I've read this little collection of biographical sketches many times - most recently last week. Snow (who's probably best-known for his Strangers and Brothers series of novels) describes nine men from the worlds of twentieth century politics, science and literature. The subjects, who were all preeminent in their fields, range from Albert Einstein and Robert Frost to Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, and Snow draws on his personal experience of having met all of them (apart from Stalin). Some of these encounters could be viewed as passing acquaintances, but some (as in the case of the mathematician G.H. Hardy) developed into lifelong friendships. Snow skillfully weaves his own impressions with brief but complete biographical sketches of his subjects, and is able to tease out a few overarching observations about the nature of the creative life, statesmanship and the worldly recognition which came to these gifted and fascinating men.
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A book almost as remarkable as some of the people whose stories' it tells14 May 2006
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In this book C.P. Snow writes portraits, or 'intellectual biographies' of Rutherford, the mathematician G. H. Hardy, H.G. Wells, Einstein, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Robert Frost,Dag Hammarskjold, Stalin.The essays are given a special perspective by the fact that Snow knew personally many of his subjects.
The most fascinating are those on Rutherford, Hardy, and Einstein.The essays are informed by Snow's great intelligence and considerable descriptive powers. Above all they are made such compelling reading because of Snow's knowledge of human character.
In this essay on one of the great master- physicists of all time Rutherford who worked during the Golden Age of Physics Snow writes of scientists and scientific work in a general.
" Nevertheless it is true that , of all the kinds of people I have lived among, the scientists were much the happiest.Somehow scientists were buoyant at a time when other intellectuals could not keep away from despair. The reasons for this are not simple. Partly, the nature of scientific activity , its complete success on its own terms,is itself a source of happiness; partly, people , who are drawn to scientific activity tend to be happier intemperament, the scientists did not think constantly of the human predicament.Since they could not alter it, they let it alone.When they thought about people, they thought most of what could be altered not what couldn't. So they gave their minds to the individual condition not to the social one."
This description would seem to apply the essay on the most venerated of all Scientists of the age, Einstein. Snow describes a day long conversation with Einstein and gives a general overall impression of the man that has insights I have not seen elsewhere. Snow speaks of the surprising physical strength of Einstein, but more importantly of Einstein's political wisdom and courage. Snow sees him as having done yeoman work for Mankind after becoming a legend in his own lifetime.. He shows how Einstein while deploring all physical violence, nonetheless had the sense to support the Allied War effort. He shows how Einstein despite his deploring all nationalism supported the Zionist effort because of his sympathy for poor, outcast, suffering Jews of Europe. He shows how the solitary and lonely Einstein nonetheless truly felt and lived by the thought ' that if we do not live for others we do not live.'
He shows too the undaunting courage and persistence of Einstein as scientist. In this he finds a comparison between the 'unbudgeable' character of Einstein and that of Churchill. Both persisted in their goals for Einstein the exploration of the Nature of Physical Reality, and pushed all aside to do this. Snow of course tells the story of the wonder year of 1905 and Einstein's three - revolutionary papers. He also tells once again the story of Einstein's weathering the great crisis of the divorce and separation from his two sons, and persisting in the thinking that resulted in the General Theory of Relativity. (1915)
In another of the better essays on the mathematician G. H. Hardy Snow tells of how Hardy's obsession with cricket constituted a good part of their conversations. He tells of Hardy's great collaborations with Littlewood. And he tells the remarkable story of Ramanujan the self- taught Indian mathematician who as a storekeeper sent pages of his work to Hardy who understood that he was dealing with a native mathematical genius on order of Gauss or Euler. Ramanujan came to England and worked at Cambridge but unfortunately died young.
This is the way Snow describes their last meeting.
" Hardy used to visit him, as he lay dying in a hospital at Putney.It was on one of those visits that there happened the incident of the taxi- cab number. Hardy had gone out to Putney by taxi, as usual his chosen method of conveyance. He went into the room where Ramanujan was lying. Hardy, always inept about introducing a conversation, said, probably without a greeting , and certainly as his first remark. 'The number of my taxi- cab was 1729. It seemed to me rather a dull number'. To which
Ramanujan replied: 'No.Hardy!It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.'
A book almost as remarkable as some of the people whose stories it tells.
Personal impressions on these great lives from one who knew them17 Nov. 2013
- Published on Amazon.com
Review of "Variety of Men" by C.P. Snow. Copyright 1966, 1967 C.P. Snow
"The chapters on Lloyd George and G. H. Hardy appeared first in *The Atlantic Monthly,* the chapter on Einstein in *Commentary,* and the chapter on Stalin in *Esquire*."
This quote let's us know this is a collection of original essays. Yet, they aren't essays, they are the author's "personal impressions" left-over from actual encounters (job interviews, private conversations, committee meetings) of the author with the subject. The subjects of interest are:
Rutherford 3 G.H. Hardy 21 H.G. Wells 63 Einstein 87 Lloyd George 123 Winston Churchill 149 Robert Frost 173 Dag Hammarskjold 201 Stalin 225
The author's Preface is just delightful. So personable. It is the author's own inner dialogue come to life. He explains that he believes he is being honest in these personal impressions. And, he wants his words to be taken, "no more than that". He "met them all except for Stalin," but also studied them and the "standard works about them (and, in some cases, the works less well known) as carefully as I can." He wants us to know that when he "reports remarks in direct speech, I believe that my memory is accurate, and that they were said in those words, or in words closely similar."
The honesty he vouchsafes comes with a warning. "These remarks which stuck in my memory, and which I can vouch for, were usually said in the course of prolonged conversations. The rest has gone, or left only a general impression of its sense. By abstracting the words which most impressed or amused me, I may sometimes without intending to have introduced an emphasis of my own. I don't think I have, but I ought to give the warning."
One of the things that stands out in this work is how the author compares and contrasts the geniuses he writes about. Here are some samples that show how he is able to tell us about Hardy directly or by contrasting him with Einstein and Rutherford:
"His mind, as I have just mentioned, was brilliant and concentrated: so much so that by his side anyone else's seemed a little muddy, a little pedestrian and confused. He wasn't a great genius, as Einstein and Rutherford were."
"There is something else, though, at which he was clearly superior to Einstein or Rutherford or any other great genius: and that is at turning any work of the intellect, major or minor or sheer play, into a work of art."
"Much of his childhood, unlike Einstein's, was typical of a future mathematician's. He was demonstrating a formidably high I.Q. as soon as, or before, he learned to talk."
"Nevertheless, he had to live with an over-delicate nature. He seems to have been born with three skins too few. Unlike Einstein, who had to subjugate his powerful ego in the study of the external world before he could attain his moral stature, Hardy had to strengthen an ego which wasn't much protected. This at times in later life made him self-assertive (as Einstein never was) when he had to take a moral stand. On the other hand, it gave him his introspective insight and beautiful candor, so that he could speak of himself with absolute simplicity (as Einstein never could)."
Or, here, on pages 27 and 28 comparing him again to Einstein and then to the educational well-fare that a country takes for its geniuses:
"He was a classical anti-narcissist. He could not endure having his photograph taken: so far as I know, there are not half-a-dozen photographs in existence. He would not have any looking-glass in his rooms, not even a shaving mirror...this would have been odd enough, if his face had been like a gargoyle: superficially it might seem odder, since all his life he was good-looking quite out of the ordinary. But, of course, narcissism and anti-narcissism have nothing to do with looks as outside observers see them.
"This behavior seems eccentric, and indeed it was. Between him and Einstein, though, there was a difference in kind. Those who spent much time with Einstein--such as Infeld--found him grow stranger, less like themselves, the longer they knew him. I am certain that I should have felt the same. With Hardy the opposite was true. His behavior was often different, bizarrely so, from ours: but it came to seem a kind of superstructure set upon a nature which wasn't all that different from our own, except that it was more delicate, less padded, finer-nerved."
"His family had no money, only a schoolmaster's income, but they were in touch with the best education advice of late nineteenth century England. That particular kind of information has always been more significant in this country than any amount of wealth. The scholarships have been there all right, if one knew how to win them. There was never the slightest chance of the young Hardy being lost--as there was of the young Wells or the young Einstein. From the age of twelve, he had only to survive, and his talents would be looked after."
