It's all bound to end in tears. — Wolfgang Pauli

Edge 212 — June 6, 2007
(10,400 words)


THE THIRD CULTURE

DON'T KNOW MUCH BIOLOGY
BY Jerry Coyne

FAUST IN COPENHAGEN
By Gino Segre

SCIENCE AND RELIGION
By Werner Heisenberg

IN THE NEWS

THE NEW YORK TIMES
SCIENCE TIMES — ESSAY
The Universe, Expanding Beyond All Understanding
By Dennis Overbye

DISCOVER
Dangerous Minds
By Boonsri Dickinson

THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
The Other Einstein
By Lee Smolin

ENTELECHY
The Biology of the Imagination
by Simon Baron-Cohen

THE NEW YORK TIMES
THE WEEK IN REIVEW
6 Billion Bits of Data About Me, Me, Me!
By Amy Harmon

THE OBSERVER
Beggar's Belief
By Robin McKie

THE INDPEPENDENT
Tim Lott's Week: Scientists need to use their imagination

THE GUARDIAN
Scientists divided over alliance with religion
By Alok Jha

THE WASHINGTON POST
Honey, I'm Gone
By Joel Garreau

NATURAL HISTORY
Darwin In Court
Richard Milner

NATURE
Celebrity genomes alarm researchers
By Erika Check

BBC NEWS
Happiness Wins Science Book Prize

COLBERT REPORT
Walter Isaacson



DON'T KNOW MUCH BIOLOGY
By Jerry Coyne

Whether he knows it or not, Brownback's forthright declarations, denying any possibility that empirical matters of fact might differ from those assumed by his creed, amount to nothing less than a rejection of the whole institution of science. Who is "we", and where did "our" conviction and certainty come from? Would Brownback believe these "spiritual truths" if he hadn't been taught them as a child, or brought up in the United States instead of China?

According to Brownback, we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith, but accept them if they're compatible.  But the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago.  Are we supposed to reject this as "atheistic theology" (an oxymoron if there ever was one)?


FAUST IN COPENHAGEN
By Gino Segre

The contrast between the two [Bohr & Pauli], the affection felt for both of them, and the affection they felt for each other, is manifest in a skit put on by the young physicists at the April 1932 Copenhagen meeting. That year was the hundredth anniversary of the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the passing of the man, both humanist and scientist, widely regarded as the last true universal genius. As commemorations marking the occasion took place all over Europe, this small band of physicists at the annual informal gathering decided to have a celebration of their own. It took the form of a sketch, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation to the world of physics of Faust, Goethe's great drama. In the script, written primarily by Delbrück, noble Bohr was identified as the Lord, sardonic Pauli as Mephistopheles, and troubled Ehrenfest as Faust. As in Goethe's version Mephistopheles has the wittiest lines, but that was of course true of Pauli's real-life speech as well.


SCIENCE AND RELIGION
By Werner Heisenberg


Werner Heisenberg in the lecture hall
Photo by Jochen Heisenberg

It's all bound to end in tears. — Wolfgang Pauli



"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)


Hardcover — UK
£12.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK


Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian


"...This collection, mostly written by working scientists, does not represent the antithesis of science. These are not simply the unbuttoned musings of professionals on their day off. The contributions, ranging across many disparate fields, express the spirit of a scientific consciousness at its best — informed guesswork "Ian McEwan, from the Introduction, in The Telegraph


Paperback — US
$13.95, 272 pp
Harper Perennial



Paperback — UK
£7.99 288 pp
Pocket Books

WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty With an Introduction by IAN MCEWAN Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4 "Intellectual and creative magnificance...an impressive array of insights and challenges that will surely delight curious readers, generalists and specialists alike. " The Skeptical Inquirer



Whether he knows it or not, Brownback's forthright declarations, denying any possibility that empirical matters of fact might differ from those assumed by his creed, amount to nothing less than a rejection of the whole institution of science. Who is "we", and where did "our" conviction and certainty come from? Would Brownback believe these "spiritual truths" if he hadn't been taught them as a child, or brought up in the United States instead of China?

According to Brownback, we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith, but accept them if they're compatible.  But the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago.  Are we supposed to reject this as "atheistic theology" (an oxymoron if there ever was one)?

DON'T KNOW MUCH BIOLOGY
By Jerry Coyne

JERRY COYNE is a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, where he works on diverse areas of evolutionary genetics. He is the author (with H. Allen Orr) of Speciation.

Jerry Coyne's Edge Bio Page


DON'T KNOW MUCH BIOLOGY

Suppose we asked a group of Presidential candidates if they believed in the existence of atoms, and a third of them said "no"? That would be a truly appalling show of scientific illiteracy, would it not? And all the more shocking coming from those who aspire to run a technologically sophisticated nation.

Yet something like this happened a week ago during the Republican presidential debate.  When the moderator asked nine candidates to raise their hands if they "didn't believe in evolution," three hands went into the air—those of Senator Sam Brownback, Governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo. Although I am a biologist who has found himself battling creationism frequently throughout his professional life, I was still mortified.  Because there is just as much evidence for the fact of evolution as there is for the existence of atoms, anyone raising his hand must have been grossly misinformed.

I don't know whether to attribute the show of hands to the candidates' ignorance of the mountain of evidence for evolution, or to a cynical desire to pander to a public that largely rejects evolution (more than half of Americans do).  But I do know that it means that our country is in trouble.  As science becomes more and more important in dealing with the world's problems, Americans are falling farther and farther behind in scientific literacy.  Among citizens of industrialized nations, Americans rank near the bottom in their understanding of math and science.  Over half of all Americans don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun once a year, and nearly half think that humans once lived, Flintstone-like, alongside dinosaurs. 

