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Quantum mechanics

Profiles of genius and persecution

01 Oct 2009

Driven to Innovate: A Century of Jewish Mathematicians and Physicists
Ioan James
2009 Peter Lang
£25.00 hb 288pp

Against the odds

It is no secret that Jewish scholars have made enormous contributions to science, achieving far more than one might expect given their relatively small numbers. They have also faced a staggering array of obstacles, culminating in the near-total destruction of European Jewry under the Nazis in the Second World War. These two themes – genius and persecution – are the twin currents that flow through Ioan James’ compelling Driven to Innovate, uniting a series of profiles that might otherwise be of interest primarily to a more specialized audience.

The book profiles 35 physicists and mathematicians whose lives span the period from the mid-1800s to about 1950. Many of those featured, like Max Born and Albert Michelson, are relatively well known, while Albert Einstein is, of course, a household name. Many others, however, are more obscure: the Prussian mathematician Gottfried Eisenstein, for example, whose intellect was described by Carl Friedrich Gauss as being on a par with that of Archimedes and Newton; or the German physicist Franz Simon, whose stellar career at Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s made the university’s Clarendon Laboratories into the leading centre for low-temperature physics.

Yet obscure or otherwise, none of the 35 had an easy life. Many had to flee the countries of their birth to escape persecution. One of the most tragic figures is German mathematician Felix Hausdorff, who, together with his wife, committed suicide in 1942 to avoid the inevitability of capture by the Nazis. But the hardships began long before Hitler came to power. Five decades earlier, Tsar Alexander III instigated waves of persecution, known as pogroms, against Russia’s Jews; in the 1930s and 1940s Jews faced the horror of Stalin’s “purges”. The fascists who seized power in Hungary in 1919 were also rabidly antisemitic. The list goes on.

Even in Britain and the US – surely safe havens by comparison – antisemitism was never far below the surface, as highlighted by the plight of mathematician James Joseph Sylvester. As a student in Liverpool in the 1820s, a classmate recalled, he was “hunted by his schoolfellows, in the open street, for no worse reason than that he was a Jew, and very much cleverer, especially in mathematics, than they were”. Sylvester left England for the US in 1841, at one point attempting to secure a position at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York, an institution with a charter explicitly forbidding religious discrimination. Even so, James writes, he was told that “the election of a Jew would be repugnant to the feelings of every member of the board”. A college spokesman pointed out that the sentiment “was not at all on the grounds of him being a foreigner; it would have been the same had he been born of Jewish parentage in the United States”.

Women, of course, faced obstacles of their own. James has included three Jewish women in the collection: Hertha Ayrton (born Phoebe Sarah Marks), who studied maths at Cambridge University and was the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society; Emmy Noether, described by Einstein as “the most significant mathematical genius since the higher education of women began”; and Lise Meitner, whose work on nuclear fission, many historians believe, ought to have earned her a Nobel prize.

Meitner’s case illustrates just how formidable were the obstacles facing a scholar who was not only Jewish but also a woman. When she earned her doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1905, she was only the second woman to do so; at that time a female student was “regarded as a freak”, James writes bluntly. Later, Meitner was told she could not work in the lab run by Nobel laureate Emil Fischer; women were banned because “they might set fire to their hair”. (She was later permitted to work in an old carpenter’s workshop.) Years later, when she was working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, a talk she gave on “cosmic physics” was reported in the press as “cosmetic physics”. Though raised as a Protestant, Meitner was too honest to keep her Jewish ancestry a secret. When Germany annexed Austria, the country of her birth, in 1938, she fled to Sweden.

James does not try to find the root causes of the seemingly endless tide of hostility directed at Jewish thinkers. He does, however, do an admirable job of outlining the recent history of European Jewry in a thoroughly researched introductory chapter. He also reminds us just how important Jews once were to the intellectual life of Europe. Before the Second World War, some European cities were as much as one-quarter Jewish. Many Jews were doctors, lawyers, businesspeople or professors. In Germany, well-educated Jewish families established salons in the capital. “Poised precariously between the nobility and the bourgeoisie,” James writes, “they succeeded in transforming Berlin into a major cultural centre.” He also adds that, in Vienna “Jews began first to enter and then dominate intellectual cultural life”.

In the early decades of the 20th century, many Jews left Europe for the US, and their influence on culture and society came with them. Their role was felt particularly during the Second World War, when Jewish scientists played a significant role in the Allied war effort. And it continues today. As James points out, currently more than 40% of the members of the physics division of the National Academy of Sciences are Jewish.

One thing is clear: when barriers to their success are removed, Jews do very well indeed, particularly in the sciences. In a thoughtful analysis that runs for about a dozen pages, James attempts – bravely, perhaps – to address the question of why this is the case. In this section (which would make a compelling essay in its own right), James, who is not Jewish, points to a variety of factors. “[It is] reasonable to suppose that there may be genetic factors,” he concludes. However, cultural factors along with “certain traditions and values which are distinctively Jewish” may also play a role. No wonder people are squeamish about such matters. After all, one might argue that it is the notion of “being different” that has fed so much hatred over the years.

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