Faust in Copenhagen
1932 is known by physicists as the “miracle year”, when scientists were undertaking groundbreaking work in quantum theory. The Copenhagen Institute hosted a conference attended by about 40 leading physicists – including Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli.
The conference ended with a humorous skit based on Goethe’s Faust that parodied the struggle between the old and new physics. A struggle that was eerily to be echoed a short time later with the rise of Hitler and the struggle between the use of science for peace and for destruction.
Gino Segré, himself a physicist, documents this historic meeting with warmth and humanity. He highlights the genius that existed and demonstrates the strength and frailty of that genius.
Faust in Copenhagen brilliantly captures the last days of innocence for physics, before the heralding of a new and terrifying era of nuclear weaponry. Emphasis is firmly on the human element – these were real people, living real lives, performing extraordinary experiments and Segré is as interested in the people as he is in the science. A clever touch is the introduction of his own family history, which serves as a reminder that history is as much about the personal as it is about the political.