Saturday, June 21, 2008

Author-Physicist Peter Freund has Passion for Storytelling

Peter Freund packed his book, A Passion for Discovery, with stories about important 20th-century physicists and mathematicians. The story of Emmy Noether is one that Freund, Professor Emeritus in Physics at the University of Chicago, liked to share in class.

Noether rose to scientific prominence in the early 20th century, in Göttingen, Germany, when the city reigned as the world's undisputed capital of mathematics. She changed the way mathematicians went about their work, nevertheless enduring gender discrimination in a male-dominated world.

Once Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, Noether also was driven from the country as a Jew. She joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, but died of cancer in 1935 at the age of 53.

"The New York Times printed a short obituary, as it always did when a Bryn Mawr teacher died, but shortly thereafter, they printed a long letter to the editor pointing out that Emmy Noether had not only been a teacher at a girls' college, but the greatest woman mathematician of all time," wrote Freund in his book. "The letter was signed: Albert Einstein."

Freund gained an appreciation for how political upheaval can intrude upon the unsuspecting as an undergraduate in his hometown of Timisoara, Romania. Following the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Freund was among a group of students rounded up and nearly executed by communist authorities in Romania.

"To a large extent, it motivated my interest in the way historical events affect scientists: their behavior, their interests and sometimes even their style," Freund said. This interest culminated last year in the publication of A Passion for Discovery by World Scientific. The book explores how world affairs affect scientists and their interactions.

National Public Radio commentator, author and poet Andrei Codrescu has written an essay based on issues raised by Freund's book. Codrescu discussed the interweave between the foibles of humans and their sometimes brilliant endeavors, both in physics and in poetry in his essay, published on

Codrescu also recommended Freund's book in the online journal Exquisite Corpse ( "A wonderful series of anecdotes about great physicist, by Corpse contributor, string-theorist and distinguished theoretical physicist Peter Freund," Codrescu wrote.

Freund has written short stories for approximately three decades, but only in recent years has he started publishing them, including five in Exquisite Corpse. After he began writing A Passion for Discovery, Freund noticed certain narrative parallels between science and literature.

"There are really three narrative flows in physics," Freund said. "One is at the level of the individual paper." He added most papers in physics are short stories, in which concepts, rather than human characters, undergo adventures. "In the end, they emerge changed, occasionally with new concepts being introduced and promises that we will return to them, which is like what they call a sequel or a spin-off in Hollywood."

The second narrative encompasses science as a whole. "Each time a really good paper is written, the older papers automatically all get rewritten," Freund said. Undergraduates today can perform certain calculations in one line that in Sir Isaac Newton's day would have required two pages. That's because they know the mathematical descendants of Newton's original work.

The third narrative of science is the human story. Freund emphasizes this narrative in his book, "but it is always entwined with these other two stories of a given paper or of the subject as a whole," he said.

Freund's narratives range near and far in time and space, from the 18th century's Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, who claimed to have scientifically proven the existence of God, to the iconic Einstein.

They also involve several University of Chicago faculty members and alumni. These include Nobel laureates James Cronin (M.S.'53, Ph.D.'55), University Professor Emeritus in Physics; the late Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, the Morton Hull Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Astronomy & Astrophysics; and alumni Tsung Dao Lee (Ph.D.'50) and Chen Ning Yang (Ph.D.'49).

Freund devotes a chapter to Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II. He carefully avoids discussing the famous feud between Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, in part because other books already had.

Another factor: potential accusations of personal bias. Both Teller's and Freund's mothers came from the town of Lugoj, Romania. "In fact his favorite cousin and my mother were best friends," Freund said.

After World War II, Teller became notorious for his advocacy of the hydrogen bomb. Nevertheless, he had previously maintained liberal viewpoints on political matters. Why the change?

Teller had experienced an oppressive, short-lived and mostly forgotten Soviet republic, which ruled Hungary in 1919. "He had suffered under communism at that early time," Freund said. His family then fled to Lugoj, from which the Dracula-portraying Hollywood actor Bela Lugosi took his stage name.

Years later at Los Alamos, Teller worked with Oppenheimer, who favored dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. If the erudite Oppenheimer took such a stance, Freund said, then Teller must have feared what a less civilized man like Stalin would do. "He was tremendously scared of Stalin."

Caption: Peter Freund, Professor Emeritus in Physics at the University of Chicago, is author of A Passion for Discovery. The book recounts stories about many key 20th-century physicists and mathematicians, including Albert Einstein, Robert Oppeneheimer and a variety of University of Chicago alumni and faculty members.

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