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Nuclear Forces: The Making of the Physicist Hans Bethe [Kindle Edition]

Silvan S. Schweber

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Book Description

What drove Nobel-winning physicist Hans Bethe, head of Theoretical Physics at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, to later renounce the weaponry he had worked so tirelessly to create? That is one of the questions answered by Nuclear Forces, a riveting biography of Bethe’s early life and development as both a scientist and a man of principle.

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Schweber's account of Hans Bethe's life through his Nobel Prize-winning 1938 work on energy generation in stars reveals the origins of a charismatic scientist, grounded in the importance of his parents and his Jewish roots...[Schweber] recreates the social world that shaped the character of the last of the memorable young scientists who established the field of quantum mechanics. --Publishers Weekly 05/07/2012

'Nuclear Forces', by the distinguished physicist Silvan Schweber, tells the story of the first three decades of Bethe's life and career, up to the time of his Nobel-prizewinning work on nuclear reactions in stars. But this book offers much more besides, with a history of the development of physics - atomic, solid-state and nuclear - in the first third of the twentieth century, and of the institutions in which Bethe worked. Schweber's analysis of the physics is the book's greatest strength. Reader's conversant with Schrodinger's equation will find it deeply informative. --Frank Close, Nature, Monday 28th June 2012

...It is a pleasure... to see the spotlight turn at last to the theoretician described by Freeman Dyson as "the problem-solver of the twentieth century"... ...Schweber returns with a detailed and thoroughly researched study of Bethe's development as a scientist and as a human being... ...a richly detailed picture of his life. Schweber tells it with compassion and admiration, although 'Nuclear Forces' is no hagiography... ...This is a deeply rewarding book, especially for physicists, and non-scientists will be amply rewarded... insightful account of how Hans Bethe became, in the constellation of 20th-century physicists, one of its most luminous stars. --Graham Farmelo, Times Higher Education, Thursday 14th June 2012

About the Author

Silvan S. Schweber is Associate, Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and Professor of Physics and Richard Koret Professor in the History of Ideas, Emeritus, at Brandeis University.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3993 KB
  • Print Length: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (13 Jun. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008DWVL0A
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,321,822 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding account of the early years of a great scientist and human being 25 May 2012
By A. Jogalekar - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Hans Bethe was one of the greatest and most versatile scientists of the twentieth century. The sheer magnitude of his scientific accomplishments ranging across almost every field of theoretical physics almost defies belief; he was probably the last "universalist", a man who could solve virtually any physics problem that came his way. The sum total of his work in science and government is so vast and diverse that it led the astrophysicist John Bahcall to joke that a conspiracy of several people must have published all those papers under the name Hans Bethe. But Bethe also had the rare distinction of being an even greater human being, a man with rock-solid integrity, strength of mind, character and equanimity. After building the atomic bomb, he worked ceaselessly until the age of 98 for nuclear disarmament and became known as the conscience of the scientific community, a Rock of Gibraltar on whom others could rely for sound and courageous advice even during the most trying of times. In every sense as both a scientist and human being, he was a role model for all of us. In this volume, his biographer Silvan Schweber tells us how Bethe became who he did. Schweber is supremely qualified to write about Bethe, having been his postdoc in the 50s and already having penned an outstanding contrasting study of Bethe and Oppenheimer as well as a superb history of quantum electrodynamics. Through many interviews and a friendship going back fifty years, Schweber gives us a rare glimpse into the personal and professional life of this great man. The biography achieves the rare goal of being both scholarly and engaging. The few technical sections can easily be skipped by non-specialists.

The account is really of the years 1906-1940, beginning with Bethe's birth and ending with his participation at the highest ranks in the Manhattan Project. Bethe grew up in Germany during the tumultuous years between the two great wars so his life is also a microcosm of German and American history during the early twentieth century. Schweber does an outstanding job in tying Bethe's background to the German scholarly and cultural tradition. His father was a noted biologist and inspired Bethe's interest in science. His remarkable mathematical talents manifested themselves at an early age. After finishing high school, his qualities were noticed by Arnold Sommerfeld, then Europe's leading teacher of physics who had already trained some of the twentieth century's most prominent theorists. Studying with Sommerfeld provided Bethe with a rigorous mathematical foundation which he then powerfully extended into new realms. It was under Sommerfeld that Bethe blossomed as a physicist. Another profound influence on him was that of Enrico Fermi with whom Bethe spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow. Fermi's dazzling simplicity of thought, mastery of all of physics and remarkable ability to get to the heart of a problem combined with Sommerfeld's rigor made Bethe uniquely positioned to apply the newly developed quantum theory to novel problems. During the twenties Bethe made key contributions to solid-state physics, quantum mechanics and nuclear physics. And his thorough grasp of the mathematical machinery of physics allowed him to instantly contribute to the new science of nuclear physics in the 30s. Throughout this time he formed lasting friendships and collaborations with outstanding theorists like Fermi, Peierls, Teller, Mott, Blackett and Oppenheimer.

