Books · Political

Learning from failure

Suspended In Language: Niels Bohrs Life, Discoveries, And The Century He ShapedSuspended In Language: Niels Bohrs Life, Discoveries, And The Century He Shaped by Jim Ottaviani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Physics is apparently a field full of curious characters, like Feynman and Einstein, each probably meriting comic(al) biographies like this. So, why Bohr? What brought folks together in this celebratory endeavour to spread the word about A Danish family man who gave mumbled lectures and was allergic to brevity?

Well, maybe because Bohr’s theoretical ‘intuition’ was legendary. Or because his politeness reached levels of comedy. Or because he hung out with Einstein, met Roosevelt and Churchill and lived in the age of the Manhattan Project fighting for ‘an open world’ where there would be no fatal nuclear secrets – where the spirit of friendly cooperation in the international scientific community would guide diplomacy and policy around the bomb. Bohr’s work contributed to Manhattan, but his image remains free of the taint of it: he was never on any of the wrong sides.

For science peeps there is nostalgic heart-warming pleasure in reading about Bohr is his Copenhagen theoretical physics institute, which so tirelessly welcomed and supported students and guests from around the world. The working mood of the institute (from which the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of gloriously weird double-slit results emerged) was called der Kopenhagengeist one of, Ottaviani says, ‘playful intensity or intense playfulness’. I wonder if the mood at CERN could be described that way today…

One of the things Bohr liked playing with was the Tippe Top

which, when spun rapidly, stands on its small end, because physics. And while we’re enjoying ourselves, can I commend this book for highlighting and giving credit where due to woman physicist Lise Meitner for linking E=mc^2 to the mass defect in nuclear fission? Thanks.

But maybe this tribute is so necessary because Bohr failed. He failed to convince Einstein to accept quantum mechanics. His Nobel-winning model of the atom is wrong. His philosophical books and papers are read little. His pleas to the president and the prime minister were dismissed, and the world missed a brief opportunity to save humans and the Earth from the insane threat of nuclear weapons. Every teacher knows that failure, if we have the heart and spirit to recover from it, is the best way to learn. In retelling the tale of Bohr’s frustrated endeavours we hand on the flame of hope.

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