Remembering Bram Pais

By Ida Nicolaisen

Abraham Pais and his wife Ida Nicolaisen taken Sept. 7, 1996 by Norton M. Hintz, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives
Abraham Pais and his wife Ida Nicolaisen taken Sept. 7, 1996 by Norton M. Hintz, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Editor's Note: Last spring, APS awarded the first Abraham Pais Prize in the History of Physics. The Prize is named for a distinguished physicist and historian of physics, who is the author of acclaimed biographies of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, among other works. Pais died in 2000, and at the APS April meeting, where the Prize was awarded, his widow, Ida Nicolaisen, offered the following remembrance of him.

"An unconcern with the past is a privilege of youth," Abraham Pais wrote in the introduction to his biography of Albert Einstein, Subtle is the Lord (1983). Bram lived up to this dictum in the sense that an interest in the history of physics came to him only late in life. Bram more or less stumbled into the field.

Yet history was among his favorite topics for leisure reading–largely because of the grand literary style of great historians. Bram was an admirer of George Steiner; both men saw tremendous literary power in the writings of master classical historians like Thucydides, Tacitus, Edward Gibbon, and Michelet, all of whom rose above mere "documentary exactitude" or "sobriety of judgment."

Bram sought to convey insights into the marvels of physics, in crisp and poignant language that served as a vehicle to further the understanding of the achievements of physics: the questions the field has grappled with over time, the answers that have emerged, the turns of interest and even the occasional blind alleys that had led people astray. For Bram, the critical challenge was to raise awareness of the significance of physics among interested laypersons and politicians, who have such an influence over the future of science. It was of great satisfaction to him that his biographies and other writings on the history of physics were so well received and found such a broad audience.

A native Dutchman, Bram was the last to receive a PhD in Utrecht before the Germans closed the university to Jews. After several difficult years in cellars and other hideouts in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation, Bram came to Copenhagen to work with Niels Bohr. Soon after, he was offered a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton by Robert Oppenheimer.

He joined a crowd of bright young physicists – T.D. Lee, Frank Yang and Freeman Dyson, among others–all of whom were immersed in discovering how to push the frontiers of our understandings of the workings of mother Nature. Such men had no time for the past.

Bram wondered about this later in life, and about the fact that he never discussed historical issues with Einstein, never asked him how he had proceeded with his work when walking him home to Mercer Street. Bram had not read Einstein's papers, in fact, on the simple grounds that he "already knew what to a physicist was memorable in time, and did not need to know what had superseded." Only later did it become obvious to Bram "that I might have been able to ask him some very interesting questions had I been less blessed with ignorance."

Concern with the history of physics is not a trademark of the discipline, but rather, a relatively late phenomenon even compared with other natural sciences, not to mention the arts and social sciences. The first historical reminiscences by distinguished physicists appeared in Physics Today in 1952. The very first contribution by the upcoming generation of science historians was published only in 1966. That memorable article, "Thermodynamics and Quanta in Planck's Work," was written by Martin Klein (Yale University), the first recipient of the APS Pais Prize for the History of Physics.

Bram's interest in the history of physics first stirred when he was asked to write a review article on the history of the weak interaction. Having spent several decades at the frontiers of particle physics, Bram had found no evidence of the usefulness of historical evidence, either in his own theoretical work or in that of his colleagues. He could not subscribe to Santayana's oft-quoted dictum, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it." Bram argued that this did not apply to physicists, and was fond of quoting a saying common among experimental physicists: "Yesterday's sensation is today's calibration and tomorrow's background." He did not take this to mean that knowledge of the history of physics is not enlightening in a broad sense, only that it proved of little use as a tool for doing physics.

His review work on the weak interaction proved a revelation to Bram, but the event that truly embarked him on a second career–at the age of sixty–as a historian of science was preparing for the Einstein Centennial in 1979. He contributed a talk on quantum theory, and the positive response encouraged him to write his now-famous biography of Einstein, for which he received the National Book Award.

Bram went on to write about many other great physicists he had known: Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, Isidor Rabi. T.D. Lee, Frank Yang, Oskar Klein, John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Victor Weisskopf, and Mitchell Feigenbaum. He also produced works that summed up his knowledge of physics history: Inward Bound (1986) and his own autobiography, A Tale of Two Continents (1997).

Ida Nicolaisen is an anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen. This article was adapted from remarks prepared for the first bestowal of the APS Abraham Pais Prize for the History of Physics at the 2005 APS April meeting in Tampa, Florida.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff

November 2005 (Volume 14, Number 10)

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The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
International News: The Internationalization of Higher Education
Washington Dispatch
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