- The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science, by Robert Crease ’76
- Nazi Refugee Turned Gestapo Spy: The Life of Hans Wesemann, 1895-1971, by James J. Barnes ’54 and Patience P. Barnes
French physicist Jean Bernard Leon Foucault demonstrates his pendulum, which provided the first experimental proof that the Earth rotates on its axis
Surely there is no greater difference than that between the scientist and the artist. Look no further than the stereotypes: cold calculation in a white lab coat on the one hand, burning passion in a black turtleneck on the other. And there is good reason for this fashion difference, for the scientist seeks the cool objectivity of truth, and the artist seeks the warm subjective expression of beauty. Simple story. We look to science for true things, to art for beautiful things. Right?
Not so fast. Robert Crease wants to complicate this picture with a simple claim: scientific experiments are beautiful. In The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science, Crease argues that we have been seriously misled by our social, cultural and philosophical presuppositions regarding the nature of scientific inquiry. We’ve cut out beauty from our understanding of experimentation, an exclusion that, as it turns out, deletes much of the scientist’s own experience. Indeed, Crease reports, “This is beautiful!” recurs with remarkable regularity in accounts of experiment and proof. Crease begins his book by taking such proclamations seriously: Experiments are beautiful.
With such a surprising thesis, one might suspect that Crease either stretches or reinvents the meaning of the word “beauty” to fit the scene of the science experiment. This is not the case. In fact, Crease works with an utterly traditional notion of beauty, with three essential characteristics: depth, efficiency and definitiveness. With these characteristics, Crease turns his focus on the experiment itself, not the idea behind the experiment. This is key, for one can easily see the beauty-in-profundity of many scientific ideas. The experiment, however, is something altogether different. For Crease, the experiment is akin to the theater, where the staging of action and dialogue is its own aesthetic object distinct from the idea(s) behind the scene. The unappreciated beauty of science is in the scene, on the stage, right there in the mechanics of experiment itself. Depth, efficiency and beauty are the characteristics of a great scientific experiment, and therefore contain the secrets of its beautiful soul.
Prism originated with the scientists themselves. Crease found himself struck by the recurrence of the phrase “This is beautiful!” in scientific literature. Thus the kernel of the project was formed. With this kernel in mind, Crease took his project to the readers of Physics World in a poll seeking “the most beautiful scientific experiments.” The poll spread over the Internet via discussion groups and Weblogs, and Prism treats the top 10 choices of this extensive poll.
From his traditional conception of beauty, Crease walks us through these 10 history-changing experiments in science, beginning with Eratosthenes’ measurement of the circumference of the earth (he noted the seven-degree difference in the angle of the sun’s rays at two points 500 miles apart and used that difference and distance to extrapolate a surprisingly accurate circumference for the entire planet), and ending with the perplexing issue of quantum interference. What I find so interesting about this selection of experiments is how Crease is able to demonstrate that the simplest experiment (Eratosthenes’ calculation, which is reenacted by countless students every year) and the most counter-intuitive (the quantum-mechanical world, the understanding of which divides the players from the pretenders in science classes) share beauty as a common quality. Is this not what is most remarkable about beauty itself, that it manifests its sublimity in both the simple and the complex?
Crease’s treatment of these experiments, of course, is the key to the success of his thesis. Many readers will be skeptical that experiments can be deemed beautiful, so a heavy burden of proof is on the author. Here, Crease’s writing is up to the task. If scientific experiments are akin to the staging of a play, then Crease is a masterful reviewer. He articulates both the movement and meaning of a given experiment in a clear and engaging voice. Each chapter is devoted to a single experiment and is broken into two parts. First, Crease recounts the dramatic movement of the experiment: whence it came and how it works. Second, this dramatic movement is given its full aesthetic treatment in an “interlude” (as Crease calls it), linking the experiment to various issues such as“sublimity,” “artistry,” “analogy” and even a compelling comparison of Beethoven and Newton. As a reviewer of the scientific theater, Crease treats us to an engaging plot summary, but never without a meditation on why and how that plot should hold our interest—in this context, the interest we have in understanding and experiencing the beautiful.
Why would one read this book? If nothing else, it is a fantastic account of 10 important moments in scientific—and therefore cultural—history. But there is so much more. Science has affective force; it stirs the passions in a powerful and unique manner. One can easily write this off as the thrill of technological mastery, or, perhaps more cynically, as the thrill of the multi-million-dollar government grant. Crease shows us, however, that such a reductive understanding misses the beauty in the scientific endeavor. Much of conducting an experiment entails dirty and unremarkable labor. That is just so much paint on the smock. At the moment of enactment, beauty itself, whether in its simple or complex mask, comes to the stage. As we read The Prism and the Pendulum, we are right there in the audience, enthralled with the action and dialogue, front and center.
Nazi Refugee Turned Gestapo Spy is a scholarly, historical biography, but Jim and Patience Barnes’ book reads like a spy novel. Not one with the frenzied pace, car chases, incessant gunfire and fiery explosions of a James Bond movie. This is a measured, meticulously researched portrayal of a scoundrel. Yet it is just as gripping as a story with shaken martinis and high-tech gadgetry.