Now maybe evolutionary biology isn't going to propel America into the forefront of world science, but creationism (and its gussied-up descendant "Intelligent Design") is not just a campaign against evolution—it's a campaign against science itself and the scientific method.  By pretending that evolution is on shaky ground, and asserting that religion can contribute to our understanding of nature, creationists confuse people about the very form and character of scientific evidence. This confusion can only hurt our ability to make rational judgments about important social issues, like global warming, that involve science.

Senator Brownback showed this poisonous mixture of scientific ignorance and religious dogmatism in a May 31 op-ed piece in The New York Times ("What I Think About Evolution"), written to clarify why he raised his hand to dissent from Darwinism.  The first thing that's clear is that Brownback displays a fundamental misunderstanding of evolutionary biology. He claims that there is "no one single theory of evolution," citing punctuated equilibrium as an alternative to Darwinism. (He's apparently implying that there might be something dubious about evolution because there's a multiplicity of theories).

Well, he is wrong here for two reasons. First, the hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium is no longer widely accepted, and second (as its proponent Stephen Jay Gould repeatedly averred), it was conceived as an expansion of Darwinism, not an alternative to it. There is only one going theory of evolution, and it is this: organisms evolved gradually over time and split into different species, and the main engine of evolutionary change was natural selection.  Sure, some details of these processes are unsettled, but there is no argument among biologists about the main claims.

Brownback also presents the familiar creationist misrepresentation of evolution as a chance process, claiming that "man . . . is merely the chance product of random mutations."  He doesn't seem to know that while mutations occur by chance, natural selection, which builds complex bodies by saving the most adaptive mutations, emphatically does not. Like all species, man is a product of both chance and lawfulness.

Lifting another claim from the creationist handbook, Brownback limits the ability of evolution to making only "the small changes that take place within a species."  That's just false.  Yes, evolution makes small changes, but over time they add up to big ones. As the old proverb goes, take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. The evolution of amphibians from fish, reptiles from amphibians, birds from reptiles, and humans from apelike ancestors—all of these are amply documented in the fossil record.  For decades, creationists have lovingly perpetuated this myth, that evolution can make small changes but not big ones, oblivious to the mounting evidence, not just from the fossil record, but from genetics, biogeography, embryology, and geology.

What is this evidence? First, there are the evolutionary changes, big and small, that we see occurring over eons as we dig fossils out of deeper and deeper layers of rock. There is also the discovery of fossil "missing links" that demonstrate the common ancestry of diverse groups (for example, between reptiles and mammals).  Organisms also show developmental features that can be understood only by assuming they evolved from ancestors that were quite different. (Human embryos, for example, develop a coat of hair in their seventh month in utero, which is then shed before birth. It makes no sense except as a remnant of a permanent coat of hair that developed in embryos of our primate ancestors). 

Evolution is also shown by the presence of vestigial organs, like the nonfunctional pelvis of whales and the tiny, useless wings of the flightless kiwi bird, that attest to the descent of species from others in which those organs were functional.  And there is the distribution of organisms on the Earth, such as the absence of indigenous mammals and amphibians on oceanic islands that nevertheless harbor a plethora of birds and insects—a pattern that can be understood only as a result of dispersal and evolution. Finally, there is ample evidence for natural selection producing evolutionary adaptations, ranging from antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the evolution of stouter beaks in birds that eat hard seeds.

Senator Brownback, along with his two dissenting colleagues, really should be forced to answer a rather more embarrassing question: who is responsible for their being so misinformed?  Where did they learn the so-called "problems" with evolution: at their mothers' knees, or in Sunday school? Or perhaps from reading books; and, if so, what books, and who recommended them? Doesn't a public servant have a responsibility to stay informed across a wide spectrum of topics and issues?

Given how Brownback plays fast and loose with the facts, or ignores them altogether, it's fair to ask why the New York Times went along with publishing misleading statements about evolution. Doesn't somebody at the Times keep an eye out for gross errors of fact on the editorial pages? Brownback is surely entitled to say that science can't tell us how we should behave, but is he also entitled to misrepresent the central principle of biology? An opinion is an opinion, but it's not a very good one when based on "facts" that just aren't so.

Brownback's misunderstanding of science is more dangerous than his ignorance of evolution, and should be disconcerting to educators and parents hoping to see their children educated properly.  He rejects evolution if "it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence."  Using that criterion he'd have to reject all of science, including physics and chemistry! 

Science simply doesn't deal with hypotheses about a guiding intelligence, or supernatural phenomena like miracles, because science is the search for rational explanations of natural phenomena.  We don't reject the supernatural merely because we have an overweening philosophical commitment to materialism; we reject it because entertaining the supernatural has never helped us understand the natural world.  Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism—none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota.  So Brownback's proposal to bring faith to the table of science is misguided: "As science continues to explore the details of man's origin, faith can do its part as well."  What part? Where are faith's testable predictions or falsifiable hypotheses about human origins?

Brownback's ill-conceived accommodationism between science and faith extends to the notion of truth itself.  He accepts the common view that "science seeks to discover the truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths." Nearly all scientists would object to the word "created" in this sentence, but in any case it's doubtful whether any "truth" (in the sense of something that conforms to fact) can be gained through spirituality alone.

Scientific truths are facts agreed on by all observers using scientific methods.  The formula for water is H2O, the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second.  These are matters that can be verified empirically by any scientist, be she Muslim, Catholic, or Hindu. 

