Freund illuminates ‘three narrative flows in physics’By Steve Koppes
Peter Freund, Professor Emeritus in Physics, packed his book, A Passion for Discovery, with stories about important 20th-century physicists and mathematicians, including a story he liked to share in class about Emmy Noether.
Noether rose to scientific prominence in the early 20th century in Göttingen, Germany, when the city reigned as the world’s undisputed capital of mathematics. She changed the way mathematicians went about their work, nevertheless enduring gender discrimination in a male-dominated world.
Once Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, Noether, who was Jewish, fled to the United States, where she joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She died of cancer two years later at the age of 53.
“The New York Times printed a short obituary, as it always did when a Bryn Mawr teacher died, but shortly thereafter, they printed a long letter to the editor pointing out that Emmy Noether had not only been a teacher at a girls’ college, but the greatest woman mathematician of all time,” wrote Freund in his book. “The letter was signed: Albert Einstein.”
As an undergraduate in his hometown of Timisoara, Romania, Freund gained an appreciation for how political upheaval can intrude upon the unsuspecting. Following the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Freund was among a group of students that communist authorities had rounded up and nearly executed.
“To a large extent, it motivated my interest in the way historical events affect scientists: their behavior, their interests and sometimes even their style,” Freund said. This interest culminated last year in the publication of A Passion for Discovery by World Scientific. The book explores how world affairs affect scientists and their interactions.
National Public Radio commentator, author and poet Andrei Codrescu has written an essay based on issues raised in Freund’s book. Codrescu discussed the interweave between the foibles of humans and their sometimes brilliant endeavors, both in physics and in poetry in his essay, published on bestofneworleans.com.
Codrescu also recommended Freund’s book in the online journal Exquisite Corpse (corpse.org): “A wonderful series of anecdotes about great physicists, by Corpse contributor, string-theorist and distinguished theoretical physicist Peter Freund,” Codrescu wrote.
Freund has written short stories for approximately three decades, but only in recent years has he started to publish them, including five in Exquisite Corpse. After he began writing A Passion for Discovery, Freund noticed certain narrative parallels between science and literature.
“There are really three narrative flows in physics,” Freund said. “One is at the level of the individual paper.” He added most papers in physics are short stories, in which concepts, rather than human characters, undergo adventures. “In the end, they emerge changed, occasionally with new concepts being introduced and promises that we will return to them, which is like what they call a sequel or a spin-off in Hollywood.”
The second narrative encompasses science as a whole. “Each time a really good paper is written, the older papers automatically all get rewritten,” Freund said. Undergraduates today can perform certain calculations in one line that in Sir Isaac Newton’s day would have required two pages. That’s because they know the mathematical descendants of Newton’s original work.
The third narrative of science is the human story. Freund emphasizes this narrative in his book, “but it is always entwined with these other two stories of a given paper or of the subject as a whole,” he said.
Freund’s narratives range near and far in time and space, from the 18th century’s Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, who claimed to have scientifically proven the existence of God, to the iconic Einstein.
They also involve several Chicago faculty members and alumni. These include Nobel laureates James Cronin (M.S.’53, Ph.D.’55), University Professor Emeritus in Physics; the late Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, who was the Morton Hull Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Astronomy & Astrophysics; and alumni Tsung Dao Lee (Ph.D.,’50) and Chen Ning Yang (Ph.D.,’49).
Freund devotes a chapter to Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb during World War II at Los Alamos, N.M. He carefully avoids discussing the famous feud between Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, in part because other books already had.
Another factor: potential accusations of personal bias. Both Teller’s and Freund’s mothers came from the town of Lugoj, Romania. “In fact, his favorite cousin and my mother were best friends,” Freund said.
Teller, who, at one time, had liberal viewpoints on political matters, later became notorious for his advocacy of the hydrogen bomb.
Teller had experienced an oppressive, short-lived and mostly forgotten Soviet republic, which ruled Hungary in 1919. “He had suffered under communism at that early time,” Freund said. His family then fled to Lugoj, from which the Dracula-portraying Hollywood actor Bela Lugosi took his stage name.
Years later at Los Alamos, Teller worked with Oppenheimer, who favored dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. If the erudite Oppenheimer took such a stance, Freund said, then Teller must have feared what a less-civilized man like Stalin would do. “He was tremendously scared of Stalin.”