, research and consultancy. And he is obviously an agreeable chap. When he gets fascinated by something, chances are it will be fascinating to others. But this is only a chance, not a certainty, as the writer here seems to assume.

Bernstein has charm, but he relies on it more than an essayist ought. These pieces often fall into a digressive style, which is relaxed but scarcely compelling. They are full of "trust me a little" pleas to the reader, which say, in different ways, I'll explain why this is interesting in a bit, bear with me, but there are a few vaguely related stories I think you should hear first. One essay even begins, "for reasons which will become clear later".

Sometimes, this is a minor reservation. The maths of hedge funds - which gives the book its title - and the history of linguistics lend themselves well to the kind of explication Bernstein perfected when he wrote about physics. The proliferation of nuclear weapons - in South Africa, then Pakistan - is a compelling enough topic to bear a little personal anecdotage. The fact that Bernstein once drove from Chamonix to Pakistan, which through the most tenuous of links also begins the first essay on hedge funds, is hardly essential to his take on the subject. The author's personal excursions sometimes add to the journey and sometimes hold up progress to the destination quite badly. The editing his essays benefit from when they make it into magazines might have helped here too.

Bernstein says his motivation for writing pieces such as these is to work stuff out for himself. The results, sometimes quite scholarly, sometimes not, are worth dipping into but unlikely to detain many for long. His reputation presumably sold Springer on putting these offerings between single covers. I think if I had happened across the car-boot sale that day I would probably have kept my money in my pocket. Bernstein's odds and ends are certainly more interesting than mine, and maybe even yours. But they are still odds and ends.

Physicists on Wall Street - and Other Essays on Science, Politics, Language and Literature

By Jeremy Bernstein. Springer, 230pp, £20.50. ISBN 9780387765051. Published 29 August 2008

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