But what is "spiritual truth"?  It is simply what someone believes to be true, without any need for evidence.  One man's spiritual truth is another man's spiritual lie.  Jesus may be the son of God to Christians, but not to Muslims. The Inuit creation story begins with a pair of giants who chopped off their daughter's fingers, which became seals, whales, walrus, and salmon. There have been thousands of religions, and thousands of religious "spiritual truths," but many of them conflict with each other, and some of them conflict with science.

Many Americans, for example, have been taught by their religion to believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old. The Inuits are wrong too: whales didn't come from detached digits but from land mammals. And those "spiritual truths" that aren't palpably false are systematically immune to challenge or rational investigation. There is simply no way to find out of them is really "true", just as we can't know which religion, if any, is "true".  Is there any need, then, to speak of spiritual truths?  Shouldn't we just call them "beliefs based on faith alone?" When "faith does its part," then, what does it contribute to our understanding of the way things are?

Most ominous is Brownback's absolute, dead certainty about the nature of the world and the reason why we're here.  (He gets it all from the Bible, of course). 

"The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded."

 "I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose."

". . the process of creation—and indeed life today—is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him."

And this: 

"While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man's origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome.  Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as atheistic theology posing as science."

Whether he knows it or not, Brownback's forthright declarations, denying any possibility that empirical matters of fact might differ from those assumed by his creed, amount to nothing less than a rejection of the whole institution of science. Who is "we", and where did "our" conviction and certainty come from? Would Brownback believe these "spiritual truths" if he hadn't been taught them as a child, or brought up in the United States instead of China?

According to Brownback, we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith, but accept them if they're compatible.  But the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago.  Are we supposed to reject this as "atheistic theology" (an oxymoron if there ever was one)?  The religious conviction that "man" is unique in ways that really matter is compelling in many ways—surely our language, art, music, and science itself are unique products of life on this planet—but holding our uniqueness to be a dogma immune to scientific analysis is an arrogant, and ultimately foolhardy, declaration of authority.

This attitude has enormous political—and educational—implications. What happens if scientific truth conflicts with a politician's "spiritual truth"? This is not a theoretical problem, but a real one, as we see in debates about stem-cell research, abortion, genetic engineering, and global warming. Ignorance about evolution may be widespread, but it's not nearly as dangerous as dogmatic certainty about the real world based on faith alone.


The contrast between the two [Bohr & Pauli], the affection felt for both of them, and the affection they felt for each other, is manifest in a skit put on by the young physicists at the April 1932 Copenhagen meeting. That year was the hundredth anniversary of the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the passing of the man, both humanist and scientist, widely regarded as the last true universal genius. As commemorations marking the occasion took place all over Europe, this small band of physicists at the annual informal gathering decided to have a celebration of their own. It took the form of a sketch, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation to the world of physics of Faust, Goethe's great drama. In the script, written primarily by Delbrück, noble Bohr was identified as the Lord, sardonic Pauli as Mephistopheles, and troubled Ehrenfest as Faust. As in Goethe's version Mephistopheles has the wittiest lines, but that was of course true of Pauli's real-life speech as well.

FAUST IN COPENHAGEN
By Gino Segre

GINO SEGRE is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of A Matter of Degrees: What Temperature Reveals About the Past and Future of Our Species, Planet, and Universe, and Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics.

Gino Segre's Edge Bio Page


FAUST IN COPENHAGEN

In April 1932 seven physicists, six men and one woman, attended a small annual gathering in Copenhagen. To be honest, only six of them were actually there. The seventh, Wolfgang Pauli, had originally intended to go, as he had in earlier years and would do so again, but he decided that spring instead to take a vacation. He was there in spirit, as you will see.

Four of the seven—Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli—would be placed in most physicists' selection of the century's top ten physicists. Lise Meitner, the only woman in the group, ranks high on anyone's list of the century's most important experimentalists. Another of the seven, Max Delbrück, changed fields soon after the meeting, though he never stopped defining himself as a physicist. He went on to become one of the founding fathers of modern molecular biology and ranks as one of that discipline's top ten. All of them taught and mentored a generation of future scientists. The last of the seven, Paul Ehrenfest, was perhaps the greatest teacher of them all.

Physics was fortunate to have at one moment a remarkable number of individuals to help create and shape the great revolution in science called quantum mechanics. Indeed, one could say that the revolution occurred because of them. It developed very differently from relativity, the twentieth century's other major departure from physics' past. Relativity, in the special theory of 1905 and the general theory of 1916, was the work of a single individual, Albert Einstein. Both the special theory and the general theory were essentially complete in Einstein's initial formulations, requiring no revisions or subsequent interpretations. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, emerged in 1925–26 only after a long buildup. Its details evolved over time, and its meaning continued to be debated for years. Unlike relativity, it was the work of many who struggled together, often arguing with one another as they hammered out the theory's conclusions. Its final version, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, was contested even by some of the creators of the revolution. The questioning has not ceased.

Together Pauli, Heisenberg, Dirac, and the others created something remarkable, something that has changed all our lives in a practical sense more than any other twentieth-century scientific upheaval has. The inventions it led to, such as the transistor and the laser, are both implements that affect our daily activities and tools for future research.

Considering the human side of science, there's no single answer to the question of what these seven physicists were like, since physicists are as different from one another as any other group. Among them we find the gregarious and the withdrawn, the philanderers and the faithful, the rooted and the wanderers. Some were abstemious and others drank too much. There were perhaps a disproportionate number of music lovers and mountain climbers among them, but that may be because they had been told these are things physicists do. Their working habits differed: some preferred the early morning and others the late night. Some always worked alone and others required discussions with their peers. But the founders of quantum theory had one thing in common: they were geniuses at the particular calling known as theoretical physics.

