Boltzmann's Tomb

  

208 pages

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ISBN: 9781934137352


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ISBN: 9781934137529




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“[Green’s] writing is always graceful, often lyrical. This is science by way of Camus . . . a book ‘about time and chance and dreams we bring with us and which shape who we are and what we become.’”

Publishers Weekly

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“A radiant love letter to science from a scientist with a poet’s soul . . . Green is an exquisite writer, and his fierce focus and mastery of style are reminiscent of the biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas.”

Kirkus Reviews

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“Blending analysis and lyricism, Green’s engaging tale begins and ends in wonder, with illuminating, provocative, and, occasionally, heartbreaking stops in between. Always searching for underlying patterns in nature but also keenly aware of the fateful role of randomness, Green makes a convincing case that science is a uniquely human endeavor; the universe, a place that’s uniquely suited to human inquiry and imagination.”

Edwin Dobb, feature writer, Harper’sThe New York Times MagazineNational Geographic

“Bill Green’s work and writing prove over and over again that C.P. Snow was flat wrong when he claimed that science and art are separate and mutually incomprehensible cultures. This wonderful scientific memoir captures the romance and beauty of research in precise poetic prose that is as gorgeous and evocative as anything written by Rilke, painted by Seurat, or played by Casals.”

Mary Doria Russell, author of Doc and Dreamers of the Day

“An autobiography, a meditation on chance, a luminous retracing of the path of discovery … ­the pleasures of this book are many, but what makes it glow with beauty is one thing, Bill Green’s sure confidence that science is an exercise of the imagination.”

Francis Spufford, author of I May Be Some Time

“The stark but rich simplicity of the epitaph on Boltzmann’s tomb provides the link for the steps in Bill Green’s engaging journey in search of science. This is a personal journey, rich in erudite and felicitously expressed sensitive observation and an utter joy to read. Go on this journey with him, and encounter the human side of science and its rewards: you too will be rewarded.”

Peter Atkins, author of Four Laws That Drive the Universe and Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science

From Cambridge, England to Oxford, Ohio, Vienna to Antarctica, Bill Green takes us on a globe-spanning pilgrimage to important sites of scientific discovery and along the way relates the captivating stories of the scientists who lived and worked there. As in his award-winning Water, Ice & Stone, Green interweaves the story of his own lifelong evolution as a scientist with a travelogue that is a personal and universal history of science.

With cautionary notes that echo Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, this book—like Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder—serves as a marvelous introduction to the great figures of science. Along with lyrical meditations on the tragic life of Galileo, the mystical Johannes Kepler, the wildly eccentric Tycho Brahe, and the universal vision of Sir Isaac Newton, Green’s ruminations return throughout to the lesser-known figure of Ludwig Boltzmann. Using Boltzmann’s theories of randomness and entropy in the microscopic world as a larger metaphor for the unpredictable paths that our lives take, Green shows us that science, like art, is a lived adventure, the remnants of which are left in the form of a painting or a poem, or sometimes as an equation etched in stone.

Excerpt from Boltzmann’s Tomb

The town of Duino lies near Trieste on the northeast coast of the Adriatic. In the early part of the last century it was a favorite summer destination for landlocked Austrians who needed a touch of the sea. In late August of 1906, Boltzmann and his family left Vienna to spend a little time there. The decision to go seems to have been Henriette’s, since Ludwig had agreed to teach at the University that fall and had felt the need to prepare lectures. Always there was that need, that nervousness, the deepening neurasthenia, perhaps. Even there amidst the high cliff, with its castle, where once Rilke had gone to write the Duino Elegies in the damp stone rooms of the Princess Maria von Thurn-and-Taxis, there seemed to be no peace. And with him came that constant companion, that sense of failure, the recognition that maybe, as his great adversary Ernst Mach had said toward the end, he was the last pillar standing, the last who believed that behind the cliff and the castle and the air that he breathed were the unseen molecules and atoms he had argued for all his life. At least there were some who believed that this sense of rejection is why he had done it, though not Meitner, who professed never to have understood, though she thought it might have been the depression, the “black dog” that had come to visit.

His fifteen year old daughter, Eva, discovered him. While she and her mother were out swimming in the bay, he had hanged himself with a short cord from a window frame in their hotel. Eva, disturbed by his long absence, had gone back to the hotel to find him. It was she who had made the horrible discovery, one she would never speak of again. The papers in Vienna, the memorials at the University spoke of a man of brilliance “who had bestrode his time and his nation,” but who, as Franz Exner said, “envious fortune had denied inner peace.”

***

It was near the end of my first year, a lovely spring morning in Indiana. Rita and I were having breakfast at Curley’s place and we were expecting Simsohn and Buckley to join us later for coffee. I had not yet found a project for my dissertation and was not even close. Rita told me she had enjoyed all of her science courses and was beginning to think she might even want to do research someday in physics or chemistry. Looking at her that morning she reminded me a little of the young Lise Meitner.

I told her what I had been learning about Boltzmann’s life and how I had come to see the creativity that lay behind his works. But also the struggles and doubts that had tortured him and, ultimately, the darkness that had forced his hand in Duino. He seemed to me now almost a martyr to truth, a secular saint.

Rita remarked how odd it sounded to her, especially after a year of chemistry, where atoms and molecules were treated as the furniture of the world, the tables and chairs of reality, that people in 1906 – a mere 58 years before our conversation – doubted the existence of atoms, mocked them in fact in prestigious gatherings, and considered Boltzmann a throwback to an earlier age. I could not have agreed with her more. It was impossible to believe that atoms did not exist.

When Simsohn and Buckley arrived, they at least brought some positive news. Simsohn would be doing something in the laboratory of Norbert Muller, something with surfactants, and would be using the concept of entropy in his work. Boltzmann’s concept, the very S that appears on the tombstone in Vienna. And with that Buckley recalled some lines from the California poet Robinson Jeffers, who had written about the stone-cutters and how, with marble, they challenged oblivion. I knew the lines, had encountered them as an undergraduate and could even recite them:

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you fore-defeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rocks split records fall down
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth dies, the brave sun
Die blind, his heart blackening.
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts
Found the honey of peace
In old poems.

“Of course the stone will never last, Buckley laughed, and Jeffers knew it. And Boltzmann, too. But that equation, well, that’s another matter.”

Buckley had made some progress in the search for a project, but he seemed more interested in what had happened at Duino.

“So”, he asked, speaking in his resonant voice from behind a black beard that might have been down to his knees, do you know the Elegies?”

And I told him not really.

“ Well”, he said, “maybe these lines fit the story you’ve been telling Rita.”

Since Buckley had a poem for all occasions, I was sure, that in some way, possibly obscure to all but Buckley, they did.

“Please, Professor Buckley, tell us,” Rita laughed, glancing up at Curley who was smiling and pouring her a third cup of coffee.

And Buckley recited some lines from the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, begun, also, in the midst of Rilke’s terrible depression.

But lovers are taken back by exhausted nature
Into herself, as though such creative force
Could never be re-exerted.

We all looked at each other, a little perplexed. But the lines sounded right to me. Though I told Buckley I would have to give them much thought.

So the morning ended, the cash register rang the way they did back then and from behind the counter Curley gave us his usual wave and his bright smile and thanked us for coming.