The trouble with being quietly Born

The End of the Certain World - The Born-Einstein Letters
April 29, 2005

Does personality affect one's place in science, asks Graham Farmelo as he reviews the life of Einstein's friend Max Born

Posterity can be cruelly unjust when it decides the credit for scientific breakthroughs. Although the identity of those responsible for making discoveries is ultimately unimportant, that does not usually prevent the scientists who believe themselves responsible from doing their utmost to win their share of the credit. Personalities are often important - if a scientist is disliked or insufficiently assertive, he or she risks being written out of history or at least having his or her role diminished.

One commonly alleged victim of such unfairness was the German-born physicist Max Born, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics.

At the University of Göttingen, arguably the subject's birthplace, he co-wrote some of the most important early quantum papers and was midwife to some of the key ideas in the new mechanics. He is best remembered for pioneering the probabilistic interpretation of quantum waves - something that several of his peers rather cruelly dismissed as "obvious".

Although usually reserved, Born was quick in private to point out the injustice done to him, even after he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1954.

He often protested - quietly but firmly - that his contribution to the discovery of quantum mechanics in 1925 was insufficiently recognised, and that too much credit had been given to his former assistant Werner Heisenberg. As Born often stressed, Heisenberg did not at first appreciate the importance of his discovery and did not even realise that the arrays of numbers in his theory were simply matrices. Indeed, Heisenberg had not even heard of matrices when he discovered the theory. When he alone won the first Nobel prize for quantum mechanics in 1932, he wrote graciously to Born, although Heisenberg was rather less generous in his later life, much to Born's disappointment.

The true extent of Born's contribution to quantum mechanics is one of the themes of Nancy Thorndike Greenspan's The End of the Certain World , the first full-length biography of Born to be published. Greenspan is not the most obvious author for such a book: she is neither a physicist nor a historian of science, she does not speak German and (to judge from her previous books) her speciality seems to be child psychiatry. Yet she has done a first-rate job of writing an accessible, well-researched and lucid biography of this unarguably great physicist.

One of the strengths of the book is the quality of Greenspan's accurately drawn sketches of the social and political climates in which Born lived.

Most moving is her depiction of life in Gottingen during the early 1920s, when Born was the mathematically minded head of theoretical physics and where he was primarily responsible for setting up the atmosphere in which the new theory was born. At that time, the social tensions within the community were palpable, and Born was under observation as a Jewish-born professor (he gave up his Jewish status after pressure from his mother-in-law). Within a decade, Born and his family were forced to leave their homeland and settle in the UK, travelling en route past Nazi flags and bonfires of books, including ones on the "Jewish physics" of Einstein and others.

By the time Born had settled at Edinburgh University, one of only a handful of German refugee professors in the UK, he was past his creative peak. Yet he continued to be scientifically active until his retirement from Edinburgh in 1954. He and his wife then returned to Gottingen, where he died in 1970. On his gravestone in the town's main cemetery is engraved one of the quantum formulae he was first to publish, usually credited to the English physicist Paul Dirac.

Greenspan's treatment of Born's character is thorough, sensitive and, for the most part, carefully nuanced. I take issue with only one point: she fairly describes Born as a shy and sensitive head of department in Gottingen, one of the new wave of academics who was happy to fraternise with students in ways that many of the formally minded academics would have found unthinkable. He treated the young Heisenberg like a son, often inviting him into the family home. Yet some of Born's students found him aloof and unapproachable: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar described him as "very unpleasant" and Robert Oppenheimer thought him a "terrible egotist".

Greenspan rather underplays this and its consequences - although Chandrasekhar and Oppenheimer may have misinterpreted Born's shyness as aloofness, their views help to explain the lack of recognition Born was given compared with, say, Niels Bohr, whose charm and charisma were partly responsible for his status as one of the physicists' heroes.

Greenspan's account of Born's science is a little sketchy, although appropriate for a lay audience. Likewise, her treatment of the history of quantum physics, while factually accurate, is not especially deep and not informed by the latest scholarship. Yet both scientists and historians of science will join non-specialist readers in finding much to enjoy in this account, and will benefit from it as an extremely useful resource.

