Field of Science

Hans Bethe; his life, work and times

Hans Bethe was one of the most important and extraordinary scientists of the twentieth century. The sheer depth and breadth of his work is hard to comprehend. He made important contributions to nuclear physics, quantum electrodynamics, particle physics, solid state physics and astrophysics. He was a great teacher who founded a world-class center of physics at Cornell University. He won a Nobel Prize for explaining one of the oldest problems in science, the problem of the source of solar energy. He counted the greatest physicists of the century among close friends and colleagues. He played a key role in the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, served as a top consultant to government, valuably contributed to arms control and worked ceaseless till the ripe age of 99. He was famous not just for his science but for his wisdom and humanism, rock solid self confidence and equanimity of mind.

All these contributions and qualities would be almost impossible to capture in any one volume. Yet "Hans Bethe And His Physics" does this admirably. Several chapters span Bethe's personal traits, his work in science and public policy. Many chapters are written by close friends, students and colleagues. Accounts range from semi-technical descriptions of Bethe's science to fond personal reminiscences. The chapters provide a detailed picture of a great scientist and human being.

Probably the most valuable chapter is one by Chris Adami of Caltech who as a student spent a summer with Bethe and a close collaborator and friend, Gerald Brown of Stony Brook. The chapter is essentially a distillation of Adami's daily diary. His ruminations and first hand accounts provide a rare personal glimpse into Bethe's mind and life. Adami narrates several talks with Bethe that ranged from discussions of Bethe's childhood and education to the most current research in physics. The description of everyday life during that summer is endearing and provides wonderful insight into Bethe's personal side, including his fondness for chocolate ice cream, roast beef and history. The book would honestly be worth reading for this lengthy chapter alone. As Adami nostalgically notes, on the last day of that summer, Bethe who hated sentimental goodbyes shook Adami's hand and simply said, "Carry on". Adami says we should all remember and follow those simple words.

The rest of the chapters in the book focus on Bethe's work in various branches of physics and arms control. The chapters also include some accounts by Bethe himself on his work in solar nucleosynthesis and his recent contributions. He continued to be remarkably productive even into his 90s and during his later years worked on supernovas and on the great mystery of solar neutrinos.

Hans Bethe's life was a kaleidoscope of twentieth century physics and he was one of the most important particpants in this journey. While a book covering every aspect of his vast contributions in detail would be too big, this book is an excellent compendium that provides essential insight into this great man's science, life and work. Highly readable and recommended.

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