A Passion for Discovery

I’ve just finished reading a wonderful new book by theoretical physicist Peter Freund, entitled A Passion for Discovery. Freund grew up in Romania, and began his career as a physicist in Europe during the 1950s, emigrating to the US during the 1960s, finally ending up at the University of Chicago, where he is now an emeritus professor.

When I was writing my own book I tried to include amidst the expository material about physics and mathematics stories of some of the people and events that seemed to me illustrative in one way or another. Freund has had the excellent idea of writing a book that foregrounds such stories, interspersing in the background the actual physics and mathematics. A reader who doesn’t know the science may not learn as much about it from this book as from others, but will get a feel for something perhaps more important, the “culture” of the field of theoretical physics. By this I mean the whole circle of knowledge that makes up the context in which theoretical physicists think and work. A reader who does know the science and some of the stories that Freund tells will deepen his or her knowledge by learning many more that he or she was probably unaware of.

When I moved from a physics environment to a mathematics one many years ago, one thing that struck me was that I had entered not just a field that studied somewhat different material, but a whole new cultural environment, very much like moving from the US to France. Different fields have different unspoken sets of values and beliefs, derived from their different environments and different histories. Shared stories about the history of the field and the quirks of leading figures of the subject make up a large part of this common culture. Freund does an excellent job of capturing the culture of twentieth-century theoretical physics, and one could learn much more about this from his book than from any textbook or most standard historical treatments.

It’s tempting to repeat here some of the stories that I learned from Freund’s book, but there really are too many to choose from, so I have to just recommend that you should read for yourself. Among the physicists you can learn about here are: Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, Stueckleberg, Feynman, Salam, Chandrashekar, Zeldovich, Landau, Touschek, Thirring, Oppenheimer (who, unlike almost everyone else, comes off badly), Nambu, and many others. A significant number of mathematicians, including Emmy Noether and Andre Weil also put in an appearance.

Freund also does a masterful job of describing the story of how mathematics and physics operated under the totalitarian systems of the last century, including a description of how the Romanian dictator Ceausescu and his wife had the mathematics institute closed down and disbanded after their daughter, who was working there, spent the night in a resort motel with one of her colleagues. He tells the stories of some of the well-known German mathematicians and physicists who either collaborated with the Nazis or joined the Nazi party, and where this led their careers. There is also quite a bit about Russian physicists and mathematicians, illustrating their attempts to survive within the Stalinist system, and the institutionalized anti-Semitism that Pontryagin and others were responsible for supporting.

Freund describes particle theory research as generally having a single leading figure that the field follows. He sees 1905 to 1925 as the era of Einstein, 1926-1943 as that of Heisenberg, a transitional period led by Fermi, with Gell-Mann dominating from the fifties to the early seventies, at which point ‘t Hooft takes over, followed by Witten in the early eighties. Witten’s long era of dominance now appears to him to be coming to an end, and Freund nominates Maldacena as the leader for the new era which I guess has already been underway for a while, as AdS/CFT has dominated research for the last ten years.

While Freund is very strong on conveying the culture of particle theory that dominated the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, unfortunately he has much less of the same sort of material to help explain what has been going on for the last twenty years or so, the age of Witten and now Maldacena. There aren’t any stories he has to tell about Witten, ‘t Hooft, or any of the other researchers whose work has characterized this recent period. Perhaps part of the problem is that they’re a less entertaining lot: while I’ve heard a lot about Witten over the years, I can’t think of much in the way of really colorful stories.

Freund’s take on the current state of the subject is blandly optimistic: everything’s going just fine. He mentions the Landscape and suggests Susskind’s book for further reading, but doesn’t see a problem there other than that “we need time and perserverance”, and maybe cosmology will save the day. He does promote a more realistic point of view on the prospects for string theory, seeing it as a set of ideas that may in the future be part of some quite different real advance. His analogy is with Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics, which didn’t really give anything you couldn’t get from Newtonian mechanics, but were necessary foundations for the truly revolutionary quantum theory.

All in all, Freund has written a fascinating book, one which any person who wants to understand more about the culture of theoretical physics can learn quite a lot from, whether they’re a novice to the field, or have spent much of their life in it.

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12 Responses to A Passion for Discovery

  1. Tony Smith says:

    Peter, you say “… Freund describes particle theory research as generally having a single leading figure that the field follows. He sees
    1905 to 1925 as the era of Einstein,
    1926-1943 as that of Heisenberg,
    a transitional period led by Fermi,
    with Gell-Mann dominating from the fifties to the early seventies,
    at which point ‘t Hooft takes over,
    followed by Witten in the early eighties.
    Witten’s long era of dominance now appears to him to be coming to an end,
    and Freund nominates Maldacena as the leader for the new era …”.

