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Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius

Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck

by Jost Lemmerich; Ann M. Hentschel, Translator
Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2011
392 pp., illus. 112 b/w.  Trade, $165.00; e-book, $65.00
ISBN: 978-0-8047-6310-3; ISBN: 978-0-8047-7909-8

Reviewed by Wilfred Niels Arnold Ph.D.
Historian of Art and Science


For two decades before 1939, and throughout World War II, German universities suffered from financial, political, and social stresses.  A considerable number of their scientists ─ particularly those of Jewish background ─ emigrated to England and the United States.  Not only did these displaced people take dangerous personal chances, but also their actions were subsequently judged by those who stayed home.  And some other outstanding scientists were chastised for not doing enough to protect their own departmental members in Germany.  The various experiences spawned a special type of memoir.

The present example is the first biography of James Franck (b. Hamburg, 1882; d. Göttingen, 1964).  His formal educational venues included University of Heidelberg (chemistry) and University of Berlin (physics) where he completed a Ph.D. degree in 1906.  His academic career was interrupted by participation in World War I, from which he emerged with the Iron Cross.  In spite of distractions, Franck’s scholarly progression was swift.  And then, with his professorship in experimental physics at University of Göttingen, Franck enjoyed a happy, productive, and enduring friendship and collaboration with Max Born (theoretical physics).  Together with mathematician David Hilbert, they were responsible for the development of a community of excellence at Göttingen that earned international recognition.  Franck (1925) and Born (1954) won Nobel prizes in physics.  And then there were the striking number of visits to-and-from top laboratories in England, Denmark, and The Netherlands.  The list of major players in this part of the book reads like a who’s who of atomic physics.  Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck are featured.  An unusually large number of photographs (many from the archive of Franck’s daughter, Lisa) are included to show among other things the aging of key characters.

The Nazi takeover with its rules against those of Jewish extraction caused Franck and his family to move to the U.S. and, indirectly, to the University of Chicago.  There, he participated in the development of the atomic bomb.  Meanwhile, his basic interests shifted to photochemical reactions and the mechanisms of photosynthesis, wherein he made several advances.

The author, Jost Lemmerich, gives Franck good marks for taking care of the scientists who worked with him.  They included Lise Meitner whom the Nobel Committee infamously “forgot about” in 1944.  On the other hand, it is worth noting that Meitner had to protest (successfully) when Franck favored Ms. Hertha Sponer (an experimentalist of lesser achievement) over Meitner for a local promotion.  Later, Sponer became James Franck’s second wife.  Lemmerich typically leaves any judgmental analysis to the reader.  This is indeed a pleasant contrast with the current penchant by the commentariat to find “conflict” wherever they look.

I suppose that “conscience” in the book’s title refers mostly to Franck’s organized opposition to the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities.  He chaired deliberations of a committee that led to the “Franck Report,” June 1945, which is reproduced in Appendix II.  New readers of this document will find portions of the summary especially engaging.  For example, “[We feel that] much more favorable conditions for the eventual achievement of such an agreement [international control] could be created if nuclear bombs were first revealed to the world by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area.”   Franck also advocated excusing the German public at large for the outlandish behavior by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi leaders.  Albert Einstein, among others, was opposed to any such easing of blame.  In the event, neither the Franck report nor the doctrine of German public forgiveness was followed.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it highly.  Some previous introduction to elementary atomic physics and the experimental method is a prerequisite.  The wealth of achievement in sciences from this era continues to shine throughout the book and was due to men and women with a deep commitment to understanding nature.  I personally believe that science in our time will only return to a comparable state of pleasure and progress when professors are allowed to pursue their own natural and self-determined interests instead of those made by committees on behalf of N.I.H. grants and the like.  Finally, I have a comment on the secret flights of Niels Bohr between Copenhagen and the U.S. during the development of the bomb.  According to my colleague, the late Keith Laidler of Ottawa, Bohr’s head was too large to be fitted with any regulation, armed services flying-helmet.  Anyone who has heard this will never again view a photograph of Niels Bohr in quite the same way.

Jost Lemmerich (b. 1929) is a German physicist-turned-historian who studies 19th and 20th century physics.  This volume was translated into English by Ann M. Hentschel, from the German edition (2007).

Last Updated 1 November 2012

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