They had a second common trait, perhaps not independent of theoretical-physics genius. Three of the scientists, all born between 1900 and 1902, stand out for their precocity: by their mid twenties Pauli, Heisenberg, and Dirac were leaders in the founding of the field. Several older theoretical physicists, notably Bohr, Einstein, Max Born, and Erwin Schrödinger, also played extremely important roles in the revolution, but the youthfulness of its major participants remains a striking feature. All of them had revealed their powers and were famous in the field by the time they were thirty. More accurately, all but one had achieved great prominence by then, and that one, Schrödinger, may have simply been delayed in his intellectual flowering because his years between ages twenty-five and thirty were taken up by military service during World War I.

Among all these physicists, one stands out for his personal impact on the field and on the others, not simply for his thought or achievements. In his obituary for Bohr, Heisenberg wrote, "Bohr's influence on the physics and the physicists of our century was stronger than that of anyone else, even than that of Albert Einstein." This seems, at first sight, to be the sort of generous testimonial one makes in obituaries, but Heisenberg was not given to exaggeration. I was surprised to read it, for my generation does not think of Bohr this way (I confess to being a theoretical physicist myself, though hardly in the range of geniuses). But the more I delved into the matter, the more I came to understand its truth. It is not based on relative intellectual contributions, for Einstein's were certainly far greater than Bohr's. It revolves around how Bohr's style affected the way physicists think and work, how they individually and collectively strive for answers, how they relate to their mentors, their peers, and their students. In the process of wielding this power, Bohr also became the most loved theoretical physicist of the twentieth century.

Yes, loved. Respect and admiration were feelings young physicists had for all of these greats, but love is something different. Yet it is a term that appears again and again in memoirs when physicists speak of Bohr. It is interesting to explain why this is so, what it was about Bohr's persona, his behavior, his way of thinking and working, that led others to regard him with such warmth.

One of the many factors that contributed to this affection was Bohr's lack of pretension or pomp. There wasn't a trace of personal ambition or aggrandizement in him, though few of these geniuses seem to have had much need of this. They were all secure in the knowledge of their own stature, but Bohr had an almost childlike innocence about such matters. He also worked tirelessly to improve others' work and lives. There are countless examples of people owing him their positions, their careers, and sometimes their very survival. He had a sense of who was in need, when and how to intervene, and how to make a difference.

But combined with all this was something else that seems to have played a role. Being connected to others, or as Bohr's biographer Abraham Pais calls it, being conjoined, was a need for Bohr, almost a necessity. His discussions were carried out as a kind of Socratic dialogue in which he slowly shaped and molded his thoughts, so much so that some said he was a philosopher, not a physicist. Bohr also loved paradoxes, believing that seeing the many sides of a problem was the way to reach resolution and clarity. His close friend Einstein described him as uttering "his opinions like one who perpetually casts about, and never like one who believes he holds the whole defining truth." This astute remark captures much of Bohr's essence—he constantly strove for that defining truth.

Bohr's need for others, for conjointness, was displayed in his relaxation as well, be that skiing, sailing, simply walking, playing a game, or going to the movies. He made others feel needed because he did need them. Bohr was certainly a great man and without guile, but his constant engaging of those he was involved with was a major factor in creating the love they felt for him.

Another of these theoretical physicists was also much loved, though his peers would use that word guardedly. Later generations find the love for him to be even more puzzling than that for Bohr. He forms an interesting contrast to Bohr because while Bohr was invariably polite, Wolfgang Pauli was invariably rude. His insults and his aphorisms became legend, but part of the legend lies in the realization that these insults were directed without regard for rank or age. Einstein, Bohr, or Heisenberg might just as easily be affronted as a student. In doing so, he never meant to hurt others. As the well-known physicist Victor Weisskopf said, "Pauli possessed an almost childlike honesty, and always expressed his true thought directly," adding that once you became used to his style, it was easy to live with him.

Pauli might insult you, but he never ignored you, and the biting remarks directed at you became a kind of badge of honor, remembered and told to friends. With a gift for the bon mot, Pauli was often very funny in his insults. Only he would describe someone as "so young and already so unknown." But his expressive language communicated true feeling and commitment. More than thirty years after a meeting they had at the height of the quantum mechanics revolution, Bohr recalled a characteristic exchange for a historian: "I met Pauli who expressed the strongest dissatisfaction with my treason, and in his emotional way, which we all treasured so highly, deplored that a new heresy should be introduced into atomic physics."

The athletic Bohr loved to go for long hikes, ski, and chop wood, while portly Pauli preferred cabarets, nightlife, and good wine. Bohr had six sons to whom he was devoted, while Pauli had no children. Bohr, while still being deeply attached to his native Denmark, worked tirelessly after World War II for world peace and disarmament. Pauli had no interest in world affairs. Living in quintessentially neutral Switzerland, he became a symbol of physics research unsullied by worldly concerns. Pauli certainly had more warts and blemishes than Bohr, but as we know, love is not only directed toward the pure. Weisskopf, who knew all of the physics geniuses of that era well, kept a photo of Pauli on his desk, while acknowledging that Bohr was his "intellectual father."