Greenspan has researched her subject with commendable thoroughness and has made excellent use of the Borns' archive, to which his family has given her full access. She uses this material to provide a rounded picture of Born, offering the reader a sensitive treatment of his private life, including his occasionally troubled marriage.

The End of the Certain World is beautifully produced. Scholars will especially appreciate the exemplary referencing and the first-rate index, one of the best I have seen in a book of this type for some time. Greenspan has written one of the most accomplished popular biographies of a modern scientist to be published in recent years.

A most valuable source for Greenspan's research was the correspondence between Born and his slightly older friend Albert Einstein. The material first appeared in public a year after Born's death, but now Macmillan has republished it, perhaps to coincide with Einstein Year, with a well-informed introductory essay by Diana Buchwald and Kip Thorne.

The correspondence is a delight, enabling us to trace the development of the intriguing friendship between the two physicists and to read their views on the great themes of physics and politics of their time. The letters are a useful complement to the publication by Princeton University Press of Einstein's papers and correspondence, as these superbly edited works currently extend only to 1920 and do not easily allow readers to understand his relationship with individual correspondents.

Born and Einstein became friends during the First World War, soon after Einstein had established his pre-eminence by publishing his tour de force, the general theory of relativity. It is a delight to witness the gestation of the warm friendship between the two men. By the mid-1920s, when Einstein's star was fading, Born's was rapidly rising as he took centre stage in the quantum revolution. Nonetheless, these letters demonstrate Born's huge respect for Einstein, whom he clearly regarded as a superior physicist and, indeed, as "a kind of universal genius". Einstein's demeanour throughout the correspondence is that of a genial humanitarian, although his detachment from personal affairs is sometimes chilling. His first reference to the death of his second wife, whom the Borns knew well, is little more than offhand.

It was in a letter to Born on December 4, 1926, that Einstein coined his famous phrase: "God does not play dice." This rejection of the probabilistic interpretation of quantum theory, first published by Born, marked the beginning of the rift between them over the nature of physical reality. The disagreement was friendly but eventually ran into sand, owing to Einstein's obstinacy and to Born's inability to see Einstein's point of view. When Wolfgang Pauli intervened, he told Born in one of two classic letters: "It seemed to me as you have erected some dummy Einstein for yourself, which you then knocked down with great pomp." In Pauli's opinion, Einstein believed that a satisfactory theory should be not so much deterministic as "realistic". For anyone interested in Einstein's alleged aversion to indeterminacy, Pauli's letters are essential reading.

By no means all the Born-Einstein correspondence is about science. The collection includes some delightful letters between Einstein and Born's wife, Hedi (he warmly appreciated her poetry and even encouraged her to take up experimental physics). Most moving are the exchanges between the two men when they were refugees from Nazism:Born in Edinburgh, Einstein at Princeton University. Neither participated directly in the war effort and neither was asked to work on the Manhattan Project, but they looked on in pain, pity and near-desperation. Born wanted nothing to do with "this devilish device".

Irene Newton-John, Born's daughter (and mother of the popular chanteuse), has expertly translated the letters into lucid English. Her work and Max Born's careful commentary enable us to understand more clearly one of Einstein's most misunderstood views. Three months before he died in April 1955, he wrote to Born: "In the present circumstances, the only profession I would choose would be one where earning a living had nothing to do with the search for knowledge." The executor of Einstein's estate, Otto Nathan, told Born that Einstein was reacting not to the dropping of the Bomb, but to Senator McCarthy's purges of alleged Communists in American public life.

In Heisenberg's eloquent introduction to the book, reprinted from the original edition, he notes that the correspondence demonstrates "the degree to which the work of a scientist... is fundamentally determined by philosophical and human attitudes". He was right: to a degree that is sometimes acknowledged only reluctantly by scientists, their personalities affect their work - and their legacies.

Graham Farmelo is senior research fellow, Science Museum, London.

The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born

Author - Nancy Thorndike
Publisher - Greenspan Wiley
Pages - 374
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 470 85663 7

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