Schweber has a sure grasp of Bethe's development and his achievements during the 30s. It was during this time that Bethe's professional and personal lives were profoundly changed. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Bethe whose mother was Jewish was dismissed from his academic position. After spending a year in England, he had the good fortune to be invited to Cornell University which became his home until the end of his life. Bethe's arrival at Cornell heralded a new era of physics in the United States, an era of which he became one of the leading statesmen. It was Bethe along with other famous European emigres like Fermi, Teller, Einstein and Szilard who was responsible for the ascendancy of the US in physics, a trend which has continued up to the present day. Schweber tells us how Bethe readily embraced his new country with its freedom and informality. He established a world-class center of physics at Cornell, mentored many influential physicists (both Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman were later proteges of his), contributed an authoritative set of articles to nuclear physics (called the "Bethe Bible") and most importantly, married Rose Bethe who was the daughter of his old teacher Paul Ewald. Throughout his life Rose was a major and steadfast influence on Bethe, and he consulted her on the moral consequences of working on nuclear weapons. A separate chapter on Rose makes her importance in Hans's life clear.

It was his scientific achievements and the propitious developments in his personal life that led Bethe to call the 30s the "happy 30s". It was at the end of this decade that he made his most lasting contribution - an explanation of the origin of the sun's energy generated through nuclear fusion. As Schweber tells us, Bethe was inspired to solve this problem during a conference and, helped by his incomparable knowledge of nuclear physics, worked out the essential details in short order. This was one of those puzzles that scientists had grappled with for more than a hundred years, and Bethe solved it in a characteristically direct way. Its solution addressed an elemental aspect of human curiosity, one that manifested itself when our hominid ancestors looked up at the sky and wondered what was out there. For this achievement Bethe was unsurprisingly awarded the Nobel Prize, although the Nobel committee themselves acknowledged that he could have gotten the award for half a dozen other major discoveries. Working until the end of his long life, Bethe continued to contribute to fields as wide-ranging as particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology.

For me the most important part of this book was an appreciation of Bethe's qualities which Schweber communicates with much sensitivity and insight. It is not possible for us to mirror the extraordinary mental faculties of minds like Bethe and Einstein. But we can very much try to emulate their personal qualities which are more accessible if we persevere. In case of Bethe, one of his most important traits was an uncanny ability to sense his own strengths and limitations, to work on problems for which he "possessed an unfair advantage". Bethe knew he was not a genius like Dirac or Heisenberg. Rather, his particular strength was in applying a dazzling array of mathematical techniques and physical insight to concrete problems for which results could be compared with hard numbers from experiment. He could write down the problem and then go straight for the solution; this earned him the nickname "the battleship". Another important thing to learn from Bethe was that just like Fermi, he was willing to do whatever it took to get the solution. If it meant tedious calculations filling reams of paper, he would do it. If it meant borrowing mathematical tricks from another field he would do it. Of course, all this was possible because of his great intellect, formidable memory and extraordinary powers of concentration, but there is certainly much to learn from this attitude toward problem solving. The same approach helped him in other aspects of his life. He became extremely successful as a government consultant and scientific statesman partly because he knew when to compromise and when to push ahead. This wisdom of being diplomatic at the right time is another lesson that Bethe imparts to the rest of us. Taken together, Bethe's science and life provide ample inspiration for future scientists, policy makers and teachers. And Schweber does a wonderful job telling us how all these scientific and personal qualities manifested themselves and contributed to twentieth-century science during the tumultuous 20s and 30s.