The contrast between the two, the affection felt for both of them, and the affection they felt for each other, is manifest in a skit put on by the young physicists at the April 1932 Copenhagen meeting. That year was the hundredth anniversary of the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the passing of the man, both humanist and scientist, widely regarded as the last true universal genius. As commemorations marking the occasion took place all over Europe, this small band of physicists at the annual informal gathering decided to have a celebration of their own. It took the form of a sketch, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation to the world of physics of Faust, Goethe's great drama. In the script, written primarily by Delbrück, noble Bohr was identified as the Lord, sardonic Pauli as Mephistopheles, and troubled Ehrenfest as Faust. As in Goethe's version Mephistopheles has the wittiest lines, but that was of course true of Pauli's real-life speech as well.

The skit, meant as comic relief from the intensity of the week's discussions, remains a fascinating portrayal of the world of physics seen through the eyes of its very young practitioners. They were the writers and producers of the parody as well as its actors. Though affectionately mocking their distinguished elders, many only a few years older than they were, these young physicists knew all too well that Bohr, Dirac, Heisenberg, and Pauli had made lasting contributions to their field by the time they were little older than twenty-five. They also remembered the warning uttered by the student Baccalaureus in Goethe's Faust

When more than thirty years are told,
As good as dead one is indeed:

(Faust, Part II, act 2, 222–23)

and worried about their own immediate future.

The year of the meeting was a pivotal one for them. The midsummer detection of the positron, the electron's antimatter companion, marked, as we shall see, the joining of special relativity to quantum mechanics. This completed for the community, with a few remarkable exceptions, the experimental confirmation of what is still the century's most profound and far-reaching physics revolution.

On the other hand, the discovery just before the meeting of the neutron and, a few months later, the first experimentally induced nuclear disintegration ushered in another revolution in physics, introducing us to the era of nuclear physics. Its effects on our world view and on mankind's potential for destruction still hover over us.

The year also saw the beginning of research with the cyclotron, signaling the transition in physics research from small science to big science. Whereas a single individual, James Chadwick, had discovered the neutron, efforts at the cyclotron required a team of experts and considerable financial resources. Large-scale experiments now became common. Only seven years after the meeting, a skeptical Bohr would comment that the fissionable material for a nuclear weapon could only be obtained by, metaphorically speaking, turning "the United States into one huge factory." And of course that happened.

Those discoveries of 1932, sometimes called the Miracle Year of experimental physics, also shifted the emphasis in physics from theory to experiment, from research done with pencil and paper to research done with sophisticated tools in a laboratory. The two modes of working inevitably go hand in hand, but there are times when one takes center stage and times when the other does. While theory's advances in understanding quantum physics had dominated the decade before the meeting, advances achieved in the laboratory marked the immediate period after it.

By concluding with the neutron's discovery, the Copenhagen skit points to this shift. It also eerily prefigures many of the personal problems the physicists, young and old, would encounter in the years to come. With hindsight, we see what a watershed 1932 was for them. Prior to it, they were a small community, the only tension among them induced by who would be the first to reach commonly pursued goals. They worked, ate, and traveled together, swam, played music, climbed mountains. Above all the physicists talked endlessly to one another, occasionally as rivals, but only in an intellectual sense because, in the end, they were friends and comrades. That congeniality was shattered by the ascent to power in Germany of Adolf Hitler in January 1933.

Though none of the seven physicists who are this story's focus was religiously observant, four of them, including Bohr, were at least part Jewish. In 1933 they had to begin worrying about personal safety and emigration. By little more than a decade later many of that small physics community found themselves pitted against one another in a deadly battle, thrust into the making of Faustian bargains they could not have contemplated a few years earlier.

I won't deny that I am prejudiced by a lifetime in the physics profession, but these individuals were true titans. We often do not know what of recent science will stand the test of time, but the contributions of these people will last forever. Part of their success was due to their being young and enthusiastic at a crucial moment, the dawn of quantum mechanics and of nuclear physics, but they seized that moment and shaped the field. Their work was the product of an ensemble: one of them was more original, another more critical, and yet another more daring. Together they created a magical instant in history. Hundreds of years from now, their names may only be footnotes in science textbooks, but their work will continue to shape the way our descendants think.

This singular time was epitomized by the few individuals gathering for a weeklong meeting in a Copenhagen room in April 1932.

[Adapted from the Introduction of Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics By Gino Segre, Viking $24.95.]


It's all bound to end in tears. — Wolfgang Pauli

SCIENCE AND RELIGION
By Werner Heisenberg


Werner Heisenberg in the lecture hall
Photo by Jochen Heisenberg

WERNER HEISENBERG (1901–1976) was born in Würzberg, Germany, and received his doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Munich. He became famous for his groundbreaking Uncertainty (or Indeterminacy) Principle and was the recipient of The Nobel Prize in Physics 1932. After World War II he was named director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics.


SCIENCE AND RELIGION

One evening during the Solvay Conference, some of the younger members stayed behind in the lounge of the hotel. This group included Wolfgang Pauli and myself, and was soon afterward joined by Paul Dirac. One of us said: "Einstein keeps talking about God: what are we to make of that? It is extremely difficult to imagine that a scientist like Einstein should have such strong ties with a religious tradition."

"Not so much Einstein as Max Planck," someone objected. "From some of Planck's utterances it would seem that he sees no contradiction between religion and science, indeed that he believes the two are perfectly compatible."

I was asked what I knew of Planck's views on the subject, and what I thought myself. I had spoken to Planck on only a few occasions, mostly about physics and not about general questions, but I was acquainted with some of Planck's close friends, who had told me a great deal about his attitude.

