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Russell McCormmach


Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist

Category: Fiction | Published: 1991 | Review Added: 21-02-2009

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

A bit of an odd book, this: an account of the thoughts of an ageing German physicist after he collapses at the end of a patriotic public lecture he has been giving, towards the end of the First World War. The physicist, Victor Jakob, is an old-fashioned thinker, fond of the sturdy determinism of nineteenth-century physics, and struggling to come to terms with the new, less intuitive theories of relativity and the quantum model of energy and matter.

Jakob looks back on his career, and the careers of his fellow physicists, and expresses disappointment that he never made it past the middle ranks of academe. Implicit in the narrative is a link between Jakob's outdated scientific views, and his old-fashioned liberal morality, which sees science as an endeavour bringing peoples of the world together into one enlightened community, while many of his scientist peers have "sold out" to the nationalist cause.

Jakob is portrayed as having had personal contact with many of the major physicists of his day, including Hertz, Drude and Planck: the author states in the Afterword that Jakob's life is a composite of the real experiences of numerous physicists of his day. McCormmach also states that Jakob is not intended to be a fully developed character, but an "organizing principle for historical materials". In fact, Jakob is believable precisely because he is so ordinary: a sensitive, sceptical character with intelligence but little flair.

However, McCormmach's acknowledgement of his modest creative ambitions points to a real weakness in the book: he seems to want it to be respected for its academic thoroughness, rather than enjoyed as a narrative. The fact is that for long stretches, it makes pretty dull reading. There's a lack of action to balance the reflection: no changes of pace; no real psychological arc. Indications that McCormmach is an academic (a historian of science) are more evident than they should be: witness the ten-page list of source material and the 45 pages of endnotes. The prose is decidedly essayistic, Jakob's historical and psychological assertions often backed up by two or three examples from the real history of science - mandatory in a dissertation, no doubt, but pointless and boring in a novel.

At bottom, the book suffers from a lack of humour or poetry - one might say from the same lack of flair that characterises Jakob's career. It feels as though McCormmach wanted to the book to be the definitive fictional distillation of his academic expertise; inthusfar no doubt it succeeds, but as a piece of entertainment its appeal is surely limited.

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