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acting the part

The Part and The Whole

The book The Part and the Whole, written by Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who discovered the uncertainty principle, tells, from his point of view, the history of exploring atomic science and quantum mechanics in the first half of the 20th century.

As the subtitle "Talks about atomic physics" suggests, the core part of this book takes the form of a discussion between himself and other scientists. Heisenberg says: "I wanted to show that science is done by people, and the most wonderful ideas come from dialog".

With chapters like "The first encounter with the science about atoms", "Quantum mechanics and talks with Einstein", "Talk about the relation between biology, physics and chemistry" or "Talks about language" and "The behavior of an individual during a political disaster", dated 1937-1941, a reader can hear speaking such persons like Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein or Max Planck, not only about physics, but also about many other questions related to biology, humans, philosophy, and of course politics. Like Richard Feynman used to say: "How many natures do you think there are? There is only one, our division of sciences is artificial."

Not only that, these talks are often situated in detailed description of the historical atmosphere and a beautiful scenery, as many of them were led in nature during the many journeys they made, backpacking or sailing. "'Do you see whales, Heisenberg?', 'Yes, I see only whales, but I hope they are only big waves.'", is one of humorous scenes when the author, Bohr and other friends were sailing in a dark night.

Reading through, one can get much better feeling about how science is done, and how quantum physics, especially the Copenhagen interpretation, emerged. It's even tempting not to call these people Bohr or Pauli any longer, but only Niels and Wolfgang.

"Nobody can reproduce these talks verbatim, but I believe that the spirit of what the people said, and how they did, is conserved," the author tries to explain in the preface.

Many believe that the golden years of physics around 1925, when "even small people could do big things" are gone. But the people who had been there continue to speak to us through this book.

The book was published first in German 1969, a French in 1972 (La partie et le tout).

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