"I assume," I must have replied, "that Planck considers religion and science compatible because, in his view, they refer to quite distinct facets of reality. Science deals with the objective, material world. It invites us to make accurate statements about objective reality and to grasp its interconnections. Religion, on the other hand, deals with the world of values. It considers what ought to be or what we ought to do, not what is. In science we are concerned to discover what is true or false; in religion with what is good or evil, noble or base. Science is the basis of technology, religion the basis of ethics. In short, the conflict between the two, which has been raging since the eighteenth century, seems founded on a misunderstanding, or, more precisely, on a confusion of the images and parables of religion with scientific statements. Needless to say, the result makes no sense at all. This view, which I know so well from my parents, associates the two realms with the objective and subjective aspects of the world respectively. Science is, so to speak, the manner in which we confront, in which we argue about, the objective side of reality. Religious faith, on the other hand, is the expression of the subjective decisions that help us choose the standards by which we propose to act and live. Admittedly, we generally make these decisions in accordance with the attitudes of the group to which we belong, be it our family, nation, or culture. Our decisions are strongly influenced by educational and environmental factors, but in the final analysis they are subjective and hence not governed by the 'true or false' criterion. Max Planck, if I understand him rightly, has used this freedom and come down squarely on the side of the Christian tradition. His thoughts and actions, particularly as they affect his personal relationships, fit perfectly into the framework of this tradition, and no one will respect him the less for it. As far as he is concerned, therefore, the two realms—the objective and the subjective facets of the world—are quite separate, but I must confess that I myself do not feel altogether happy about this separation. I doubt whether human societies can live with so sharp a distinction between knowledge and faith."


The 1927 Solvay Conference, Brussels
Courtesy of Solvay Institutes
[click to enlarge]

Wolfgang shared my concern. "It's all bound to end in tears," he said. "At the dawn of religion, all the knowledge of a particular community fitted into a spiritual framework, based largely on religious values and ideas. The spiritual framework itself had to be within the grasp of the simplest member of the community, even if its parables and images conveyed no more than the vaguest hint as to their underlying values and ideas. But if he himself is to live by these values, the average man has to be convinced that the spiritual framework embraces the entire wisdom of his society. For 'believing' does not to him mean 'taking for granted,' but rather 'trusting in the guidance' of accepted values. That is why society is in such danger whenever fresh knowledge threatens to explode the old spiritual forms. The complete separation of knowledge and faith can at best be an emergency measure, afford some temporary relief. In western culture, for instance, we may well reach the point in the not too distant future where the parables and images of the old religions will have lost their persuasive force even for the average person; when that happens, I am afraid that all the old ethics will collapse like a house of cards and that unimaginable horrors will be perpetrated. In brief, I cannot really endorse Planck's philosophy, even if it is logically valid and even though I respect the human attitudes to which it gives rise.

"Einstein's conception is closer to mine. His God is somehow involved in the immutable laws of nature. Einstein has a feeling for the central order of things. He can detect it in the simplicity of natural laws. We may take it that he felt this simplicity very strongly and directly during his discovery of the theory of relativity. Admittedly, this is a far cry from the contents of religion. I don't believe Einstein is tied to any religious tradition, and I rather think the idea of a personal God is entirely foreign to him. But as far as [Einstein] he is concerned there is no split between science and religion: the central order is part of the subjective as well as the objective realm, and this strikes me as being a far better starting point.

"A starting point for what?" I asked. "If you consider man's attitude to the central order a purely personal matter, then you may agree with Einstein's view, but then you must also concede that nothing at all follows from this view."

"Perhaps it does," Wolfgang replied. "The development of science during the past two centuries has certainly changed man's thinking, even outside the Christian West. Hence it matters quite a bit what physicists think. And it was precisely the idea of an objective world running its course in time and space according to strict causal laws that produced a sharp clash between science and the spiritual formulations of the various religions. If science goes beyond this strict view—and it has done just that with relativity theory and is likely to go even further with quantum theory—then the relationship between science and the contents religions try to express must change once again. Perhaps science, by revealing the existence of new relationships during the past thirty years, may have lent our thought much greater depth. The concept of complementarity, for instance, which Niels Bohr considers so crucial to the interpretation of quantum theory, was by no means unknown to philosophers, even if they did not express it so succinctly. However, its very appearance in the exact sciences has constituted a decisive change: the idea of material objects that are completely independent of the manner in which we observe them proved to be nothing but an abstract extrapolation, something that has no counterpart in nature. In Asiatic philosophy and Eastern religions we fined the complementary idea of a pure subject of knowledge, one that confronts no object. This idea, too, will prove an abstract extrapolation, corresponding to no spiritual or mental reality. If we think about the wider context, we may in the future be forced to keep a middle course between these extremes, perhaps the one charted by Bohr's complementarity concept. Any science that adapts itself to this form of thinking will not only be more tolerant of the different forms of religion, but, having a wider overall view, may also contribute to the world of values."

Paul Dirac had joined us in the meantime. He [Paul Dirac] had only just turned twenty-five, and had little time for tolerance. "I don't know why we are talking about religion," he objected. "If we are honest—and scientists have to be—we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can't for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards—in heaven if not on earth—all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins."

"You are simply judging religion by its political abuses," I objected, "and since most things in this world can be abused—even the Communist ideology which you recently propounded—all such judgments are inadmissible. After all, there will always be human societies, and these must find a common language in which they can speak about life and death, and about the wider context in which their lives are set. The spiritual forms that have developed historically out of this search for a common language must have had a great persuasive force—how else could so many people have lived by them for so many centuries? Religion can't be dismissed as simply all that. But perhaps you are drawn to another religion, such as the old Chinese, in which the idea of a personal God does not occur?"

