Working for the Revolution

Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics

by Gino Segrè
Viking, 310 pp., $25.95

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…

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