Physics became 'modern' at breakneck speed. Only 20 years separated Einstein's formulation of special relativity, in 1905, and the development of quantum mechanics in 1925-26. The two events have attracted rather different kinds of story. Einstein's achievement is typically portrayed as the epic tale of one man's obsession. The creation of quantum mechanics, on the other hand, required an ensemble that included Niels Bohr, who dressed like a banker and mumbled like an oracle; Werner Heisenberg, a gregarious Bavarian who was given to banging out Beethoven piano sonatas into the small hours and traipsing up mountains in Lederhosen; Louis de Broglie, a young French aristocrat, who studied literature and history before brazenly introducing the notion that solid matter might consist of waves; and Erwin Schrödinger, a dapper Austrian who led a surprisingly bohemian life: openly promiscuous, he sustained a string of affairs with much younger women (his biographer felt compelled to list 'Lolita complex' in the index), and raised, with his wife, the child he had by the wife of one of his assistants. Then there were the children who never grew up: practical jokers like the brilliant Russian Lev Landau or the acid-tongued Wolfgang Pauli.
LRB 26 February 2009 | PDF Download