The narrative picks up Hans Wesemann, a much-decorated lieutenant commanding a German artillery battery, on Nov. 10, 1918, the day before the World War I armistice. Wesemann recorded the moment: “In the rainy dawn, my artillery battery marches towards Mons. The mud squelches beneath our boots. The smell of smoke and feces hangs in the air.” Once he became a civilian in a Kaiserless Germany, he enrolled at the University of Freiburg, studying literature. While working on his dissertation about German poetry he submitted articles to Vorärts,a left-wing daily newspaper in Berlin. Feature articles with his byline began appearing regularly. By 1927 he was writing for Die Welt am Montage.
In 1928, the Prussian state government allowed the firebrand Adolf Hitler to speak in public. Wesemann reported on the address at Berlin’s Sportpalast and then described a reception that evening where Hitler held court. “We were searched for weapons,” Wesemann wrote. “Even the book Germany Awake! had to be left in the cloakroom.” During dinner Hitler disparaged Berlin “because it had too much noise, not enough respect for individuals and too much Negro music.” When a pianist began entertaining, Hitler identified the music as “The Hungarian Rhapsody by Haydn.” Another guest corrected him: the composer was Liszt. That guest was isolated for the rest of the evening.
When the description of the evening appeared in Die Welt am Montage, Nazi party officials sued for libel. They lost. Wesemann repeatedly lampooned Nazi leaders and took particular delight in needling Joseph Goebbels. In a fictional interview with the propaganda minister’s godmother, Wesemann quoted her: “Oh dear sir, you would never believe how pious he was as a youngster. He loved to attend church, and I always hoped he would become a priest. I don’t know what the boy’s problem is with Jews. He used to play so nicely with the Katz children, whose father, a butcher, used to live right around the corner.” Wesemann kept up this sort of thing until 1932, when Hitler became chancellor, which ended not only the newspaper but also Wesemann’s career in German journalism. He soon relocated to London.
Wesemann’s satirical articles had given him some popularity among the German refugee community in London, and he became well acquainted with many. In particular he sought out and helped a fellow journalist with whom he had worked, a pacifist named Berthold Jacob, who had been a guest at Wesemann’s wedding to his first wife.
Despite his Nazi satires and his friendship with dissidents, Wesemann apparently harbored a patriotic affection for his homeland, and in 1934 he visited the German embassy in London and met with First Secretary Ernst Ruter. The authors explain that his contacts with German refugees “had made him increasingly aware of the hostility these émigrés were exhibiting toward the fatherland. By contrast, he avowed that he had now shed his former anti-Nazism, having recognized Hitler’s accomplishments and his efforts to recapture Germany’s greatness. He felt it his duty to alert the German authorities to the machinations of the dissident refugees abroad, especially those who were at work exposing Germany’s efforts to rearm herself.” Wesemann supplied names of several prominent anti-Nazi dissidents in England. One was Otto Lehmann-Russbuldt, from whose desk Wesemann swiped letters that implicated other dissidents. Among the many others Wesemann indicted were Dr. Frans L. Neumann, David Yaskiel, Willi Munzenberg and writer Gerhard Seger, whom he identified as the “most dangerous” of the exiles.
Wesemann’s motivation for this treachery may have been his need for a passport so he could travel to South America with his new Venezuelan wife. The passports were issued only in Berlin, so when the Gestapo called him there, he went, and in 1934 Wesemann became a Gestapo agent. He told the Gestapo that his friend Berthold Jacob was a major threat to Germany; in 1935 Wesemann was sent to the border city of Basel, Switzerland, in order to lure Jacob there with the promise of a new passport, which Jacob needed to freely conduct his business. The men met over a convivial dinner but as he left the restaurant, Jacob suddenly became extremely dizzy. His companion hustled him into a waiting automobile driven by another agent, and they streaked past Swiss border guards and across the bridge to Germany. The Germans were especially delighted to obtain Jacob’s address book, naming his contacts in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France and Switzerland. Jacob was clapped into a Gestapo cell.
Jacob’s kidnapping was only one of many. The Gestapo had a card file of 60,000 anti-Nazi Germans living in exile in at least nine other European countries. That is one of the most appealing features of this book: an inside look at Gestapo activities prior to the actual outbreak of war and how those activities affected the relations between Germany and the rest of Europe.
Wesemann’s case is a prime example of the tensions between nations during this period. The Swiss authorities knew about the kidnapping of Berthold Jacob, so when Wesemann returned to Basel they arrested him, and the Swiss ambassador in Berlin demanded Jacob’s release. The Germans disavowed Wesemann and refused to release Jacob.
The Swiss, in turn, presented a formal statement of charges along with 40 pages of supporting documents to a panel of judges brought together under an international arbitration treaty. The supporting documents were the product of an extensive Swiss investigation into Gestapo activities, and the potential public embarrassment for the Germans was significant. Thus, when the Swiss foreign minister suggested quietly to his German counterpart that they would drop the public political pressure if Jacob were released, the Germans quickly complied, and Jacob was returned to Basel.
What then of Wesemann? He didn’t face a firing squad. He did, however, serve time in Switzerland for the kidnapping and then began a long, wandering course through Latin America with his wife. Once war actually broke out, he served still more time in several countries, including the U.S.A., as an enemy combatant. To learn his ultimate fate—a frustrating, unpleasant one—you will have to read this splendid book. I believe you will find, as I did, that learning about this weasel and his Gestapo cohorts is a real treat, albeit not what you would label a happy story.
Eugene Walter ’54 is a free-lance writer and secretary of the Class of 1954.