A comprehensible, inviting journey into the inner lives of scientists and the relation of the “merely personal” to outsized realms of thought, from chess computers to cosmology.
Bernstein (Dawning of the Raj, 2000, etc.) pioneered attempts in the 1960s and ’70s to bring cutting-edge scientific thought to the mainstream; he notes that, initially, his articles for the New Yorker (where he was a staff writer from 1961 to 1993) were published anonymously to avoid an intellectual blackballing. This well-executed anthology of unpublished pieces and encores from venues like American Scholar and Commentary concentrates Bernstein’s endeavors to clarify both hard-scientific and philosophical inquiries. He steers somewhat elaborate essays back to the titular concept, derived from Einstein’s notion that the emotional, social lives of great scientists were of little concern relative to their discoveries. Despite his veneration of Einstein, Bernstein takes issue with this, confronting the resonance of scientists’ personal odysseys in a variety of forums. He begins by revisiting the chaotic 1972 Spassky-Fischer chess match (which he’d covered in an aborted Playboy article), comparing it with the existential trauma visited upon human excellence by the 1997 defeat of Gary Kasparov by IBM’s Deep Blue. “Tom Stoppard’s Quantum” provides an original exploration of the incursion of controversial theories into such cultural arenas as the theater, and the inaccurate yet trenchant ways in which they become re-worked. In “Enough Einstein?,” he wryly considers biographical problems regarding this famously private genius, discussing competing positions from the lurid to the insightful, as well as the clash of personalities involved in preserving Einstein’s thought and his estate, which were at odds. “The Merely Very Good” again relates physics and the arts, with touching consideration of the fates of those in both fields who are inevitably eclipsed by genius. Other essays offer moral exploration regarding compromised figures of the nuclear age, including Robert Oppenheimer’s post–Manhattan Project fall from grace, and those who contributed to or abstained from the Nazi atomic effort.
A varied, insightful collection, albeit one steeped in scientific arcana, this will appeal to a select few.