It is the end of an historical epoch, but to an old professor of physics, Victor Jakob, sitting in his unlighted study, eating dubious bread with jam made from turnips, it is the end of a way of thinking in his own subject. Younger men have challenged the classical world picture of physics and are looking forward to observational tests of Einstein’s new theory of relativity as well as the creation of a quantum mechanics of the atom. It is a time of both apprehension and hope.
In this remarkable book, the reader literally inhabits the mind of a scientist while Professor Jakob meditates on the discoveries of the past fifty years and reviews his own life and career—his scientific ambitions and his record of small successes. He recalls the great men who taught or inspired him: Helmholtz, Hertz, Maxwell, Planck, and above all Paul Drude, whose life and mind exemplified the classical virtues of proportion, harmony, and grace that Jakob reveres. In Drude’s shocking and unexpected suicide, we see reflected Jakob’s own bewilderment and loss of bearings as his once secure world comes to an end in the horrors of the war and in the cultural fragmentation wrought by twentieth-century modernism. His attempt to come to terms with himself, with his life in science, and with his spiritual legacy will affect deeply everyone who cares about the fragile structures of civilization that must fall before the onrush of progress.
A brilliant piece of scholarship and a profoundly moving portrait of a man and his time.
Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist is an artful experiment in writing the history of science. The book is a sort of prose poem, consisting of the ruminations—part memory, part dream—of the fictional Victor Jakob, an elderly theoretical physicist at a minor Prussian university, who in September 1918 broods over his career through the nights preceding his death. In passages of luminous simplicity, Jakob contemplates the intellectual upheavals in science from the creation of the German Empire in 1870 to its collapse in 1918, from the reign of classical physicists to the revolutions produced by the relativity and quantum theories… [This] is a sensitive and compelling work about the confrontation of a classical spirit with the raw disorders of the modern scientific age.
This is a successful experiment in the writing of history. McCormmach’s creation, Professor Victor Jakob, is a sad and aging German theoretical physicist—reminiscent of one of Chekhov’s characters—who is facing the imminent defeat of his country in the last months of the Great War, and reflects on the end of the era in which he has lived and worked. The rich detail with which McCormmach presents the daily life of his academic scientist and the ideas such a man might have about the physics and the culture of his time comes from a mastery of the scientific literature together with an extensive study of archival materials not used before by historians. The real details are composed into a moving and effective portrait. It is a book to be read and pondered.
Night Thoughts is an interdisciplinary adventure, designed to entice the reluctant general reader into the unfamiliar terrain of physics; to lure the wary specialist out of the laboratory and away from the blackboard, into the world of fantasy… [McCormmach’s] prose acquires an emotional breadth and intellectual depth seldom achieved by the novelist… An innovative and often lyrical book, written with a physicist’s precision and a poet’s intensity.
An extraordinary experiment in historiography… Based on impeccable and wide ranging scholarship, [McCormmach’s] authoritative portrayal has the vitality and directness that only narrative affords.
I should like to recommend it to a large audience…for its charm, its intensity, and its scholarship.
- 232 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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