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Working for the Revolution

Dr. Johannes Faust was a real person who has an entry in the German dictionary of national biography.1 He was a professional astrologer and magician who spent his time wandering from town to town in Germany during the sixteenth century, providing horoscopes and astrological advice to bishops and princes as well as to the common people. He was famous enough to come to the attention of Martin Luther, who denounced him for making a pact with the devil. Whether Faust himself claimed any acquaintance with the devil is not clear. He became a legend soon after his death, when an account of his life was published in Germany, incorporating many fanciful tales borrowed from other sources.

Less than a century later, Christopher Marlowe wrote his play The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, which gave the legend a dramatic form. Marlowe’s Faustus speaks the immortal lines

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

when the devil introduces him to Helen of Troy, and

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament

when his debt to the devil comes due and he is carried off to spend eternity in Hell. Two hundred years after Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote his Faust, an even more famous play which became required reading for every schoolchild in the German-speaking countries of Europe. Goethe’s Faust is a more complicated character than Marlowe’s Faustus. At the end of Goethe’s play, Faust is redeemed and his pact with the devil is broken. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Faust was the best-known work of German literature. In England, Marlowe was outshone by Shakespeare, but in Germany, nobody outshone Goethe.

So it happened that a bunch of bright young physicists, assembled at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen in the year 1932 for their annual Easter conference, decided to entertain their elders by performing a spoof of Goethe’s Faust. German was then the international language of physics and the main working language at Copenhagen. Everyone at the conference was fluent in German and familiar with Faust. At the Easter conference in 1931 there had been a similar performance with the title The Stolen Bacteria, a spoof of a spy movie that had recently been playing in Copenhagen. The 1931 show was composed and directed by George Gamow, famous as a joker as well as a physicist. In late 1931 Gamow had unwisely returned to his native Russia, and the Soviet government had refused to let him leave. The job of composing and producing the 1932 show was taken over by Max Delbrück, a close friend of Gamow. Delbrück was then twenty-five years old and was soon to accept a position as assistant to Lise Meitner in Berlin. Meitner was an experimental physicist, destined to become world-famous in 1939 for her share in the discovery of nuclear fission. Gamow’s performance in 1931 had been a great success. In 1932 Delbrück rose to the occasion and produced something even better.

The founder and presiding spirit of the Copenhagen institute was Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who had developed the first quantum theory of atoms in 1913. By his success as a fund-raiser and administrator, as well as his outstanding intellectual and human qualities, Bohr had made his institute a world center of theoretical physics. Copenhagen was the place where the leaders of the quantum revolution in the 1920s met and argued and put it all together. Bohr was indefatigable in exploring and clarifying every detail of the new theory. In Delbrück’s version of Faust, the role of God would be played by Felix Bloch impersonating Bohr, and the role of Mephistopheles would be played by Leon Rosenfeld impersonating Wolfgang Pauli. Bloch and Rosenfeld were young contemporaries of Delbrück.

Pauli was older. At thirty-one he was regarded by the irreverent younger generation as an elder statesman, past his prime as an original thinker but still formidable as a critic. Pauli was chosen as the model for Mephistopheles because he was famous for his sharp tongue. He was ruthless in criticizing people who did not speak or think clearly. He even dared to criticize Bohr. He was proud of the title “God’s whip,” which he had earned by giving tongue-lashings to people who talked nonsense. In real life, Bohr and Pauli treated each other with guarded respect, like God and Mephistopheles in Goethe’s play.

The model for Faust, the central role in Goethe’s play, was Paul Ehrenfest, a charismatic teacher who had settled at Leiden in the Netherlands and had propelled to greatness a succession of brilliant Dutch students. Ehrenfest was a tortured soul, at home in the comfortable old world of classical physics and feeling like an alien in the weird new world of quantum mechanics. He was fifty-one years old, five years older than Bohr, and unable to make the quantum leap that Bohr had successfully accomplished. Since Faust was also a tortured soul, it was dramatically right to give his role to Ehrenfest. But when Delbrück wrote the script, he did not know the depth of Ehrenfest’s pain. Delbrück gave him the lines:

So I’m the critic, sad and misbegot.
All doubts assail me; so does every scruple;
And Pauli as the Devil himself I fear.
These lines were unintentionally cruel. They fit too well the anguish that Ehrenfest was carefully concealing from his friends. If Delbrück had known how close to the edge of despair Ehrenfest had come, he would have found a way to give the role of Faust to someone else.

