The life it brings: one physicist's beginnings

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Ticknor & Fields, 1987 - Biography & Autobiography - 171 pages
The noted physicist and author retraces the idiosyncratic path that led him to a life in science. 8 pages of black-and-white photographs.

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The life it brings: one physicist's beginnings

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Bernstein, professor of physics, noted author, and science writer for the New Yorker , worked alongside some of the most eminent physicists of the 20th century: Oppenheimer, Dirac, Bohr, Lee and Yang ... Read full review

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Parts of “The Life It Brings” by Jeremy Bernstein appeared in successive issues of The New Yorker magazine in January 1987. I read the articles in 1987 and twice since then. Jeremy said he resolved to never take another science course after high school, and that he was in no way on a path to becoming a physicist until at Harvard he had to take a science course, required of freshman. The course he selected was apparently nonthreatening. It was said the course he elected to take, Natural Sciences 3, was for people who were semi-literate in science…that was also reassuring. The course proceeded from the ancient Greek scientists through Newton, chemists, the atom, “…and then came relativity.” To help himself grasp the concepts of relativity Jeremy went to the school library and selected a small book of lectures by Einstein called “The Meaning of Relativity.” He could have chosen another book by Einstein entitled “Relativity,” but he liked the sound of the other title, plus it was a small book. “It was the wrong choice. It could not have been a worse choice.”
“The book begins straightforwardly enough.” Einstein describes space and time. “So far so good,” writes Bernstein. “[Einstein] then describes the nature of time, and what is meant by a clock. Thus endeth page 1.” For five days he read five pages, proceeding with his plan: “My feeling was that one could understand anything written in English, if only one read it slowly.” “Then, on the sixth day, the whole thing collapsed. In the middle of the page there stood a formula of which I could understand nothing. The symbols were completely meaningless to me.” He didn’t know what to do.
So he went to his teacher, I. Bernard Cohen, for advice. Cohen suggested Bernstein take an additional science course called Physics 16 in the spring. That “turned out to be one of those suggestions that can change one’s life.” Cohen told him the course would be taught by Phillip Frank, a name that meant nothing to Bernstein. “…and that Professor Frank was a friend of Einstein’s. That meant something.”


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About the author (1987)

Jeremy Bernstein is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was a staff writer for the New Yorker from 1961 to 1995. He has written some fifty technical papers, three monographs, and twelve books, including Albert Einstein, which was nominated for a National Book Award; Hitler's Uranium Club; a biography of Robert Oppenheimer entitled Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma; and most recently Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element.

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