Physics in a Mad World – M Shifman

“Physics is really nothing more than a search for ultimate simplicity, but so far all we have is a kind of elegant messiness.” ― Bill Bryson


You should never judge a book by its cover, and the same is definitely true for size. While at first glance this book might come across as somewhat of a hefty and intimidating read, perhaps something a physics student might be assigned as weekend reading, the contents of the book is much more manageable. Split into three distinct sections, and interlaced with essays, letters, interviews and diary entries, Physics in a Mad World at times reads like a novel, allowing the reader an intimate glimpse into the back story of two renowned theoretical physicists, and their misadventures in the Soviet Union.

Author M. Shifman first introduces the remarkable Friedrich (Fritz) Houtermans, a Dutch-Austrian-German physicist who was the first to suggest that the sparkling of the stars in the night sky is caused by thermonuclear fusion. Houtermans tale begins in 1935, when, owing to his communist views, he was forced to flee Nazi German and take up refuge in the Soviet Union, working for the Kharkov Physico-Technical Institute. In the pages that follow, Houtermans’ life unfolds, through past interviews and anecdotes of his friends and colleagues, and long-surviving diary entries by his wife, Charlotte. Through these documents, Shifman traces Houtermans’ remarkable contributions to physics, those achieved while working with Russian physicist Valentin P Fomin, and later – having been arrested by the NKVD, tortured, interrogated, and held captive in a soviet prison – as he continued to indulge his thirst for knowledge.

The final section of the book is given over to the life of Yuri Golfand, another familiar name among theoretical physicists, whose work led to one the most important discoveries in the theory of particle physics – supersymmetry. Within the book the story of Golfand’s remarkable life and his key contributions to the scientific and mathematical worlds are narrated through two essays written by Boris Eskin and Boris Bolotovsky. Like Houtermans, Golfand life was wrought with the many challenges of working in the Soviet Union in the late 20th century. In 1973 he was fired from his position in the Lebedev Physics Institute in Moscow, and, blacklisted from further employment owing to his Jewish heritage, and found himself facing years of menial manual labour, and repeatedly interrogation by the KGB.

Physics in a Mad World is a must read for those with an interest in the history of theoretical physics and cold war politics alike. Through personal anecdotes, historical documents and theoretical papers Shifman pieces together the extraordinary life stories of two of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century. The tales of Houtermans and Golfand, combined with an in-depth exploration of life in the Soviet Union during the bloodiest years of the cold war, make for a truly captivating read.

This review was first posted on WordPress for E&T magazine

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