Tag Archives: theoretical physics

“Chasing Heisenberg – The Race for the Atomic Bomb” by Michael Joseloff

Chasing Heisenberg: The Race for the Atom Bomb (Kindle Single)

This book appeals to two audiences:

  • World War II buffs
  • Readers interested in the history of science and technology

I studied chemistry, so I’m familiar with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, published in 1927. When dealing with subatomic particles, you can’t know both the location and the wavelength. (I think that’s it.) I even studied quantum mechanics. Heavy going… Heisenberg’s research contributed to the “atomic age” in which we live.

Theoretical physics might have remained an obscure scientific obsession, but as World War II proceeded, it became a vital matter of Allied security to find out if Hitler might deploy an atomic weapon. Heisenberg, a loyal German, was at the head of the German atomic effort. Hence, the Alsos Mission, a military attempt to capture certain German scientists (before the Russians) and learn how far their research had progressed.

Equally interesting were descriptions of the Manhattan Project (America’s first nuclear reactor) and Los Alamos (where our nuclear weapons were developed.)

This narration reminds us that, when it was happening, the outcome of World War II seemed uncertain.


“My Brief History” by Stephen Hawking

Another autobiography! I wrote about Sonia Sotomayor’s “My Beautiful World” on November 18, 2013. Stephen Hawking’s biography is almost the opposite of Sotomayor’s, which is long, detailed and energetic. Hawking’s is spare to the point of terseness, but expresses great satisfaction with many aspects of his unusual life.

Hawking, now aged 71, suffers from ALS disease (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), which struck him in his early 20s. His long survival with the disease is exceptional – few people live more than 10 years beyond diagnosis. Most of us would consider his current quality of life appallingly limited. He communicates using a device that responds to the twitch of the one muscle (in his face) that he can still control. His paralysis is so complete that he relies on mechanical assistance to breathe. 

But like Sotomayor, Hawking expresses great satisfaction in both his personal life and his work. His work has been the study of theoretical cosmology, the origin and structure of the universe. Cosmology can be considered a subfield of physics and/or astronomy. It’s hard for me to understand “theoretical science”, though I passed a course in Theoretical Chemistry long ago. It’s kind of like mathematics. You sit around and think! In some cases, an experiment can be devised to test a theory.

Hawking has found cosmology to be an exciting and fruitful endeavor. He has worked with some of the most brilliant scientists of our time, and published many scientific books and papers.

Hawking’s popular book for non-scientists, A Brief History of Time, was an unexpected, wildly popular bestseller. He expresses satisfaction that he receives questions from non-scientists that make it clear that they really read the book, and really want to understand it. Writing is very laborious for Hawking. He mentions working at the rate of three words per minute. The amount of effort that went into A Brief History of Time (which was heavily revised and edited to reduce scientific jargon and mathematics) is very impressive.

Hawking also expresses happiness with his personal life. He was married twice, and has two sons and a daughter. He travelled widely and met famous people, and he worked for decades in the field he loved. I wish him well.