Skip to main content

Deciphering the Cosmic Number – Arthur I. Miller ***

Finding a new subject is increasingly difficult when looking at biographies of 20th century scientists. Arthur I. Miller has adopted the cunning approach of combining the life and work of physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychotherapist Carl Jung, an apparently unlikely combination, but Pauli was analyzed by Jung and corresponded with him for many years, sharing an interest in mystical concepts and alchemy.
I started off very enthusiastic about this book as Pauli is probably the famous physicist I know least about. (I say famous – it’s telling that Miller comments later on that in 2000, Physics World had a poll for the 10 most famous physicists of the 20th century, and Pauli didn’t get a single vote. He did make some very significant contributions, including the exclusion principle and predicting the existence of the neutrino, but he’s not exactly in Einstein or Feynman’s league.) I was also interested in Jung because I’d made use of the Myers Briggs Type Profile when working at British Airways, and, like much personality profiling, this is based on Jungian concepts.
Miller gives us a good crack at Pauli’s life history – and it’s an interesting life – plus explanations of Pauli’s work that are probably a little equation heavy for some readers, but worth persevering with as they don’t get too technical, with the probably exception of some of the material on the fine structure constant. Pauli made an essential contribution with the exclusion principle to our understanding of atomic structure – this is good stuff and deserves a wider audience.
I was less impressed by Jung – this isn’t Miller’s fault, however. Though Jung has probably been less slated of late than Freud, because his personality types seem to have some basis in reality, the fact is that almost all of Jung’s thinking now seems both extremely dated, and hand-wavingly vague with no real science attached. Although I’ve always found medieval ideas of science interesting, Jung (and to some extent Pauli)’s tendency to take all this stuff seriously, rather than treat it as interesting but no longer valid historical knowledge grates rather.
Worst of all, and here to some extent I do have to blame Miller, there are whole chunks of the book that go into Pauli’s dreams in excruciating detail. It’s a well-known fact, and Prof. Miller should have realized this, that other people’s dreams are the biggest turn-off in reading history. They are instant boredom. Unfortunately, Jung did a lot of dream analysis, and we get page after page of Pauli’s dreams and what they meant. This kills the middle section of the book, and it never really recovers its impetus.
So, an interesting idea to take a different approach, and plenty of good material on Pauli, but many readers may feel the urge to skip over large sections to avoid falling asleep and having their own dreams.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…