Skip to main content

Serving the Reich – Philip Ball ****

Subtitled ‘the struggle for the soul of physics’, Philip Ball’s book takes us deep into the conflicted (and conflicting) stories of how German physicists responded to the growing power of the Nazis, their attitude to Jews, and their responses to the strictures of the Second World War.
In principle Ball does this by examining the lives and work of three physicists – the old guard Max Planck, a Dutch immigrant Peter Debye, and the seemingly amoral Werner Heisenberg – but in practice we see the impact of the regime and culture on many other physicists from intense supporters of the Nazis to those who did their best to oppose the regime.
Over the years these German scientists have been portrayed as everything from enthusiastic supporters of the Third Reich to secret saboteurs who did all they could to slow down the German development of nuclear weapons. Ball resolutely refuses to paint them either black or white, instead giving us every possible detail of shades of grey.
This is, without doubt, the fairest and most honest approach, given the lack of concrete information, but sometimes Ball’s concern to remain neutral and portray history as it was, rather than the usual ‘as the historian wants it to be’ can make the book a bit of a hard slog. Reading a Philip Ball book is a bit like attending a lecture by a scientist who absolutely knows his stuff, and is prepared to go off on lots of interesting side diversions, but nonetheless is very pernickety and precise, insisting on weighing everything up from every possible angle, so that just sometimes not only is the moral position of the scientists entirely grey, so is the storytelling.
This is a fascinating period in the history of physics, and it is indeed interesting to see how these well known (and less well known) characters played their part. Often the answer is ‘in a human, if rather detached, way – wanting as much as possible to get on with life, even if it meant ignoring some difficult truths.’ There is a feeling that somehow scientists should be more able to face reality – but in fact, in many ways they can be even more withdrawn than a typical citizen. Either way, with such ambiguous circumstances, combined with attempts after the war to modify the record to make things look less unpleasant, the result is inevitably a messy history that can never definitively tell us what happened. So don’t expect to come out of this with a clear picture – but do expect to know a lot more about the thinking of these key figures outside of their work in physics.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Paperback from Oct 2014:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…