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The Physicists, by C.P. Snow

Science & Society

The Physicists.
by C.P. Snow.
Little, Brown. 192 pp. $15.95.

This book, lavishly illustrated, is actually a first draft, dictated in haste from memory, of a longer work the late C.P. Snow planned to write, and this is reflected in the brevity of the text. Subtitled “A Generation that Changed the World,” it attempts to put into context the men and ideas that shaped the revolution in modern physics. It is unfortunate that Snow did not live to complete it, for he was chronologically a member of that generation, a true child of the scientific revolution.

Charles Percy Snow was born in 1905. That year was notable for the publication by Albert Einstein, then still a young patent examiner in Zurich, of three papers dealing with esoteric problems of theoretical physics. One paper used statistical arguments to explain the phenomenon of Brownian motion; the second applied Max Planck’s highly unorthodox quantum hypothesis, which had been put forward as an act of desperation several years earlier in another connection, to explain how light could eject electrons from metals; the third introduced the Special Theory of Relativity. Seemingly unrelated, the concepts and techniques introduced by Einstein in 1905 were to revolutionize both physics and the world we live in.

Snow grew up together with the unfolding of the new science. Experiments being carried out by Rutherford in Manchester and later Cambridge, and by the Curies in Paris, were producing new knowledge of the microscopic nature of matter. In 1913, Niels Bohr of Copenhagen took a giant step toward understanding the structure of the atom by making a still more daring extension of the quantum hypothesis. In 1916, Einstein formulated his General Theory of Relativity, providing a foundation for new cosmological theories which could explain the later, unexpected discovery that the universe was expanding. In the mid-1920′s a new generation of young European physicists, including such men as de Broglie, Schrodinger, Born, and Heisenberg, produced a more sophisticated theory, quantum mechanics, that still provides us with our best description of the microscopic structure of the universe. Finally, in 1928, P.A.M. Dirac at Cambridge showed how relativity could be reconciled with quantum mechanics (in his theory of the electron). In that year, Snow entered Cambridge as a research student in physics.

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The bright son of a working-class family in Leicester, Snow, like so many future scientists, had become fascinated by popular works on science. After leaving school, he had worked as a laboratory technician until he won a scholarship to University College, Leicester, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Intrigued by the new quantum theory, he had gone on to get a master’s degree in physics before winning a place at Cambridge. There he was in the center of things when Rutherford and his students invented the subject of nuclear physics after discovering that the atomic nucleus itself could be transmuted by bombarding it with accelerated atomic particles.

Research there, in Paris by the Joliot-Curies, and in Rome by Fermi and his school led to the discovery that the heavy nucleus of uranium could be split by neutron bombardment into two more or less even parts. This observation was so unexpected that it was not interpreted correctly for a number of years, until the eve of the outbreak of World War II, when the true explanation was published by Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner, two refugee scientists from Germany. Because the nuclear-fission process released more neutrons than were required to initiate it, the possibility was obvious that a nuclear chain reaction could take place, releasing surplus energy with devastating explosive force. Small groups of physicists began research directed at establishing the feasibility of such chain reactions. In England and in Germany, in America and in Russia, governments were made aware of the potential of nuclear bombs, and physics became too important to be left to the physicists.

By then, Snow himself had moved away from pure research. Although still a Cambridge fellow, he had published several novels and begun his magnum opus, Strangers and Brothers, meanwhile serving (1938-40) as editor of the semi-popular science magazine Discovery. His wide range of contacts in the scientific world had led him to a place on a committee, set up in 1939, to study means of integrating scientists into the war effort. In 1940 he joined the Ministry of Labor, was appointed director of Technical Personnel in 1942, and played a key role in mobilizing the scientists who took an unprecedented part in the war effort, not only in such traditional areas as munitions research, but also as practitioners of the new discipline of operations research, and, most important of all, as developers of radar and the atomic bomb.

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As it happened, the atomic bomb was first produced in the United States. The British were too hard-pressed in wartime to devote the necessary resources to the task, and transferred their expertise to the U.S. and to Canada. The German efforts got nowhere, because of some faulty early experimental results and a surfeit of intellectual arrogance. It is not known how far Soviet research advanced during the desperate war years, although their espionage did achieve a considerable measure of success.