    As to 1926-1943, why not Pauli ? Wasn’t he regarded as a leader with a strong personality who had a lot of influence through the Handbuch, not to mention being the origin of memorable phrases including the title of your blog ?
    As to Pauli v. Heisenberg, their relative leadership status should be indicated by their conflict (in the 1950s) over Heisenberg’s urfield theory, in which Pauli’s skepticism (expressed in terms of painting like Titian) clearly won the battle for the hearts and minds of the physics establishment.

    As to the “transitional period led by Fermi” of 1943 – 1950s, there are many reasons to consider Oppenheimer (whether he was a nice guy or a not-so-nice guy who “comes off badly”) as the real leader of that period. For one example, it was Oppenheimer’s eventual approval of Dyson’s presentation of Feynman/Schwinger QED that may have been the pivotal point of wide acceptance of QED. For a not-so-nice example, it was Oppenheimer who pushed Bohm to leave the USA.

    As to ‘t Hooft being the leader from the early 1970s to the 1980s, it is certainly true that his work was the key to establishing the Standard Model, but I am not so sure that he acted as a socio/political leader. It seems to me that Glashow and Weinberg shared that role back then, and that Weinberg’s approval of string theory in the early 1980s was pivotal in the widespread acceptance of string theory, and the ascent of Witten to leadership role.

    As to Maldacena being an heir to Witten’s leadership position, that might happen in the future, but as of now it seems to me that Witten has a strong hold on the leadership position, being widely known to the public and also commanding huge audience attention whenever he speaks/writes anything.
    It would not surprise me if a non-string theorist were to get the leadership role in the future, such as for example possibly Alain Connes if his Non-Commutative Geometry model is seen to be successful.

    Peter also says “… Freund is very strong on conveying the culture of particle theory that dominated the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, unfortunately he has much less of the same sort of material to help explain what has been going on for the last twenty years or so, the age of Witten and now Maldacena …”.
    Maybe such stories might actually exist, but may not be widely circulated until after the leaders have been gone from leadership for a while.

    Tony Smith

    PS – As this comment is written, I have ordered Freund’s book from Amazon, but not yet received it. Maybe when I read it some of the questions raised above might be answered.

  2. NEW Reader says:

    Hi Peter,

    Do you know of similar works within the mathematical physics & mathematics establishments?

    Would be curious to find out.

  3. steve bryson says:

    hi Peter – here’s a very small bit of unexpected Witten color: In a former life I thought I was going to be a theoretical physicist, but now I work on the NASA Kepler mission, which will look for Earth-sized planets around Sun-like Stars. Last January I was at the AAS conference at which Witten was participating in a panel. I was in the Kepler booth, and up walks Witten, who starts playing with our displays showing strong interest!! I mention that I know his work and ask him what about Kepler caught his eye. He says he’s really interested in extrasolar planets and stays for the better part of half and hour. He got deeply absorbed in a grade-school level educational program where you construct your own solar system by placing planets on a touch screen. It was fun to watch his delight.


  4. D R Lunsford says:

    I am excited to read this book!

    Does he mention Fermi’s critical work in early QED (in the 30s)?


  5. milkshake says:

    There is lots of new material on Oppenheimer (and others) in the “Brotherhood of the Bomb” from Gregg Herken and I could recommend the book to people interested in the politics and personalities of the cold war.

    Oppenheimer does not come off as the nicest person – but the blame for what happened to Bohm, Friedman and Lomanitz falls on their buddy Joe Weinberg who was caught on tape by FBI volunteering to spy on Manhattan Project for Soviets.

    Oppenheimer did his best to protect his commie students and academic collegues (and his brother) but he found himself in terrible soup as he had hard time remebering the contradicting stories he told at different times to different security people. He used to be a CP member himself, until about 1942, and he lied about it vehemently

  6. Bee says:

    What comes into my mind showing a true ‘Passion for Discovery’ is this nice photo from Pauli and Bohr. It’s hard to see on the scanned photo, but they are watching one of these tippy top gyroscopes.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    NEW Reader,

    I don’t know of a similar book in mathematics, although there are lots of books that have some stories about mathematicians.


    There’s actually not that much about Fermi in Freund’s book, even though it is rather Chicago-centric.

  8. T. says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the excellent review. I’ve been spending some time on Pontryagin’s principle..did my master’s thesis on the subject, back then. I had no idea he was antisemitic. What a shame.

    What I knew from him was that he grew blind at a point, and his mother would help him in his research, by taking dictations. I thought this was such a beautiful story..now it’s somehow stained !

  9. Tony Smith says:

    Bee, thanks for the Pauli-Bohr TippyTop picture.

    After my high school senior class (1959 Cartersville High) got our class rings, with heavy stones on top, we spent a lot of time spinning them (heavy-end-down) on our desks and watching them turn heavy-end-up.

