Book Review: The Joy of Insight

There’s something endlessly fascinating about the early days of quantum physics. In a century, we went from a few odd, inexplicable experiments to a practically complete understanding of the fundamental constituents of matter. Along the way the new ideas ended a world war, almost fueled another, and touched almost every field of inquiry. The people lucky enough to be part of this went from familiarly dorky grad students to architects of a new reality. Victor Weisskopf was one of those people, and The Joy of Insight: Passions of a Physicist is his autobiography.

Less well-known today than his contemporaries, Weisskopf made up for it with a front-row seat to basically everything that happened in particle physics. In the late 20’s and early 30’s he went from studying in Göttingen (including a crush on Maria Göppert before a car-owning Joe Mayer snatched her up) to a series of postdoctoral positions that would exhaust even a modern-day physicist, working in Leipzig, Berlin, Copenhagen, Cambridge, Zurich, and Copenhagen again, before fleeing Europe for a faculty position in Rochester, New York. During that time he worked for, studied under, collaborated or partied with basically everyone you might have heard of from that period. As a result, this section of the autobiography was my favorite, chock-full of stories, from the well-known (Pauli’s rudeness and mythical tendency to break experimental equipment) to the less-well known (a lab in Milan planned to prank Pauli with a door that would trigger a fake explosion when opened, which worked every time they tested it…and failed when Pauli showed up), to the more personal (including an in retrospect terrifying visit to the Soviet Union, where they asked him to critique a farming collective!) That era also saw his “almost Nobel”, in his case almost discovering the Lamb Shift.

Despite an “almost Nobel”, Weisskopf was paid pretty poorly when he arrived in Rochester. His story there puts something I’d learned before about another refugee physicist, Hertha Sponer, in a new light. Sponer’s university also didn’t treat her well, and it seemed reminiscent of modern academia. Weisskopf, though, thinks his treatment was tied to his refugee status: that, aware that they had nowhere else to go, universities gave the scientists who fled Europe worse deals than they would have in a Nazi-less world, snapping up talent for cheap. I could imagine this was true for Sponer as well.

Like almost everyone with the relevant expertise, Weisskopf was swept up in the Manhattan project at Los Alamos. There he rose in importance, both in the scientific effort (becoming deputy leader of the theoretical division) and the local community (spending some time on and chairing the project’s “town council”). Like the first sections, this surreal time leads to a wealth of anecdotes, all fascinating. In his descriptions of the life there I can see the beginnings of the kinds of “hiking retreats” physicists would build in later years, like the one at Aspen, that almost seem like attempts to recreate that kind of intense collaboration in an isolated natural place.

After the war, Weisskopf worked at MIT before a stint as director of CERN. He shepherded the facility’s early days, when they were building their first accelerators and deciding what kinds of experiments to pursue. I’d always thought that the “nuclear” in CERN’s name was an artifact of the times, when “nuclear” and “particle” physics were thought of as the same field, but according to Weisskopf the fields were separate and it was already a misnomer when the place was founded. Here the book’s supply of anecdotes becomes a bit more thin, and instead he spends pages on glowing descriptions of people he befriended. The pattern continues after the directorship as his duties get more administrative, spending time as head of the physics department at MIT and working on arms control, some of the latter while a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (which apparently even a Jewish atheist can join). He does work on some science, though, collaborating on the “bag of quarks” model of protons and neutrons. He lives to see the fall of the Berlin wall, and the end of the book has a bit of 90’s optimism to it, the feeling that finally the conflicts of his life would be resolved. Finally, the last chapter abandons chronology altogether, and is mostly a list of his opinions of famous composers, capped off with a Bohr-inspired musing on the complementary nature of science and the arts, humanities, and religion.

One of the things I found most interesting in this book was actually something that went unsaid. Weisskopf’s most famous student was Murray Gell-Mann, a key player in the development of the theory of quarks (including coining the name). Gell-Mann was famously cultured (in contrast to the boorish-almost-as-affectation Feynman) with wide interests in the humanities, and he seems like exactly the sort of person Weisskopf would have gotten along with. Surprisingly though, he gets no anecdotes in this book, and no glowing descriptions: just a few paragraphs, mostly emphasizing how smart he was. I have to wonder if there was some coldness between them. Maybe Weisskopf had difficulty with a student who became so famous in his own right, or maybe they just never connected. Maybe Weisskopf was just trying to be generous: the other anecdotes in that part of the book are of much less famous people, and maybe Weisskopf wanted to prioritize promoting them, feeling that they were underappreciated.

Weisskopf keeps the physics light to try to reach a broad audience. This means he opts for short explanations, and often these are whatever is easiest to reach for. It creates some interesting contradictions: the way he describes his “almost Nobel” work in quantum electrodynamics is very much the way someone would have described it at the time, but very much not how it would be understood later, and by the time he talks about the bag of quarks model his more modern descriptions don’t cleanly link with what he said earlier. Overall, his goal isn’t really to explain the physics, but to explain the physicists. I enjoyed the book for that: people do it far too rarely, and the result was a really fun read.

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