After the war, while most scientists returned to peaceful pursuits, some continued full time in weapons research. A number combined both activities, as Soviet belligerence continued to require a high level of military preparedness in the West. Advances in electronics achieved during wartime led to a blossoming of the new science of radio-astronomy, which resulted in the discovery of unforeseen phenomena such as quasars and pulsars. Ever larger particle accelerators allowed experimenters to delve deeper into the structure of the nucleus and gave theoreticians ample opportunity to apply more sophisticated versions of quantum mechanics and relativity to the development of far-reaching hypotheses concerning the nature of matter. The application of the tools and ideas of modern physics to biological research resulted in a new knowledge of the mechanism of life, as the DNA molecule was unraveled and the microscopic basis of genetics explored. The development of solid-state electronics enabled computers to become both far more powerful and much smaller, and their uses expanded from mere calculating machines to essential elements of the workplace, the marketplace, and even the amusement arcade, while their potential for handling vast amounts of detailed information presaged unpredictable changes in social organization.

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Snow was an informed and concerned observer of this immense intellectual and social flux. Rewarded for his wartime efforts by being made a Commander of the British Empire, in 1945 he was appointed a Civil Service Commissioner. He took only a part-time appointment so he could devote attention to his other interests, which encompassed not only his literary activities but also a directorship of the English Electric Company. He achieved fame with his novels, was knighted in 1957, delivered the famous Rede lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, in 1959, and in 1964 was made a Life Peer by the new Labor government. As Baron Snow of Leicester he served as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Science, where he would have played a major role in Harold Wilson’s white-hot technological revolution had it turned out to be more than a damp fizzle. He completed Strangers and Brothers in 1970, wrote several other novels, a critical study of Anthony Trollope, and several collections of essays, and garnered a variety of academic honors.

With this unique background—as an active participant in the heroic era of modern physics, a central figure in the wartime mobilization of British science, and high-level administrator in the postwar era—and with his highly honed skills of character evaluation, Snow was ideally qualified to present a perspective on the role of scientists in our century. Unfortunately, The Physicists misses this target by a wide margin. The story of the romantic beginnings of modern physics as an intellectual adventure, its subsequent conscription to the uses of war, and the postwar battle over development of the hydrogen bomb has been told in numerous popular books, almost all of them richer in detail than The Physicists.

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As a historical account, the book is a failure, its few pages full of trivial errors. As a popular account, it lacks the anecdotal detail found in books like Robert Jungk’s twenty-five-year-old Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, Nuel Pharr Davis’s Lawrence and Oppenheimer, or any of the first-hand accounts which veterans of Los Alamos have recently been producing. Even as a vehicle for Snow’s impressions of the great figures with whom he came into contact, it is inferior to his own fifteen-year-old collection of biographical essays, Variety of Men. If all these faults are found in the parts of the book dealing with what Snow knew best, the chapters concerning more recent developments are totally inadequate, acclaiming as “the younger masters” a number of leading physicists who are now in many cases closer to elder statesmen. Of the truly younger generation, which includes such leading figures as Snow’s countrymen Brian Josephson and Stephen Hawking, who have already been publishing important work for around twenty years, there is not a hint.

The fact that this book was written at all, considering Snow’s seriously ill health in his last years, is a tribute to his courage and fortitude, but the book itself suggests nothing so much as the ruminations of an elderly clubman with a slightly failing memory, though still possessed of sharp wits and a keen eye. Perhaps the best memorial to Snow in The Physicists is the appendix, which reprints an editorial he wrote for Discovery in September 1939, where he foresaw the atomic bomb and reflected on the awful possibilities it would bring to mankind. What aroused Snow’s anxiety then, and later as well, was the knowledge—which he possessed to a keen degree—that scientists, however rational and objective in their professional activities, are, no less than other mortals, given to irrationality and subjectivity when they enter the worlds of politics and government. Curiously enough, this lesson has yet to be fully absorbed even by a public that has become skeptical of matters scientific, let alone by scientists themselves, who remain as eager as ever to dictate public policy.

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