Niels Bohr's Times Critical Essays

Abraham Pais

Niels Bohr’s Times

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This is not an easy book to read. Part of the difficulty is due to Pais’s writing style, which is more appropriate for a physics textbook than a biography. Part is due to his plan of organization, which weaves themes and chronology, resulting in a good deal of jumping back and forth in time. Still more is due to Pais’s desire to provide context and background, which leads to discourse on aspects of Danish history only indirectly relevant to Bohr’s life.

The biggest stumbling block to reader comprehension, however, is Pais’s decision not to overly simplify the physics. This is an account of the life and research of one of the founders of quantum theory; Pais wants the reader to understand that research. Although repeatedly reminding the reader that he is not writing a history of quantum physics, Pais supplies the necessary background and context for all of Bohr’s insights into the structure of the atom and his other contributions to physics.

Although Pais does eschew the mathematical derivations, he includes some equations. Familiarity with algebra is a must for following Pais’s discussion. The level of qualitative description of quantum physics in NIELS BOHR’S TIMES is equivalent to that of a college-level course without the calculus.

Pais’s motivation for writing this biography of his mentor and friend was to try to explain what Bohr did; why Bohr’s contemporaries and students thought him of the giants of twentieth century physics, perhaps more important than Albert Einstein. Unfortunately, in Pais’s opinion this explanation may require a level of scientific sophistication beyond that of most nonscientists. Understanding Pais demands careful study by the reader.

Sources for Further Study

Nature. CCCLIII, October 10, 1991, p. 511.

New Scientist. CXXXII, October 19, 1991, p. 49.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, September 26, 1991, p. 61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 13, 1991, p. 69.