The End Of The Certain World by Nancy Greenspan

Brush up on your physics or be blinded by science
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The Independent Culture

Nancy Greenspan's title hints at the same connection. Her subject, Max Born, was leader of the extraordinary school in Göttingen which, together with Niels Bohr's in Copenhagen, taught quantum mechanics to the world's physicists in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Seeing his family wealth evaporate after the war, struggling to keep his department afloat, a Jewish professor under attack from anti-Semitic students, Born drank deep of the bitter uncertainties in Weimar and Nazi Germany.

Born discovered mathematics at university, but a first stint at Göttingen convinced him he could not match the awesome talents of the legendary Hilbert and Minkowski. He decided to take his mathematics into physics, and became the most rigorous and versatile theorist around.

He forged a close friendship with Einstein in wartime Berlin, and quickly grasped the essence of relativity theory. But Born's greatest contribution came when he took up the ideas of his protégé Heisenberg and developed the first full formulation of the quantum behaviour of electrons. Born quickly moved to what became the dominant view, abhorred by Einstein, that the maths described events which could only be understood in terms of probabilities, not definite outcomes.

He had to wait until 1954 for a Nobel Prize. Much of that time was spent in the UK, as a refugee from the Nazis.

This book is an effort to do him full justice. Greenspan has tracked her man through many archives, and interviewed relatives. She tells the life story clearly, and Born's struggle to come to terms with Germany is gripping enough. A major weakness, though, is that she writes about the science as if the reader already knew what was at issue. The result makes it easy to warm to Born the man, but hard to grasp his real achievement.