HOW TO BECOME A
PHYSICIST THE HARD WAY
I WAS ENROLLED IN the Karlsruhe Technical Institute. My parents left me safely settled in a modest room in a modest home near the school; I had the use of an even more modest piano in the family's parlor. Karlsruhe was (and is) a sleepy little town in southwest Germany. Its most noteworthy feature was that the headquarters of I.G. Farben, then the leading chemical company in the world, were located nearby.
Today, nothing is unusual about a scientific discovery's being followed soon after by a technical application: The discovery of electrons led to electronics ; fission led to nuclear energy. But before the 1880s, science played almost no role in the advances of technology. For example, James Watt developed the first efficient steam engine long before science established the equivalence between mechanical energy and heat.
Chemistry was the first science to undergo a merger with technology, and the first technology affected was dyemaking. I.G. Farben was among the first companies to sponsor scientific development at an educational institute. I had landed at one of the major crossroads between science and industry. My father had acted on competent advice when he selected Karlsruhe.
Except for the test for albuminuria, I had never seen a test tube, so laboratory work was my first challenge. The chemistry lab was a large room with twenty or thirty stone-topped benches, equipped with balance scales, Bunsen burners, and glass flasks. I still carry the scars that testify to my first discovery—that test tubes are fragile. My shoes were soon spotted by acid, and my lab coat became battle worn as I struggled with the practical realities of performing qualitative analysis.