"I dislike religious myths on principle," Dirac replied, "if only because the myths of the different religions contradict one another. After all, it was purely by chance that I was born in Europe and not in Asia, and that is surely no criterion for judging what is true or what I ought to believe. And I can only believe what is true. As for right action, I can deduce it by reason alone from the situation in which I find myself: I live in society with others, to whom, in principle, I must grant the same rights I claim for myself. I must simply try to strike a fair balance; no more can be asked of me. All this talk about God's will, about sin and repentance, about a world beyond by which we must direct our lives, only serves to disguise the sober truth. Belief in God merely encourages us to think that God wills us to submit to a higher force, and it is this idea which helps to preserve social structures that may have been perfectly good in their day but no longer fit the modern world. All your talk of a wider context and the like strikes me as quite unacceptable. Life, when all is said and done, is just like science: we come up against difficulties and have to solve them. And we can never solve more than one difficulty at a time; your wider context is nothing but a mental superstructure added a posteriori."

And so the discussion continued, and we were all of us surprised to notice that Wolfgang was keeping so silent. He would pull a long face or smile rather maliciously from time to time, but he said nothing. In the end, we had to ask him to tell us what he thought. He seemed a little surprised and then said: "Well, our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is: 'There is no God and Dirac is His prophet.'" We all laughed, including Dirac, and this brought our evening in the hotel lounge to a close.

Some time later, probably in Copenhagen, I told Niels about our conversation. He immediately jumped to the defense of the youngest member of our circle. "I consider it marvelous," he said, "that Paul should be so uncompromising in his defense of all that can be expressed in clear and logical language. He believes that what can be said at all can be said clearly—or, as Wittgenstein put it, that 'whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.' Whenever Dirac sends me a manuscript, the writing is so neat and free of corrections that merely looking at it is an aesthetic pleasure. If I suggest even minor changes, Paul becomes terribly unhappy and generally changes nothing at all. His work is, in any case, quite brilliant. Recently the two of us went to an exhibition which included a glorious gray-blue seascape by Manet. In the foreground was a boat, and beside it, in the water, a dark gray spot, whose meaning was not quite clear. Dirac said, 'This spot is not admissible.' A strange way of looking at art, but he was probably quite right. In a good work of art, just as in a good piece of scientific work, every detail must be laid down quite unequivocally; there can be no room for mere accident.

"Still, religion is rather a different matter. I feel very much like Dirac: the idea of a personal God is foreign to me. But we ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science. The language of religion is more closely related to the language of poetry than to the language of science. True, we are inclined to think that science deals with information about objective facts, and poetry with subjective feelings. Hence we conclude that if religion does indeed deal with objective truths, it ought to adopt the same criteria of truth as science. But I myself find the division of the world into an objective and a subjective side much too arbitrary. The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won't get us very far.

"That is why I consider those developments in physics during the last decades which have shown how problematical such concepts as 'objective' and 'subjective' are, a great liberation of thought. The whole thing started with the theory of relativity. In the past, the statement that two events are simultaneous was considered an objective assertion, one that could be communicated quite simply and that was open to verification by any observer. Today we know that 'simultaneity' contains a subjective element, inasmuch as two events that appear simultaneous to an observer at rest are not necessarily simultaneous to an observer in motion. However, the relativistic description is also objective inasmuch as every observer can deduce by calculation what the other observer will perceive or has perceived. For all that, we have come a long way from the classical ideal of objective descriptions.

"In quantum mechanics the departure from this ideal has been even more radical. We can still use the objectifying language of classical physics to make statements about observable facts. For instance, we can say that a photographic plate has been blackened, or that cloud droplets have formed. But we can say nothing about the atoms themselves. And what predictions we base on such findings depend on the way we pose our experimental question, and here the observer has freedom of choice. Naturally, it still makes no difference whether the observer is a man, an animal, or a piece of apparatus, but it is no longer possible to make predictions without reference to the observer or the means of observation. To that extent, every physical process may be said to have objective and subjective features. The objective world of nineteenth-century science was, as we know today, an ideal, limiting case, but not the whole reality. Admittedly, even in our future encounters with reality we shall have to distinguish between the objective and the subjective side, to make a division between the two. But the location of the separation may depend on the way things are looked at; to a certain extent it can be chosen at will. Hence I can quite understand why we cannot speak about the content of religion in an objectifying language. The fact that different religions try to express this content in quite distinct spiritual forms is no real objection. Perhaps we ought to look upon these different forms as complementary descriptions which, though they exclude one another, are needed to convey the rich possibilities flowing from man's relationship with the central order."

"If you distinguish so sharply between the languages of religion, science, and art," I asked, "what meaning do you attach to such apodictic statements as 'There is a living God' or 'There is an immortal soul'? What is the meaning of 'there is' in this type of language? Science, like Dirac, objects to such formulations. Let me illustrate the epistemological side of the problem by means of the following analogy:

"Mathematicians, as everyone knows, work with an imaginary unit, the square root of –1, called i. We know that i does not figure among the natural numbers. Nevertheless, important branches of mathematics, for instance the theory of analytical functions, are based on this imaginary unit, that is, on the fact that -1 exists after all. Would you agree that the statement 'There is a -1' means nothing else than 'There are important mathematical relations that are most simply represented by the introduction of the -1 concept'? And yet these relations would exist even without it. That is precisely why this type of mathematics is so useful even in science and technology. What is decisive, for instance, in the theory of functions, is the existence of important mathematical laws governing the behavior of pairs of continuous variables. These relations are rendered more comprehensible by the introduction of the abstract concept of -1, although that concept is not basically needed for our understanding, and although it has no counterpart among the natural numbers. An equally abstract concept is that of infinity, which also plays a very important role in modern mathematics. It, too, has no correlate, and moreover raises grave problems. In short, mathematics introduces ever higher stages of abstraction that help us attain a coherent grasp of ever wider realms. To get back to our original question, is it correct to look upon the religious 'there is' as just another, though different, attempt to reach ever higher levels of abstraction? An attempt to facilitate our understanding of universal connections? After all, the connections themselves are real enough, no matter into what spiritual forms we try to fit them."

