In 1932, the so-called annus mirabilis of modern physics, a group of scientists gathered in Copenhagen for a week-long conference on the extraordinary new work that was taking place in laboratories across the world; work that would ultimately lead to the development of nuclear weapons and the ensuing international power struggles.
Segrè's erudite and impressive account explores this crucial moment in history through the lives and careers of seven physicists sitting in the front row of the Copenhagen meeting. Six of them were already in the pantheon of genius while the seventh - Max Delbrück - was the author of a skit performed at the conference that lightly parodied the struggle between the old and new theories of physics and eerily foreshadowed the events that were to unfold in the struggle between peaceful uses of scientific discovery and destructive ones.
Segr (A Matter of Degrees) once again applies a human scale to important physics topics in a way that's as informative and accessible as it is appealing. Beginning in 1929, Niels Bohr hosted an annual gathering in Copenhagen for his fellow physicists, where they joked and argued about the new theory of quantum mechanics. Tradition demanded that the younger physicists entertain with a skit, and in 1932, the centenary of Goethe's death, the entertainment was Max Delbr ck's parody of Faust, with the proponents of classical physics and the new quantum mechanics fighting for primacy. The discovery of the neutron and the positron had disturbed classical atomic theory, while quantum mechanics raised troubling issues, such as how one could find the true position of an electron and how the photon could be both a particle and a wave. Segr brings the scientists and their ideas to vivid life, from convivial Bohr and iconoclastic Wolfgang Pauli (nicknamed "Scourge of God"), to emotionally guarded Werner Heisenberg, gracious Lise Meitner, reclusive Paul Dirac and others, as well as the consequences of their discoveries. For after 1932 came Hitler and WWII, and a new physics that could never be as intimate, or as innocent, as it had once been.