Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

10
The Last Law
Walther Nernst

The Devil and Walther Nernst

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.”


Leipzig, Göttingen, and Berlin

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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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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