Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

'Rivages Roses' for Niels Bohr

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

'Rivages Roses' for Niels Bohr

Article excerpt

We convened, late summer, between the wars. My friends and I traveled by ferry and train, slept sitting chins on chests, to join the others at Como in the lake district. We came from all over the continent, from Munich and Brussels, from Budapest, Gottingen, from Vienna, Karlsruhe, Berlin, Copenhagen. It was a disturbing moment in the life of our science. No one had yet seen the center of an atom, but our masters, whom we revered, were working on ways to turn one inside out, thus to gaze at the soul of God, whom I always have thought of as a holy chaos of numbers through which - if we could but bring them into balance, summation, coherence - we could know our maker. Physics has always been for me a kind of faith, in other words. And this journey was a pilgrimage as much as anything else, to hear Niels Bohr attempt to reconcile the opposition of matter as wave and as particle, to harmonize the apparently conflicting views of classic physics and quantum theory.

He arrived from his Institute for Theoretical Physics on the edge of the Faelledpark, where he's been at work with Werner Heisenberg, the youthful father of the Uncertainty Principle. I hadn't ever seen him before this afternoon, but caught sight of him as he emerged from a car, and was struck by his warm fierce eyes and horselike head. Blunt wide lips, scissored hair. His suit was of a graybrown wool, simply cut, and shoes were well worn in long ago but shined bright as oil.

"Thank you," in a lilting Danish accent, to the ragazzo who carried his bags into the hotel. "Thank you," and followed him up the stone staircase.

As I watched them - Heisenberg followed, toting his own tatty valise - I knew that if I learned nothing else during my years studying at the Institute, I learned that a good part of theoretical physics is instinct. Any machine can be taught to play the scales. There was a Frenchman who, in the century past, built a mechanical duck, dressed it with feathers and a beak that would open and close after you fed it a berry. The duck could quack and waggle its tail. Having digested the berry, a gooseberry perhaps, it could even produce a pellet of excrement. No doubt, with adjustments and further hardware, this duck could be made to perform a Bach partita. Any closed system can be made to behave in pure, predictable ways. It is the true artist who by instinct draws inferences between notes. Neither the amateur nor the machine cherishes silences, dynamics, nuance, the joy of an educated guess.

So it is with science. Bohr has the look of an intuitive virtuoso in those relentless eyes. Set any instrument before him - oboe, violin, a calliope - and leave him alone for an hour, and when you return I have no doubt he'd play it like a master.

And so we have come to hear him speak tomorrow afternoon. Nature is changing before our microcosmic eyes (not nature! but rather our eyes themselves, I should say) and little is making any sense to us now. Bohr may give us something to hold on to even as laws of Newton and Maxwell, laws we had always lived by, were no longer bearing up under the pressure of our new numbers and the findings we were seeing from our crude but precious instruments, our tungsten cylinders and slitted glass. Lord help us, Einstein himself seems now lost in the radiant blurry maze of a cosmos defined by uncertainty.

Even now, two generations later, I think of this man whom I never met, my mother's father's first cousin, Edward Hoffmann, and feel a terrible affinity with him, though none of our experiences could be considered remotely common. He died before I was born, for one. He lived in places I have yet to visit, possessed what I have been told was less an analytical than a physical mind, worked well in laboratory settings. More chemist than mathematician and - I would like to think - a hard worker who had his moments of radiance.

In our family of farmers and country doctors, his memory is preserved simultaneously as black sheep and tribal hero. …

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