"With respect to the epistemological side of the problem, your comparison may pass," Bohr replied. "But in other respects it is quite inadequate. In mathematics we can take our inner distance from the content of our statements. In the final analysis mathematics is a mental game that we can play or not play as we choose. Religion, on the other hand, deals with ourselves, with our life and death; its promises are meant to govern our actions and thus, at least indirectly, our very existence. We cannot just look at them impassively from the outside. Moreover, our attitude to religious questions cannot be separated from our attitude to society. Even if religion arose as the spiritual structure of a particular human society, it is arguable whether it has remained the strongest social molding force through history, or whether society, once formed, develops new spiritual structures and adapts them to its particular level of knowledge. Nowadays, the individual seems to be able to choose the spiritual framework of his thoughts and actions quite freely, and this freedom reflects the fact that the boundaries between the various cultures and societies are beginning to become more fluid. But even when an individual tries to attain the greatest possible degree of independence, he will still be swayed by the existing spiritual structures—consciously or unconsciously. For he, too, must be able to speak of life and death and the human condition to other members of the society in which he's chosen to live; he must educate his children according to the norms of that society, fit into its life. Epistemological sophistries cannot possibly help him attain these ends. Here, too, the relationship between critical thought about the spiritual content of a given religion and action based on the deliberate acceptance of that content is complementary. And such acceptance, if consciously arrived at, fills the individual with strength of purpose, helps him to overcome doubts and, if he has to suffer, provides him with the kind of solace that only a sense of being sheltered under an all-embracing roof can grant. In that sense, religion helps to make social life more harmonious; its most important task is to remind us, in the language of pictures and parables, of the wider framework within which our life is set."


Werner Heisenberg in the lecture hall
Photo by Jochen Heisenberg

"You keep referring to the individual's free choice," I said, "and you compare it with the freedom with which the atomic physicist can arrange his experiments in this way or that. Now the classical physicist had no such freedom. Does that mean that the special features of modern physics have a more direct bearing on the problem of the freedom of the will? As you know, the fact that atomic processes cannot be fully determined is often used as an argument in favor of free will and divine intervention."

"I am convinced that this whole attitude is based on a simple misunderstanding, or rather on the confusion of questions, which, as far as I can see, impinge on distinct though complementary ways of looking at things. If we speak of free will, we refer to a situation in which we have to make decisions. This situation and the one in which we analyze the motives of our actions or even the one in which we study physiological processes, for instance the electrochemical processes in our brain, are mutually exclusive. In other words, they are complementary, so that the question whether natural laws determine events completely or only statistically has no direct bearing on the question of free will. Naturally, our different ways of looking at things must fit together in the long run, i.e., we must be able to recognize them as noncontradictory parts of the same reality, though we cannot yet tell precisely how. When we speak of divine intervention, we quite obviously do not refer to the scientific determination of an event, but to the meaningful connection between this event and others or human thought. Now this intellectual connection is as much a part of reality as scientific causality; it would be much too crude a simplification if we ascribed it exclusively to the subjective side of reality. Once again we can learn from the analogous situation in natural science. There are well-known biological relations that we do not describe causally, but rather finalistically, that is, with respect of their ends. We have only to think of the healing process in an injured organism. The finalistic interpretation has a characteristically complementary relationship to the one based on physico-chemical or atomic laws; that is, in the one case we ask whether the process leads to the desired end, the restoration of normal conditions in the organism; in the other case we ask about the causal chain determining the molecular processes. The two descriptions are mutually exclusive, but not necessarily contradictory. We have good reason to assume that quantum-mechanical laws can be proved valid in a living organism just as they can in dead matter. For all that, a finalistic description is just as valid. I believe that if the development of atomic physics has taught us anything, it is that we must learn to think more subtly than in the past."

"We always come back to the epistemological side of religion," I objected. "But Dirac's attack on religion was aimed chiefly at its ethical side. Dirac disapproves quite particularly of the dishonesty and self-deception that are far too often coupled to religious thought. But in his abhorrence he has become a fanatic defender of rationalism, and I have the feeling that rationalism is not enough."

"I think Dirac did well," Niels said, "to warn you so forcefully against the dangers of self-deception and inner contradictions; but Wolfgang was equally right when he jokingly drew Dirac's attention to the extraordinary difficulty of escaping this danger entirely." Niels closed the conversation with one of those stories he liked to tell on such occasions: "One of our neighbors in Tisvilde once fixed a horseshoe over the door to his house. When a mutual acquaintance asked him, 'But are you really superstitious? Do you honestly believe that this horseshoe will bring you luck?' he replied, 'Of course not; but they say it helps even if you don't believe it.'"

From Physics and Beyond, By Werner Heisenberg, (Harper & Row, 1971). Republished in Physics And Philosophy: The Evolution Of Modern Science by Werner Heisenberg, (Harper Perrennial, 2007).





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