HAPHAZARD REALITY: A Half Century of Science by Hendrik Casimir
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HAPHAZARD REALITY: A Half Century of Science

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When telling a story one should not be overinfluenced by the haphazard occurrences of reality."" With that felicitous quote, Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir introduces the possibility of error in his rich autobiography and history-of-atomic-physics. Casimir is not as well known as Bohr or Dirac, possibly because he left academia for industry, joining Phillips Laboratory in 1942 and becoming co-director in 1946. Clearly, however, he deserves a place in the pantheon. Born in 1901, Casimir was partly influenced to study physics by his schoolmaster father, a friend of both H. A. Lorentz and Paul Ehrenfest. He too would teach someday, Casimir figured. Instead, he went on to make his mark in low-temperature physics and the technology that has shaped applied physics over the past 40 years. He tells that story, but only after a running commentary on all the Greats and near-Greats he has known. Casimir studied under Ehrenfest at Leiden, was Bohr's secretary as well as student in Copenhagen, worked with Lise Meitner in Berlin, went to Zurich to be Pauli's assistant: truly spectacular wanderjahren Of a young physicist in the '20s and '30s. Despite the ""haphazard"" caveat, one is impressed by Casimir's memory for detail and zeal to find corroboration for the stories he tells. And they are splendid tales: Gamow's playful pranks in Copenhagen: conversations with Lev Landau, ardent revolutionary but no Marxist; the tragedy of Ehrenfest, who killed himself after shooting his hopelessly retarded son. They are told in an English, wisely left unaltered, that is eloquent and fluent with just enough of the odd-placed ""already"" to mark the foreigner. Like many Dutch intellectuals, Casimir learned early to speak four or five languages, not only to be able to discourse with physicists but also savor literature and poetry. Speaking now out of age, he voices concern about war, biomedical ethics, the future of us all. A charming, idiosyncratic, and meaningful account of events and personalities that changed physics.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1983
Publisher: Harper & Row