September 15, 2005


A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. By Robert Laughlin. Basic Books. $26.

The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born, the Nobel Physicist Who Ignited the Quantum Revolution.  By Nancy Thorndike Greenspan. Basic Books. $26.95.

     We live our everyday lives in a Newtonian/Euclidean world: the analyses and discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton and Euclid about gravity and mathematics are excellent approximations on the gross material level at which we operate.  But at the atomic and subatomic levels – at the levels of the building blocks of the universe – our intuitive grasp of how things work, and even what they are, is wrong.  It is customary to call the workings of the universe Einsteinian, but that is at best shorthand.  These two books go a long way toward explaining that the frontiers of science are not so distant from our everyday lives after all.

     A Different Universe is the more accessible of the books, and has a fascinating underlying premise: that the interactions and patterns of everyday objects, not the abstruse thought processes of higher mathematics, provide clues to the nature and workings of the universe.  Robert Laughlin, a Stanford University physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1998, mixes personal history with historical analysis (with nicely pointed comments about such matters as Galileo and Isaac Newton being “rebellious individual[s] disinclined to trust authority”), then brings to scientific concepts a breathtaking simplicity that really forces the reader to think: “By far the most important effect of phase organization is to cause objects to exist.”  Laughlin does not shrink from addressing difficult concepts, but he is gentlemanly enough to acknowledge that they are far from obvious: “Superfluidity and superconductivity are the fluid versions of ideal crystalline rigidity.  This is not at all obvious….”  Thanks in part to some wonderful chapter titles – “I Solved It at Dinner,” “Carnival of the Baubles,” “Star Warriors,” etc. – Laughlin is able to take readers on a tour of the frontiers of modern physics without making them feel like interlopers in an erudite field: “Antimatter is one of those bizarre facts of nature that is too crazy to have been made up by science fiction writers.”  Or: “It is ironic that Einstein’s most creative work, the general theory of relativity, should boil down to conceptualizing space as a medium when his original premise was that no such medium existed.”  A Different Universe is not easy going – the concepts are complex, and often counterintuitive – but Laughlin makes such a wonderful guide that readers with a shred of intellectual curiosity will find themselves both charmed and challenged.

     The End of the Certain World is more conventional and denser than A Different Universe, but in its own way no less compelling.  It is the biography of Max Born, close friend and intellectual rival of Einstein, the man to whom Einstein made the famous comment about God not playing dice with the universe – a glib critique of Born’s theory of indeterminacy, which however has proved the primary basis of modern physics and which won Born the 1954 Nobel Prize.  In 300-plus pages of small type and dense text, Nancy Thorndike Greenspan traces Born’s roots in old Germany; his preeminent role in the 1920s Golden Age of Physics; his exile when Hitler came to power; his eventual training of nine Nobel physicists; the irony of this lifelong pacifist’s extensive work in educating the developers of the atomic bomb; and his campaign against nuclear proliferation in the years after he won his Nobel award.  Superb family photos from the Born family’s private collection do a great deal to humanize the scientist.  But Greenspan’s writing style is not a strong point: the book reads as if she stands a bit too much in awe of her subject.  Sentences tend to be long and peppered with clichés: “In spite of the ills Born recounted and the daily disruptions in life, the confined and meager existence of wartime had been transformed into a world of reunion and opportunity permeated by an aura of excitement.”  Yet the book is successful in communicating the intellectual vitality and underlying personal gentleness of one of the very greatest physicists the world has produced.

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