My only regret about the book is that Schweber stops at the end of the 30s. Bethe's life during World War 2 and later is at least as interesting as his earlier years. I do hope that Schweber can write an equally insightful volume about this second phase, giving us another memorable portrait of a great scientist and citizen.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars superlative in every way 23 Sept. 2012
By arpard fazakas - Published on
This is a superlative biography of one of the twentieth century's most important physicists. It is the very model of how to write an authoritative scientific and personal life. The author is a professor of physics and of the history of ideas at Brandeis, and thus possesses the essential expertise to write such a life. He had unparalleled access to primary sources for Bethe's life, and has produced a masterpiece.

The work focuses mainly on the first half of Bethe's long and distinguished career, up until about 1940, which includes the elucidation of the nuclear reactions which power stars for which he won the Nobel Prize. There is a brief concluding chapter which covers Bethe's role in the coming of age of quantum electrodynamics after the war, beginning with the Shelter Island Conference in June 1947, after which Bethe made his celebrated calculation of the Lamb shift which demonstrated the success of the technique of mass renormalization in avoiding the divergences which had plagued the theory.

This biography has everything one could possibly want. It is both remarkably detailed and beautifully organized. The author does an excellent job of partially separating the discussions of his subject's scientific and personal lives so that the two threads can be followed more easily. The scientific portion requires some background in physics and math to be fully understandable, but many of the more technical details are put into footnotes which greatly aids the flow of the narrative. After reading so many biographies of scientists by non-scientists in which the science is treated superficially, it gave me great pleasure to see Bethe's scientific contributions discussed with the depth and authority they deserve. The author is not just a scientist, however. He also handles the details of Bethe's personal life with great skill, insight, and humanity. He has brought his subject fully to life as a person as well as a physicist. Through his personal life we experience the high culture of Germany and Europe before the Nazis, and we become acquainted with many other famous and not-so-famous scientists of the time.

There is so much to enjoy in this book. The Introduction contains some thoughtful comments on the historiography of science. There are 5 appendices with fascinating material on the courses Bethe took as an undergraduate and graduate, his doctoral thesis, the announcement of his defense of his professorial thesis (Habiltationisschrift), and a marvellous brief history of the genesis of quantum mechanics which is the best I've ever seen. There are 81 pages of footnotes which superbly complement and extend the text and indicate the extraordinary depth and breadth of the author's research on his subject, followed by 38 pages of references which reflect the author's great erudition. This is a book which will repay many rereadings.

All in all, the author has done a superlative job of bringing his subject to life personally and professionally, placing him in the historical and cultural context of his times, and explaining the nature and importance of his scientific discoveries. This is as good a biography as I have ever read. It would seem to be the equivalent in its genre of the celebrated "Bethe Bible", the landmark series of authoritative reviews on nuclear physics which Bethe wrote in the mid 1930s and which became the basis for all subsequent progress in the field. If I had more than five stars to give, I would happily do so.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hans Bethe to 1940 21 Sept. 2012
By Calochortus - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is a lot of good information here, just two problems as I see it. First, the style of the author tends toward the formal, so there are introductory words before each new section about what is coming. A second style problem infuses the whole book, namely the prose has a wordy, fuzzy quality, particularly in the sections on physics. I've read a lot better accounts of nucleosynthesis and the early history of nuclear physics than this one.

The second problem is the sudden ending of the book before Bethe's participation in building the atomic bomb, and his later misgivings. Shocking to say the least, skipping some of his most famous and interesting activities.

So, it's a mediocre book, but worth reading.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The subtitle Tell it All 5 Aug. 2013
By Robert Poel - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A very interesting book with an emphasis on the contextual conditions and people that impacted the early life of Han Bethe. It helps to have some acquaintance with 20th century developments in modern physics. The author has a good grasp of the topics the Bethe investigated and wrote about. Some parts are a bit technical and mathematical, but not to the point that they distract from the overall message. I will look forward to a sequel book that covers the last half of Bethe's career and life.
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A little too much math for me 21 Sept. 2012
By mtp - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book covers the life and work of a young German genius during the heady days for theoretical physics of the 1920s and 30s.It introduces many of the players who ultimately created the atomic bomb such as Fermi, Teller, Gamow and others. The work is very scholarly and tells its story well. The problem for nonmathematical reader is that there are pages of formulas that are meaningless to the nonmathematician. Not an easy go but worth it for anyone with any interest in the development of an understanding of atomic structure.
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