By John Canaday
Niels Bohr was God. We added up
the letters of his least remark—
and if he mumbled, if we quibbled
with how he harped on classical
we knew he spoke for Nature
like no one else alive—at least
since Einstein left the quantum world
to follow, as it seemed, the muse
that once had whispered in his ear,
“E equals M times C quadrat.”
Was Herr Professor Einstein privy
to what we commoners were not?
No doubt. But was he right to say
that quantum physicists had been
bewitched by theory and our souls
stunned by statistical success?
My classmates thought him past his prime.
I couldn’t say. A world in shambles
greeted me each morning: brown-
shirted thugs cheered by neighbors, friends;
the long depression deepening,
clogging our hearts. Even physics,
that Eden of the intellect,
seemed tainted by our discontent.
Experiments grew more abstract
as layer after layer intervened
between our senses and the objects
we observed, until the facts
themselves defeated common sense.
We entertained the wildest theories
hoping to resolve confusions
our efforts only added to.
Each week brought new discoveries,
fresh questions, disappointments, hope.
New particles appeared like moths.
Which should we believe in? Neutrons,
lacking charge but tangible,
pinned in the lab by Chadwick’s gaze?
Neutrinos, massless, fluttering
in the flame of Pauli’s intellect?
What next? We had assumed that mass
was fundamental—though no one
had managed to define it yet.
Was all we had believed in wrong?
If Heisenberg and Schrödinger
were stopgaps, who deserved our faith?
Each year we made the pilgrimage
to Copenhagen, where we prayed
Bohr’s benediction might erase
a fraction of the doubt we felt,
although his gentle, dreaded “Not
to criticize your theory, but,”
was likelier. If metaphors
for subatomic processes
were hard to come by—or too easy—
how could we describe the chaos
going on inside us? I sought
an image—who didn’t in those days?—
with little luck, until the hundredth
anniversary of Goethe’s birth
suggested an analogy
that seemed not only apropos
but nearly inescapable.
The man who hasn’t felt, like Faust,
a sense of his own emptiness
in the presence of a pretty girl,
Allegri’s Miserere, Chartres
Cathedral, or the Calculus
might just as well be dead. Lust drives
achievement. What I wouldn’t give
to lose myself in something greater
is myself. The devil is
dissatisfaction. Longing. Need.
He sent us packing every spring
to join Bohr’s Copenhagen cadre
for a conference on the current hash
of theory and experiment.
One April, near the meeting’s end,
several other junior men
and I were told it was our turn
to put together that spring’s stunt—
the comic close to our debates
in which we parodied the work
we all believed too strongly in.
I mentioned Faust, and everything
fell right in place, too easily,
with Bohr as God, and Ehrenfest
his Faust. He stood for all of us:
our drive for knowledge, influence,
prestige—the fruits that fed a life
lived in the mind. Dear Pauli, brusque
and irritable as ever, won
the role of Mephistopheles,
in which he tempted Ehrenfest
with Strahlungstheorie, Psi-Psi-Stern,
and infinite self-energy—
but most of all with Pauli’s own
neutrino, which we’d tricked up as
a cardboard cutout Gretchen, hauled
on stage to sing (falsetto, since
we lacked a female conferee):
“Without me, Beta rays unfix,
N-spin’s unspun, statistics sticks.”
Although the tone was light, no-one
escaped unscathed—though some of us
would try. My more ambitious colleagues
welcomed the unholy hurly-
burly as an opportunity.
They laughed the loudest at our farce.
I understood their point, of course:
I’d courted laughter and applause.
In some sense each of us aspired
to Godhead—whether as Bohr’s heir
or, hardly less immodestly,
as witness to the mysteries
on which the heavenly axles turn.
In the blizzard of hypotheses
that raged around us, some were bound
to be correct—or so we wagered.
With what currency? Our souls?
Our selves? Whichever way one says it,
the price was high. When Ehrenfest
gave in to the “desperation”
many of us felt, and quit the game,
it should have signaled something wrong.
But few among us listened. Work
went on, relentless, building toward
a crisis we did not foresee.
I didn’t see it, certainly.
Did Ehrenfest? I doubt it, though
his suicide saved me, at least.
It made me wonder, where was physics
taking us. I couldn’t answer.
So I resolved to give it up.
I learned biology and spent
my days deciphering the lives
of cells seduced by viruses.
I don’t intend to criticize
my colleagues or the work they did.
They didn’t know where it would lead.
If anyone had asked, I’m sure
they would have said, God only knows.
John Canaday is the author of a critical study of the Manhattan Project, The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs. Critical Assembly is a series of poems in the voices of the men and women involved in the Manhattan Project (and the development of physics leading up to it), including scientists, spouses, military personnel, locals, and laborers. His first book of poems, The Invisible World, won the 2001 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets.