Heisenberg Probably Slept Here: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Physicists of the 20th Century

by Richard P. BrennanJohn Wiley & Sons, Inc.; ISBN 0-471-15709-0; 274 pp. $32.50
reviewed by Paula Johanson

There isn’t a country & western song that warbles, “Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be physicists.” And after this book, there probably never will be.With a light enough tone to make the title appropriate, Heisenberg Probably Slept Here races through eight quick profiles of great modern physicists. If you had to write a short paper on Newton, Einstein, Planck, Rutherford, Bohr, Heisenberg, Feynman or Gell-Mann, you could probably do it after reading one chapter. But if you wondered “who is Gell-Mann?” or why Louis de Broglie isn’t on the table of contents, you’ll enjoy the cross-references as some of the other great men of science are described as they interact with these giants.The expression “men of science” is, alas, appropriate for this book. The only woman of science named is Marie Sklodowska Curie. All other women mentioned are mothers, wives, sisters and cousins of the scientists, and usually given full credit as their caregivers. Brennan makes it easy to believe that the myth of the absent-minded physicist leaving his pants behind was first told by the women who kept house for physicists. Some of these women relatives were educated scholars in the shadows of giants. Not all of them were happy to come second to physics in their man’s affections.In one anecdote, Richard Feynman’s second wife tells him as they sit down to dinner: “‘I forgot to tell you, but you had a telephone call this afternoon. Some old bore is in town and wanted you to join him for dinner.’ The ‘old bore’ she referred to was Niels Bohr, who was visiting, and Feynman missed a chance to talk to him, which he was not at all happy about... The marriage was clearly not working.”The author would have done well to credit his own soror mystica, Carolyn F. Brennan, on the cover of the book for her excellent illustrations and critical review.With an introduction that gives a short background in the history of physics, and a chronology, glossary, bibliography and index, this is a very practical and enjoyable text. Keep it on the coffee table to impress your friends. You can always hope that the kids will read it and grow up to be physicists.

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