The author begins this series of interconnected profiles by describing the life and work of John Stewart Bell, the brilliant physicist employed at the gigantic elementary particle laboratory near Geneva (CERN), whose "Bell's Inequality" inspired a generation of researchers to confront, by experiment, just how peculiar and counterintuitional quantum mechanics really is. Bernstein then discusses the career of the prodigiously active and creative John Archibald Wheeler, who worked in the beginning stages of almost every branch of contemporary physics and invented the terms "black hole," "ergo-sphere," "geon," "Planck length," and "stellarator." The book closes with a moving commentary on the correspondence, of fifty-two years duration, between Einstein and the gentle, talented, but little-known Swiss engineer Michele Angelo Besso. "Of all the Einstein letters I have read these are surely the most striking, on a purely human level," writes Bernstein of the Einstein-Besso correspondence. "Einstein was not given to close friendships--`the merely personal,' as he once put it--but these letters are filled with `the merely personal,' even though the deep issues of physics and its philosophy are never very far away."
In the first three essays, Professor Bernstein looks at economic theory and how some physicists who developed interesting economic models based on derivatives and hedge funds almost led to the country into bankruptcy. In later essays, he discusses a suspect visit to Poland by the great Heisenberg during the Nazi era, a visit that there is almost nothing written about.
Included also are essays on ancient languages and a nuclear weapons program in South Africa that was supposedly dismantled. In one particularly humorous essay, he describes how an ill-conceived manned spaceship to be powered by an atomic bomb was being developed by some of the country’s most powerful intellects. The project never got off the ground.
Dipping into these pages is like rummaging around in the mind of a genius who has a potpourri of interests and an abundance of fascinating experiences. Bernstein has not only rubbed elbows with some of the finest minds in world, he has worked and played with them. He has sometimes mourned with them and laughed at them. His sharp wit and even sharper analysis make for a fascinating read.