THE LIFE IT BRINGS: One Physicist's Beginnings by Jeremy Bernstein
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THE LIFE IT BRINGS: One Physicist's Beginnings

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The title is from a letter the senior Oppenheimer wrote to brother Frank in Cambridge, pleased that ""physics has gotten now very much under your skin, physics and the obvious excellences of the life it brings."" For Bernstein, a still-teaching Ph.D. physicist best known for his New Yorker science articles, the early years were wonderful times of discovery in which he virtually backed into physics and later writing. Bernstein was born in Rochester in 1929, the son of a distinguished reform rabbi who was vocal in giving support to such shocking figures as Margaret Sanger. Father's involvement in WW II and postwar settlement of Jewish refugees led to a move to New York and Jeremy's enrollment in a private school whose roster at the time included pianist Gary Graffman and a future Nobel physicist, Murray Gell-Mann, with whom Bernstein later worked in Paris. The young Bernstein was overweight and began swimming in earnest. He also wrote for the school paper, calling up celebs for interviews. He did remarkably well (partly because the school had Columbia in its name, and potential interviewees assumed the phoner was a college journalist). Through this route he happened to wander into an NBC studio where Duke Elling. ton was rehearsing and, totally smitten, jazz and its players dominated Bernstein's after-school life even after he got to Harvard. There he took courses in relativity, in the history of science, and in mathematics at a time when Philip Frank (Einstein's friend), Percy Bridgman, Gerald Holton and Julian Schwinger were among the old and new stars. Bernstein had decided to major in math, but pursued an eccentric path in physics taking mostly theory courses: he was a disaster in the lab--and knew virtually nothing of classical physics. Nevertheless, a spark existed and when he realized that he lacked the shape of mind that can create mathematics, he got his degree in nuclear physics for work on the deuteron: a proton-neutron particle. Bernstein, in this fascinating autobiography, makes it sound fortuitous or serendipitous, but he managed two years as the resident theoretical physicist at Harvard's cyclotron, then time at the Institute for Advanced Study when Oppenheimer was there, a summer or so with Freeman Dyson in San Diego, and finally a stint in Paris, a city he chose for its romantic rather than physics associations. It was following a summer in Corsica where he taught theoretical physics that Bernstein wrote ""a sort of love letter"" he called ""Annie of Corsica."" Friends suggested he send it to the New Yorker. That piece, with its unforgettable description of the island as the setting for the ""leisure of the theory class,"" led to his new career and also ends the story. For since then, he says, what he has written reflects very much of what his life is all about. An obviously excellent telling.

Pub Date: March 14th, 1987
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin