Friday, January 28, 2011

The Quantum Ten

Over the holiday break, I read The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition and Science, by Sheilla Jones. The book is about the development of quantum mechanics in the 1920’s.
“The seeds of the shift currently taking place in science were sown eighty years ago, from 1925 to 1927. That’s when a dramatic two-year revolution in physics reached a climax, the denouement set the course for what was to follow. It’s the story of a rush to formalize quantum physics, the work of just a handful of men fired by ambition, philosophical conflicts, and personal agendas….

Remarkably, this dramatic shift in science was primarily the work of ten men, and they were ten fallible men, some famous and some not so famous, although they also had a large supporting cast. The triumphs and tragedies, loves and betrayals, dreams realized and ambitions thwarted, shaped the competition over who would get to define truth and reality. There never was a consensus. By the time of the pivotal Fifth Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1927, there was so much ill will and disappointment among the creators of quantum physics over their various competing theories and over who deserved credit that most were barely on speaking terms.

The Brussels conference was the first time so many of them had come together: Albert Einstein, the lone wolf; Niels Bohr, the obsessive but gentlemanly father figure; Max Born, the anxious hypochondriac; Werner Heisenberg, the intensely ambitious one; Wolfgang Pauli, the sharp-tongued critic with a dark side; Paul Dirac, the quiet one; Erwin Schrodinger, the enthusiastic womanizer; Prince Louis de Broglie, the French aristocrat; and Paul Ehrenfest, who was witness to it all. Their coming together, however, lasted only for the duration of the conference.”
I enjoyed the book, but couldn’t help wishing that it would focus less on the personal problems of the scientists and more on their science. I prefer my scientific biographies to be a bit more rigorous with an emphasis on the science, like Pais’s Subtle is the Lord. Nevertheless, the story was fascinating in a gossipy sort of way. The book is full of tidbits like this:
“From time to time [Schrodinger] did consult on the mathematics with his Zurich colleague Hermann Weyl, who was at that point embroiled in a passionate love affair with Schrodinger’s wife, Anny. Wince the Weyls were part of the same sexually permissive crowd as the Schrodingers, the affair was no cause for tension between the two colleagues.”
I found myself oddly attracted to Paul Ehrenfest, “an intense physicist with a debilitating streak of self-doubt who could rarely see the valuable gift he offered to physics and a passionate friend to both Einstein and Bohr.” Then, near the end of the book, I discovered--to my horror--that not only did Ehrenfest take his own life (I had heard that before), but that just before he committed suicide he shot and killed his son. My admiration vanished.

There was no biological physics in The Quantum Ten, but I couldn’t help wonder how these great scientists fared in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. A quick survey gave the following results:
  • Albert Einstein. I discussed Einstein’s presence in our textbook about a year ago in this blog, and concluded that “we rarely mention Einstein by name in our book, but his influence is present throughout, and most fundamentally when we discuss the idea of a photon.”
  • Niels Bohr. His model for the hydrogen atom is referred to, but not derived. His contributions to calculating the stopping power of a charged particle in tissue are discussed in Chapter 15 (Interaction of Photons and Charged Particles with Matter).
  • Paul Ehrenfest. His name never appears in our book.
  • Max Born. The Born charging energy is discussed in Chapter 6 (Impulses in Nerve and Muscle Cells).
  • Erwin Schrodinger. The Schrodinger equation is mentioned in Chapter 3 (Systems of Many Particles), but never written down.
  • Wolfgang Pauli. The Pauli exclusion principle is stated in Chapters 14 (Atoms and Light) and 15 (Interaction of Photons and Charged Particles with Matter).
  • Louis de Broglie. His name is not in the book, although I have mentioned him in this blog before.
  • Werner Heisenberg. He and his uncertainty principle are not in the book.
  • Paul Dirac. I discussed Dirac in the blog before. His delta function shows up in Chapter 11 (The Method of Least Squares and Signal Analysis).
  • Pascual Jordan. His name never appears in our book.
I am not overly concerned that the quantum ten don’t figure prominently in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. Russ Hobbie and I do not focus on microscopic phenomena, where quantum mechanics is essential. Probably the greatest contribution to biological physics from any of the quantum ten is Schrodinger’s book What is Life?, which had a major impact on the early development of molecular biology (see The Eighth Day of Creation).

P.S. We had a significant revision of the errata this week. It is available at the book’s website: A big thank you to Gabriela Castellano for finding many mistakes and pointing them out to us. If you, dear reader, find additional mistakes, please let us know.


  1. Richard Feynman is probably my favorite scientific figure. In your view, how major were his contributions to biological physics? Of all the things he has been credited for, I think his most notable title was teacher. You have many of those fine qualities, no pun intended.

  2. First, see

    I don't think Feynman had a huge impact on biology or biological physics directly. I think his work on quantum electrodynamics is his biggest contribution (Feynman diagrams, etc), followed by the Feynman Lectures (which really is equivalent to your "teacher").