The Merely Personal: Observations on Science and Scientists

Jeremy Bernstein, Author
Jeremy Bernstein, Author Ivan R. Dee Publisher $26 (245p) ISBN 978-1-56663-344-4
Reviewed on: 02/01/2001
Release date: 02/01/2001
Show other formats
In this collection of 13 essays, some original, some previously published in the American Scholar, Commentary and elsewhere, Bernstein, a theoretical physicist and veteran writer of the ""human side of science,"" whose Einstein was nominated for a National Book Award, sketches some of the giants of science he has encountered during his career. These include J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb and head of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton during Bernstein's time there; mathematician Kurt G del, who slowly descended into mental illness; and the taciturn Paul Dirac, one of the founders of quantum theory. In writing about scientists and others, like the poets W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, Bernstein explores the difference between ""genius"" and the ""merely very good."" In an engaging historical digression, he describes how he investigated the circumstances of a portentous meeting between two contemporary geniuses, poet John Donne and astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1619. He goes on to discuss science as a muse for writers, and then explains what Tom Stoppard--whom he admires immensely--got wrong about quantum physics in his play Hapgood. In another piece, he suggests that Isaac Newton was not in fact being humble when he said, ""If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."" For a former staff writer at the New Yorker, Bernstein is stylistically flat in many essays, although the writing perks up toward the end of the collection. Fans of scientific biographies probably won't find much they haven't already read elsewhere in his character sketches, but they will enjoy the rest, and readers without much knowledge of modern science will learn from his carefully laid-out explications of relativity and quantum mechanics. (Apr. 6)