Logo IMG


Getting Personal

David Goodstein

The Merely Personal: Observations on Science and Scientists. Jeremy Bernstein. x + 246 pp. Ivan R. Dee, 2001. $26.

The Merely Personal (a phrase used by Einstein to describe the parts of his life less important than physics) is a collection of essays by Jeremy Bernstein, a theoretical physicist who for many years also served as a staff writer for The New Yorker. I occasionally thumb through a copy of the magazine at the dentist or barbershop, but perhaps because I have good teeth and no excess of hair, I had never before read a Bernstein essay. A physicist who writes for the general public is a curiosity, like the Russian dancing bear mentioned in one of these essays. But to perform in The New Yorker, the bear must also dance superbly. I approached this book with some pleasure.

Bernstein does write well, and he covers a lot of interesting ground. An article on the Bobby Fischer—Boris Spassky chess match of 1972 is an anomaly—most of the essays are about scientists or about scientists and poets, and, as it turns out, all of them are about Dr. Bernstein. For example, one that concerns a possible meeting between Johannes Kepler and the poet John Donne is mostly about Bernstein's needlessly elliptical investigation of the matter (in the end there appears to have been a brief encounter between the two, in which neither had the foggiest idea who the other was). Bernstein's style is to interject his first-person self wherever possible. Phrases such as "I will return to this point shortly" appear on nearly every page.

Sometimes he interjects himself in less innocent ways. In "Tom Stoppard's Quantum," he rips into the playwright for botching elementary quantum mechanics. In Stoppard's play Hapgood, a physicist named Kerner, who is also a double agent, explains the wave-particle duality to a British agent named Blair. The conceit here is that a double agent is like an electron. Trying to find out which side he's on, as Blair is doing, changes the result. The substance of Kerner's explanation comes right out of Volume III, Chapter 1, of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. But Bernstein, who describes himself as "a Stoppardian of the deepest dye," finds Stoppard's version not merely wrong, but intolerable, an affront to physics that must be set right. His point is that there is no wave-particle duality. The problem only arises if we make the semantic mistake of trying to describe what photons and electrons do using words like wave and particle.

Here I have to come clean and disclose my own bias. (Interjecting myself is a trick I learned from Bernstein.) Years ago, when Hapgood opened in Los Angeles, Tom Stoppard called me up ("a cold phone call" as he later described it) to ask whether I would show him and his son Oliver around Caltech. Oliver was just entering graduate school in physics, and Tom wanted to see where Feynman had dwelt. We have been in friendly contact ever since. That said, I think that Feynman (also a personal friend) would have been thrilled with Stoppard's brilliant riff on his account of the two-slit experiment, and that the majority of physicists would find it entirely unobjectionable.

Nevertheless, Bernstein goes on the attack. His technique is to quote from Kerner's dialogue with Blair, interspersing his own commentaries in brackets.

Let me illustrate by turning the tables and using the same technique on Bernstein. In a different essay he writes, "But the quantum mechanical oscillator always has a residual energy, which is usually called the zero-point energy. [Up to here he has it mostly right.] A collection of such oscillators can never be at the absolute zero of temperature because of this residual energy. [Wrong! The absolute zero of temperature cannot be reached, and all oscillators do have zero-point energy, but these two facts are completely unrelated. If a macroscopic body were in its ground state, zero-point energy and all, its temperature would be absolute zero, contrary to what Bernstein says.]" Incidentally, Bernstein's blunder comes in the essay he calls "Einstein's Blunder."

Bernstein clearly has a thing about Feynman. Of course he never attacks him directly—that would be physicist heresy. But he does attack, not only indirectly through Stoppard, but also through the editors of Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, which Bernstein regards as unfit to be read by anyone. I don't know how many people have actually read that sequel to Six Easy Pieces, a collection of the more accessible of The Feynman Lectures, but it has certainly been purchased by multitudes. Bernstein's problem with Feynman may have originated in his failed attempt to do a New Yorker profile of him. That story too is in the book.

The book ends with an essay about A Beautiful Mind, a biography of John Nash by Sylvia Nasar. As it happens, I know the book because I reviewed it for The New York Times. Here Bernstein goes about his Bernsteinian business, excoriating Nasar for a couple of trivial errors in mathematics and enlightening us on the meaning of Nash equilibrium. It is true that Nasar is not strong technically (I had to call an economist friend to find out about Nash equilibrium), but it's a fine book nevertheless.

Bernstein's book is actually fun to read, for its subject matter, its erudition and its ineffable snobbery. Most readers will be denied the malicious pleasure I had in writing this review, but The Merely Personal is worth a read anyway.—David Goodstein, Physics and Applied Physics, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: O Pioneer

Book Review: An Ethical Evolution

Book Review: Don't Try This at Home

Subscribe to American Scientist