In real life, Pauli and Ehrenfest were close friends and Pauli encouraged Ehrenfest’s questioning attitude toward quantum theory. But Ehrenfest still felt inadequate, left behind by the younger generation of physicists who were writing papers faster than he could read them. He wrote letters to Bohr and Einstein telling them that he was thinking of committing suicide, but the letters were never mailed. A year and a half after the Faust performance, he killed himself in a park in Amsterdam.

At the performance of the Delbrück version of Faust in 1932, no hint of impending tragedy was visible. Audience and performers alike enjoyed the show hugely. The script was full of clever inside jokes that only people familiar with Goethe’s play and with the personalities of modern physics could appreciate. The audience was expert in both matters. In the front row sat Bohr, Ehrenfest, Meitner, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and Delbrück, all of them famous physicists, and all except Meitner having roles in the play. All of them, with the possible exception of Ehrenfest, laughed at the jokes and enjoyed seeing themselves and their colleagues lampooned. All of them carried away memories of an evening that was a high point of the Copenhagen Institute and of twentieth-century physics.

Delbrück preserved the script of the performance but never published it. The German text is still unpublished. Thirty years after the performance, Gamow borrowed the script from Delbrück and translated it into English with the help of his wife Barbara. The English version was finally published, with illustrations by Gamow, in his book Thirty Years That Shook Physics.2 Gamow was by that time firmly established in America as a writer of popular books about science and as the founding father of big bang cosmology.

Einstein has a minor role in the play, as a king with a retinue of trained fleas who cause considerable annoyance to the other characters. The fleas are Einstein’s unified field theories, which in 1932 were already becoming an obsession. Einstein’s distrust of quantum mechanics, and his addiction to unified field theories, had the effect of cutting him off from his old friends. Delbrück was holding up the mirror to Einstein, to show him how he looked to the younger generation. But Einstein was not looking into the mirror. He was not in the audience.

Gino Segrè, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, has used the Copenhagen performance in 1932 as the centerpiece for his book The Copenhagen Faust: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics. The book is a history of the quantum revolution that started with a daring proposal by Max Planck in 1900. Planck suggested that light and heat-radiation are emitted in little packets that he called quanta, the energy of each quantum being proportional to the frequency of the radiation. The revolution gathered strength in 1905 when Einstein described light as consisting of little quantum particles that maintain their separate existence not only when they are emitted, but also while they are traveling from place to place. The next big step forward came in 1913 when Bohr described atoms as miniature solar systems, with electrons traveling in orbits around the nucleus like planets orbiting around the sun, and the energies of the orbits taking discrete values limited by quantum conditions. All through the years from 1900 to 1923, physicists were suffering from schizophrenia. They had been educated to believe that the laws of classical physics could explain everything, but the new quantum effects were confirmed by experiments and were obviously inconsistent with the classical laws.

The real quantum revolution started in 1923 when the French physicist Louis de Broglie proposed dropping the classical laws altogether and representing all material objects by waves. The Austrian Erwin Schrödinger found the wave equation that converted de Broglie’s vision of matter-waves into a coherent theory. The years from 1925 to 1928 were the era of Knabenphysik, or “Boy Physics.” The radical new ideas of quantum mechanics emerged in rapid succession from the brains of twenty-five-year-old boys, in particular from the brains of Heisenberg, Pauli, and Dirac, while the older generation, including Bohr and Einstein and Schrödinger and Ehrenfest, struggled to keep up with them.

By 1932, when the Faust spoof was performed, the revolution was over. Quantum mechanics was firmly established. Dirac had announced the end of the revolution in 1929 with his customary clarity: “The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known.” One of the main themes of Delbrück’s script was the fact that the boy geniuses who invented quantum mechanics in 1925 were in 1932 already growing old. At the end of the play, Dirac makes another clear statement:

…Old age is a cold fever
That every physicist suffers with!
When one is past thirty,
He is as good as dead!

Heisenberg adds a fiercer tone to Dirac’s lament: “It would be best to give them an early death.” Finally, Pauli, who in real life was never at a loss for a word, ends the play with a sad confession: “Pauli has here nothing more to say!”

The play ends, and Pauli’s reign as Mephistopheles is over. Max Delbrück is proclaiming to his twenty-five-year-old friends in the audience that the thirty-year-old wunderkinder in the front row are fading, and it is now time for the twenty-five-year-olds to take over the leadership of the revolution. It becomes clear at the end that Delbrück’s sharpest satire is not directed against Ehrenfest but against the thirty-year-old geniuses who have too soon become elder statesmen.

  1. 1

    Neue Deutsche Biographie (Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 1961), Vol. 5, pp. 34–35.

  2. 2

    Doubleday, 1966; Dover, 1985.

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