The Last Law
According to a story current in Berlin in the early 1900s, God decided one day to create a superman. He worked first on the brain, fashioning a “most perfect and subtle mind.” But he had other business, and the job had to be put aside. The Archangel Gabriel saw this marvelous brain and could not resist the temptation to try to create the complete man. He overestimated his abilities, however, and succeeded only in creating a “rather unimpressive looking little man.” Discouraged by his failure, he left his creation inanimate. The devil came along, looked with satisfaction upon this unique, but lifeless, being and breathed life into it. “That was Walther Nernst.”
This tale is told by Kurt Mendelssohn in a fine biography of Nernst. Mendelssohn also supplies us with a more authentic picture of Nernst: “There is no record of hereditary genius [in Nernst's family] or even of outstanding enterprise. It seemed that Walther owed his brilliance to a lucky throw of the genetic dice.” At one time, Nernst considered becoming an actor and “he realized this ambition to some extent by wearing throughout his life the mask of a trusting and credulous little man. His favorite expression of innocent astonishment could be underlined by a twitch of the nose, which removed [his] pince-nez. There was always a note of astonishment in his voice and the outrageous and sarcastic comment of which he was the master was never accompanied by a change in his voice or a smile. He remained genuinely serious and mildly surprised.”
As a student, Nernst traveled, according to the nineteenth-century custom, among the universities where the great men of science lived and taught. His educational journey took him to Zurich, Berlin (where Helmholtz lectured on thermodynamics), back to Zurich, then to Graz (to study under Ludwig Boltzmann), and finally to Würzburg (where work with Friedrich Kohlrausch inspired a lifelong interest
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Publication information: Book title: Great Physicists:The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking. Contributors: William H. Cropper - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2001. Page number: 124.
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