Commentary Magazine

My Life and My Views, by Max Born

Science & Sensibility

My Life And My Views.
by Max Born.
Scribner's. 216 pp. $4.95.

These eight essays, couched for the most part in untechnical language, at once command attention because they represent the social thinking of a man whose name is a truly eminent one in modern physics. Dr. Max Born, a founder of quantum mechanics, director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Göttingen when it flowered in pre-Hitler times, winner of a Nobel Prize, and teacher of numerous other laureates, probably merits inclusion among the dozen or so physicists whose single superior is Einstein (who was Born's close friend and musical duettist, and of whose general theory of relativity Born writes, “I was so impressed by the greatness of his conception that I decided never to work in this field”). Adding to the interest with which one approaches Born's ruminations on science and society is the knowledge that he is eighty-six. It is a time of life when one of the few remaining incentives for continuing is to tell the truth, and this the renowned physicist relentlessly seeks to do, his every page marked by a testamentary fervor and sincerity, even though the content of the page itself may arouse the reader's opposition. As one might expect when an octogenarian author discourses on his life and views, the book is overlaid with reminiscence, but it is reminiscence of a curiously immediate order, concerned as it is with the early days of what has developed into the onrushing scientific age that is currently engulfing us all. Thus, the message comes through with special force when a scientist of Born's standing writes, “In the operation of science [today] and in its ethics a change has taken place that makes it impossible to maintain the old idea of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake which my generation believed in. We were convinced that this could never lead to any evil since the search for truth was good in itself.” Nor does it sound like mere rambling reminiscence when Born recalls his blindness to the latent bomb-making proclivities of such Göttingen students as Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi, and various Russian physicists. Satisfying though it may have been to have had “such clever and efficient pupils,” he tells us, he wishes “they had shown less cleverness and more wisdom.” One can almost hear Born sigh as he writes, “I feel that I am to blame if all they learned from me were methods of research and nothing else.”

It is a long life he has led, and external events have often disturbed the stillness of his laboratory. A Jew, he learned from a Nazi newspaper, in 1933, that he had been dismissed from his post at Göttingen; five years earlier, we read, the burdens of that post had caused him a nervous breakdown, so taxing had Born found it as a man in his forties to keep intellectual pace with the prodigious youngsters his famous Institute attracted from all parts of the world. Making their way to Britain, he and his wife settled in Cambridge, where he was warmly welcomed at Cavendish Laboratory by the director, Lord Rutherford, the discoverer of the atomic nucleus. Born's enforced “replanting,” the book makes clear, was more an indignity than a hardship. In fact, Born speaks of it as “a boon,” attributing his good fortune to “international connections”—an advantage, alas, as he quickly acknowledges, that did not hold for many of his relatives and friends who died in concentration camps.

He and his wife put in much time assisting others to emigrate from Germany, carrying on this work in Cambridge and, later, in Scotland, where Born spent seventeen years of his exile as a professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. He conducted unclassified research there with a variety of collaborators, one of them Klaus Fuchs. (“I think that he became a spy not from ulterior motives but from honest conviction.”) Once the war was over, Born again saw Germany when Göttingen offered him “the freedom of the city,” an honor he accepted after “some hesitation.” Apparently, the sight of his native land affected him importantly, for a succession of visits followed until, finally, in 1953, on leaving academic life, he decided to spend his retirement in a small spa near his beloved Göttingen. He says it is a peaceful countryside, but he also says he lives there in the knowledge that Einstein and other friends opposed his decision to replant himself in German soil.


The list of political intrusions in Born's life goes on and on, but it would be glib to theorize that these entirely account for his social conscience. Unlike many colleagues, however, he does possess one, and in abundance. Repeatedly, he proclaims it the sustaining force of his later years, assuring us that “the ethical problems which have arisen from the enormous increase in power available to man are perhaps even closer to my heart than the scientific and political ones.” Throughout the book, he appears a passionate, virtuous man attempting to redress the wrongs that scientists may have visited on the world. Even though he himself has never engaged in nuclear weapons research, he does not exploit this as an alibi, insisting that “however remote one's own work is from technical application, it is a link in the chain of actions and decisions which determine the fate of the human race. I realized this aspect of science in its full impact only after Hiroshima.”

