Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist

Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist covers four days—perhaps the last four days—in the life of sixty-nine-year-old Victor Jakob, a physics professor at a provincial Prussian university, a man who has devoted fifty years of his life to physics and who is coming to the end of an undistinguished career. The time is September, 1918. The defeat of Germany is imminent, and the German Reich is collapsing: as Jakob’s professional life crumbles, so does the social order.

Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist, however, is no ordinary work of fiction. Russell McCormmach, who is a professor of the History of Science at The Johns Hopkins University, uses the structure of a novel as a framework in which to discuss the changes in science, particularly physics, which revolutionized twentieth century man’s view of the universe. In Jakob’s reminiscences, recollections, fantasies, and dreams, in which he struggles to preserve the classical world-picture, McCormmach presents a picture of German physics and physicists of the period of Jakob’s career and of the conflict between the classical worldview of Hermann von Helmholtz, Gustav Kirchhoff, and the Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, and the revolutionary perspective of Max Planck and Albert Einstein.

Jakob is a composite character constructed by the author from real events and the voices of his contemporaries. McCormmach says: “Every detail in the invented physicist’s career is based upon the careers of real physicists, and every detail that I attribute to real physicists comes from the historical record.” Although the author says that Jakob is not “a fully developed character in his social world, as he would be if this were his biography or a realistic novel about him,” McCormmach attempts to give the reader some sense of Jakob as a distinct, if generally undistinguished, individual.

A highly conventional man, Jakob reviews his life in the rather wooden manner of many novels written by politicians, psychologists, and others who bring to the form a certain expertise or range of experience but whose literary gifts are negligible. McCormmach has Jakob (who is not Jewish) brooding over the handicap of a Jewish-sounding family name, and even bemoaning his English-sounding given name, Victor—a disadvantage, he feels, in Anglophobic times. Jakob looks back at missed opportunities to marry into scientific families—he married late in life, at a time when being unmarried after a certain age caused one to be viewed with suspicion—and regrets that he delayed writing a planned textbook until the field was preempted. In his reveries, Jakob also recalls a brief moment of military glory in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War, in which he was wounded. After his recovery, he went to Berlin to study physics under Helmholtz. After that, his personal life was always secondary to his life in physics—his life in classical physics, as he liked to call it. At sixty-nine, he is in failing health, he worries about his failures, he is at odds with the Geheimrath, the director of the physics institute, and he is persecuted by the Privatdocent and even by the custodian of the institute. He spends most of his time in his study, where he stands at his writing desk or rests on his couch. He dislikes irregularities in his daily routine, which he attributes to inattentive servants worrying about relatives at the front.

On the wall of his study, Jakob has an array of portraits of his heroes, the great classical physicists of the nineteenth century: his great teacher Helmholtz, the “Reich Chancellor of science,” as the painter of the portrait, Franz von Lenbach, called him; Clerk Maxwell, the Scottish physicist who formulated the classical theory of electromagnetism; Heinrich Hertz, who confirmed Maxwell’s...

(The entire section is 1570 words.)


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