I hope this taste of Mr. Snow's insights into these remarkable men has sparked enough of an interest in you to make a purchase today.
Zwang! The source of Einstein's Creativity11 Oct. 2011
Herbert L Calhoun
- Published on Amazon.com
In this series of discussions of remarkable men, I have singled them out each one for separate reviews, simply because to lump them together would do Snow's incredible writing an injustice.
Of all the books I have read about the Olympian genius, Albert Einstein, this, the shortest one, in my estimation is by far also one of the best. The author, was a distinguished British Novelist and physicist who knew Einstein (as well as the other Scientists in this series) as a friend and studied him both as a Scientist, and a human being and also as a friend. The beauty of this portrait and this series, is not only that it is written in British English instead of American English (meaning that it is written so economically precise that you can almost hear a British accent flowing from the page, and that it is free of clutter and unnecessary sentimentality).
But more than this, it is written with such sensitivity and respect for all its subjects that the poignancy alone touches the reader at a very deep level. In addition to being beautifully written, it also answers a host of hitherto unanswered questions about these subjects, including Albert Einstein the man: His feelings about art and literature and creativity in general, for instance. I was neither surprised nor unhappy to discover that his favorite book was "Brothers Karamazov," by my favorite writer, the Existentialist Russian Novelist Fedor Dostoevski.
However, Snow's deepest insight into Einstein's attitude towards creativity comes from a word he had heard that Einstein used since early childhood and throughout his life. The word was "Zwang," which when translated from German, mean roughly "no [societal] constrains." One can easily conclude from this recitation that it was the space that Zwang created that allowed Einstein's creativity to soar so high for so long. Zwang may also go a long way in explaining why the great Scientist also had so much trouble with authority figures throughout his life.
Another matter this article clears up is the role Einstein's theory actually played in the development of the atomic bomb. According to Snow, it played no role at all because suspicions about the ability to harness nuclear fission for purposes of making a weapon were well known and well conceptualized even before Einstein's theoretical formulation of E=MC^2. Thus after the fission experiments by Lisa Mietner and Otto Hahn, it would have been empirically apparent that a bomb could be made even without Einstein's famous equation.
A similar confusion is cleared up in this series about the warning letter sent to Roosevelt that was signed by Einstein about the possibility of building a fission bomb. Einstein was more a convenient conduit than an instigator of the letter. Although he certainly was as concerned as the others that Hitler might get the bomb first, the initiative for that letter lay in the hands of Szliard, Wigner, Teller, and Fermi.
For a quick, elegant read about everybody's favorite set of scientists, one cannot do better than this. Five Stars
A Pleasant Read7 Oct. 2014
George E. Burns
- Published on Amazon.com
Mr. Snow sets out with the modest goal of offering his impressions of a rather unlikely collection of men. Indeed, any grouping having both Joseph Stalin and Robert Frost would be odd. The author met all of his subjects except Stalin and the Stalin essay is the weakest in the book: unhelpful, boring and naive. The most interesting sketch is of G.H. Hardy, not coincidently, the man Mr. Snow knew best. Hardy was a notable mathematician and a devoted cricket fan who proposed the Bradman class named for the great Australian player who was a batsman in a class above any other batsman. Applied to the larger world, Hardy thought in his lifetime there were only two Bradman class men: Einstein and Lenin. The remaining,sketches are interesting and the author's assessments are always plausible even if not always convincing. Altogether, a pleasant read that meets the author's modest goal.
Great Book14 Oct. 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
I enjoyed the chapters on Hardy, Rutherford, and Einstein. Snow had been a close friend of Hardy and enjoyed a personal rapport with Rutherford so there is a certain authenticity in his account of Hardy and Rutherford. With respect to the Einstein chapter, the intimacy of the Hardy and Rutherford chapters is missing and yet it is worth reading because unlike many other writers who wrote about Einstein, Snow had actually met (and spoken with) the great man personally.