Tracing the history of concepts and ideas in modern physics
Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World, by Abraham Pais. New York: Oxford University Press. 700 pp. $24.95. The history of science presents a unique challenge to both the reader and the writer. Biography concentrates on the thoughts and actions of one man; histories focus on the interaction of many people against the background of world events. Science textbooks present, sometimes too clinically, the current ideas and their quantification. In textbooks, the rise and fall of ideas is hardly mentioned, there are few missteps and a great emphasis on proper quantification obscures the concepts to those readers who are not skilled in calculus.
``Inward Bound,'' by Abraham Pais, centers on the concepts and ideas of modern physics without overburdening the reader with complex mathematics. It explores the birth and development of quantum mechanics and our current understanding of atomic and nuclear processes. It is in the best sense a history of the development of ideas.
Pais divides his book into two parts. The first part, a history of physics from 1895 through World War II, begins with Roentgen and X-rays. It reads like an adventure story: Each chapter unfolds new discoveries, new phenomena, new physicists, and new explanations for the known facts. With the advantage of knowing the final resolution of the conflicts that plagued the discovery of them, each phenomenon is described along with its significance. This is a very scholarly book; there are ample references to the original works so that each point can be verified. Nonetheless, Pais has been able to capture the spirit of the times and the joy in the solution to each new mystery that investigation revealed.
The nontechnical reader may be put off by the appearance of equations in the text but should not be. Here, equations are displayed for completeness and accuracy. The text does not hang on them - as is sometimes true of textbooks.
Although the emphasis is on the concepts and their development, the book includes many anecdotes in the lives of some of the ``players.'' For example, the following passage illustrates how some very important research was carried out in the late 1890s by high school teachers:
Julius Elster and Hans Geitel had been high school friends. They both became teachers at the Gymnasium in Wolfenbuttel near Braunschweig. When Elster married and had a house built, Geitel moved in with the young couple and together the two friends built a laboratory in the new home. Here they started their research (often financed from their own pockets) which was to make them internationally renowned. They experimented on photoelectric effects, on spectroscopy, on the conduction of electricity through gases, and especally on atmos-pheric electricity. These last experiments led to their classic work on the radioactivity of the atmosphere, research about which Rutherford spoke with great respect. Simultaneously with Crookes they discovered the scintillations of zinc sulfide screens by X-rays. In 1905, 1907, 1908, 1910, and 1911 they were nominated for the Nobel Prize.
The second part of the book provides an interesting perspective for modern (post-World War II) physics. As Pais states, ``While my presentation of the subject is not quite finished, I am coming close to the stage at which `what happened next' is part of the current physics scene.'' There is another reason for Pais's wise decision to leave to other scholars an accounting of very recent advances in physics, Pais himself was an active participant in those advances. He was one of the chairs of the first Rochester meetings in 1950. The other chairs were Oppenheimer and Bethe. (These meetings have become the principal assembly for research on high energy physics.) This gives him the insight to accurately chronicle the earlier developments in physics, as well as making his contribution to more recent history especially valuable - as a historian and a participant.
The history of physics from 1949 through 1984 is reviewed from the author's unique viewpoint. His comments will be of interest to historians and researchers in the field. Pais summarizes the state of affairs among theorists, ``In the words of Pogo, `we are faced with insurmountable opportunities,''' and finds experimentalists, ``...looking forward to the completion of new machines....''
``Inward Bound'' sets a new standard for the history of science. It is rigorous, scholarly, complete, and captivating. World events and history in the normal sense are set aside and one's full attention is focused on the development of the ideas that comprise modern physics. This book will take its place beside Pais's wonderful biography of Einstein, ``Subtle is the Lord.''