Highly cultivated though he is in music, philosophy, poetry, and history, Born's accents are unmistakably those of a scientist. Sometimes this is plain, as in the essay called “Symbol and Reality,” in which he dwells on the uses of scale reading in experimental physics and on the theory of sets. Generally speaking, however, Born is not unduly abstruse for educated lay readers, his primary intent being to show that scientific reasoning may be of value in coping with social conflict. His emphasis, though, in contrast to that of some physicists, is on the “may.” “Human and ethical values cannot be based on scientific thinking,” he states, explaining that the physicist's rules of thought are not derived from experience but are purely cerebral inventions. However, he says, these inventions may exert philosophical influences that range far beyond the confines of the laboratory. It was the stubborn validity of physical and astronomical discoveries, Born maintains, that undermined the reign of medieval scholasticism, and in our era it is the epistemological lessons of the quantum theory that have dispelled the once accepted idea of an all-embracing, final truth—from which it follows, in Born's view, that the same idea is likewise also a mirage in the inexact realm of political ideology. One is grateful for the modest tone Born employs in making his claims for science, although it is disconcerting to come upon the calm, flat assertion that “scientists are less dogmatic and more open to argument than people trained in law or classics,” particularly when, in another connection, Born describes his colleagues as “ordinary people” and says that “their ethics have nothing to do with their science.”

The book has other faults, among them the vague use of such sweeping terms as “degree of civilization” and “progress.” While Born, as noted earlier, extols quantum mechanics for disproving the idea of eternal verities, he himself speaks of it as though it were one, so reverential is his tone; it would suit both the theory and his praise of it if Born, somewhere along the line, allowed for an unknown day when quantum mechanics might conceivably be succeeded by another monumental insight, just as, Born reminds us, happened to Newtonian mechanics. Now and then, Born plays inadequately with provocative ideas, one of them being the possibility of controlling the social applications of basic research. It is tantalizing, too, that Born mentions only glancingly the new breed of “ambitious” scientists who have “tasted power and liked it.” A descendant of science's noblest traditions, he might have spoken astringently concerning today's scientific eager beavers and their camp followers (or leaders)—industrialists, promoters, and wheeler-dealer publishers who are showered with honorary degrees and posh trusteeships.

But it is niggling to sound negative about this book. It is too rich in its rewards. One of them is to impart a sense of a physicist's physical outlook, which occurs in the chapter called “Europe and Science,” when Born takes off on a monistic interpretation of history based on “energetics,” tracing the rise of power in man from the days when he believed it lay stored in his muscle to the present period, when our long dependence on the sun's rays may end with a new reliance on “purely terrestrial energy.” It is a relief to read a “Two Worlds” discussion in which the author—a scientist—fails to exhort the unwashed to memorize forthwith the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Concerned more with quality of effort than with Science Appreciation courses, he writes, “It seems to me that skillful, basic scientific thinking is a gift that cannot be taught and is restricted to a small minority.” And again he strives to be objective about his objective vocation when he tells us, “Though I love science I have the feeling that it is so greatly opposed to history and tradition that it cannot be absorbed by our civilization. The political and military horrors and the complete breakdown of ethics which I have witnessed during my lifetime may not be a symptom of an ephemeral social weakness but a necessary consequence of the rise of science—which in itself is among the highest intellectual achievements of man.”

Born has no panacea for saving the planet, beyond urging the realization of world peace via world organization. He believes we must cling to an element of hope, but it is difficult to follow his advice when he suggests that even if the race is not destroyed by nuclear war, it stands a good chance of degenerating into “a species of stupid, dumb creatures under the tyranny of dictators who rule them with the help of machines and electronic computers.” The best argument Professor Born makes for hope is in the book's title—his life and his views. It is heartening to know that the world has treated a man of his aspirations and attainments well enough for him to want it to go on.

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