The Life It Brings
The title of Jeremy Bernstein’s memoir about his early life comes from a letter by the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. He wrote to his younger brother, who had just begun to study physics: “I take it . . . that physics has gotten now very much under your skin, physics and the obvious excellences of the life it brings.” Bernstein adapts this notion of the special excitement that science can provide—its added life—to his own autobiography. The result is original. The life described in the book does not have the standard frame of earliest memories, places lived, family, marriage, and job, but is subtly different. Bernstein describes his life chronologically, but his contacts with science receive by far the greatest emphasis. This is fitting, because it was science that provided the greatest excitement, the direction, meaning, and even personal contacts in his life. Science was not simply a branch of learning or a discipline. It was life itself.
A second theme of great interest in Bernstein’s memoir is his description of his vocation as a writer, specifically a writer about science. There are many different ways of writing about science, some more technical, some more popular. The interpretations of science intended for the general reader are as diverse as those of Carl Sagan, Lewis Thomas, Walter Sullivan (science writer for The New York Times), Jacob Bronowski, and Loren Eiseley. Occasionally famous scientists make forays into popularization, as in the Memoir of a Thinking Radish (1986) by the British Nobel Prize winner Peter Medawar, or Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes (1976). Jeremy Bernstein, who is the science writer for The New Yorker magazine, has developed his own particular mode of writing about science, and The Life It Brings: One Physicist’s Beginnings describes how it came into being. It is different from that of most other writers, and extremely effective.
A general ground rule, consistently followed in his books and articles, is to avoid mathematical formulas. This is not easy, especially when describing recent developments in physics or mathematics; abstractions may be central to a discovery. Bernstein’s solution is to describe people whenever feasible, and to let them react, if possible in a colorful or idiosyncratic way, to the abstractions being discussed. “To someone with little knowledge of higher mathematics,” Bernstein explains at one point in The Life It Brings, “it is hard to explain the distinction between being able to create pure mathematics and being able to understand it. Such a lay person will assume that if you do well in a large number of courses in higher mathematics, you must be a mathematician.” True enough. Bernstein modestly writes that he was certain that he himself would never be creative in mathematics. He then proceeds to recount a picturesque encounter with an East Indian graduate student who was a genuine mathematician. He kept strange, nocturnal hours, sleeping by day and going out at night. He is vividly presented:My friend moved among abstract ideas as if they were the familiar flowers in a garden. He saw the concepts as vividly and effortlessly as if they were living things. He knew instinctively what statements were true long before he came to proving anything. The proofs, which he could supply if asked, were secondary to the truth.
Bernstein avows that he himself had no such sure intuition, and in this book as well as others he stresses his own lack of aptitude. He was a latecomer to science, constantly obliged to fill the gaps in his knowledge; he was never a prodigy or genius. The ordinary reader, however, is likely to welcome this admission. He, too, has no magical abilities, and he is more likely to trust a writer who inhabits his world and speaks his language. He will let such a writer be his guide.
At one point in Bernstein’s career—he was residing at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University—he and a colleague were looking for an integral equation written on a blackboard that described electromagnetic interactions of elementary particles. In Bernstein’s words:It doesn’t matter much what that is except that it was nasty. He had divided the terms into two groups; one was labeled G(x), for “good of x,” and the other was labeled H(x), for “horrible of x.” We were standing at the blackboard, staring morosely at horrible of x, when Dyson came in with his morning cup of coffee.
Freeman Dyson, a renowned mathematician, agreed to help them, copied...
(The entire section is 1866 words.)