    Tony Smith

  10. Haelfix says:

    I feel Dirac replaces Heisenberg somewhere in the early thirties as the dominant physicist. He was soft spoken and not a traditional leader, but everyone and their mother was going through his papers trying to figure him out b/c it was obvious that it was dee[ and important.

    I agree with a previous commentator about Weinberg being the dominant physicist until Witten takes over.

  11. m says:

    Haelfix, do you think that Witten papers on strings are more important than the Weinberg papers on the anthropic cosmological constant?

  12. Came upon a reference to P. Freund on L. Motls’ blog:


    F. Wilczek:

    I also got a superb undergraduate education, at the University of Chicago. In this connection I’d especially like to mention the inspiring influence of Peter Freund, whose tremendous enthusiasm and clarity in teaching a course on group theory in physics was a major influence in nudging me from pure mathematics toward physics.

    I found a really good article on the influence of teaching, stimulated by T. Dorigo’s post on Quantum Diaries (education/cheating):

    “Those who educate children well are more to be honored than parents, for these only gave life, those the art of living well.”
    — Aristotle
    “American educators take this philosophy to heart – they view their jobs as preparing the citizens of the world’s most influential society.”

    I don’t find it surprising P. Freund wrote a good book: he understands Physics (“Know your subject”) & is a good teacher (“Communication is the key”).

    S. Coleman was also mentioned as an influential teacher (“his reputation precedes him”). I did some research recently, & found out my instructor for grad level course on Group Theory (UIUC, Harvard PhD & Princeton post-doc) was Julian Schwinger’s student!! As was a close family friend of ours: UIUC physics prof, whose wife Lillian H. co-edited “The Rise of the Standard Model: A History of Particle Physics from 1964 to 1970”)

    [ she is a Physics PhD (Columbia), double appt History/Physics. Like P. Freund, this is how Physics needs to be communicated: by people who UNDERSTAND physics. Not by some journalist (non-technical type) who writes articles for “entertainment value”. M. Franklin/Harvard had the best quote, from her talk entitled “Why the NY Times doesn’t get the right spin on our data” ]

    “scholarly scrutiny” as my ex-classmate H. Rothman (UNLV History prof, dept head) puts it, is the key. He [ his dad was a UIUC math prof, btw ] & his colleagues had a good discussion on how TV/media can mess things up:

    “A film cannot show everything nor reach the depths of understanding found in a book or even an article, and filmmakers fall prey to the need to make it captivating for the viewer. A historically accurate
    film that bores and goes unwatched is worthless in this sense.”
    — James Lewis, history prof

    This is a REALLY GOOD POINT. Film/TV/Print (“media”) is designed to “entertain” (weave a story, sometimes w/”artistic license”), but History is designed to “tell” (boring facts, but can be presented in a stimulating way).

    “Facts tell [ Science ], but Stories [ Entertainment ] sells”
    — Auto Racing maxim (or any field, for that matter)

    “It failed because it was a Documentary [ “facts” ], instead of Telling a Story [ “entertainment” ]”
    — Michael xx ( Emmy award producer of “Amazing Race” )
    [ Auto Racing (click on “chimpanzee”) to see the niche-market I’ve been exploring. Just like Science, it’s not well understood by the Public & has poor-funding ]

    C. Johnson/Asymptotia had a rude awakening recently (his content was used in a sensationalistic “female breast” stunt, as humorously pointed out by P. Woit), & there is the Fox News article on G. Lisi. They focus on “Appearance”, rather than “Substance”.

    I noticed that journalists like J. Horgan, G. Johnson, T. Ferris are brought in to “transmit” Science to the Public. T. Ferris made a total farce with his recent PBS show (I happen to be an expert in the subject matter he was addressing), the avg viewer just doesn’t know. L. Motl had some very harsh words for J. Horgan’s recent foray into Science.

    Needs & Solutions

    The solution is that each scientist (& his/her respective dept) needs a *historian* (w/background in Science) to handle the “communication”. P. Woit & S. Hossenfelder shouldn’t have to deal with a New Scientist (“soft publication”) for science news. Just have a Freund-like entity to write it up, & *distribute* it to any publications.

    The husband/wife combo @UIUC (physicist & historian), has counterparts at other universities. Caltech has physics prof D. Goodstein (who used to visit my group @JPL, for that Project Mathematics education initiative) & his wife Judith (university archivist & faculty assoc History Dept). S. Carroll/J. Oulette (English major), I guarantee SC will proofread JO’s articles for science correctness.

    Moral of the Story:
    Teamwork. 2-man teams. Get one of your colleagues to handle the history/communication. Forget about external non-technical 3rd parties.

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