Reflected Pensiveness

beneath the leaky pipe of thought.

Review: Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist (McCormmach)

with 2 comments

Review of Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist, focusing on the analogs between Jakob and his era.

Front cover of Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist.

Front cover of Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist.

Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist picks a unique subject and setting through which revolutions of thought permeated every facet of the West.  The beginning of the twentieth century marked a global transformation in many facets of humanity, and science was not exempt from cultural upheaval.  Changes both political and social ensued in parallel with revolutions in scientific thought, and McCormmach tells the story of a man left behind – a Classical Physicist permanently intertwined with the past.  The story of Professor Viktor Jakob represents the struggle of the world to keep up with the sweeping changes of a new, faster globe and the intellectual modifications that accompanied it.

The physics presented in the novel – although nonetheless historically accurate – served a purpose beyond simply representing a branch of natural science.  The paradigm shift in physics of the day was an analog of the worldwide metamorphosis of civilization.  Jakob embodied these parallel transfigurations in his thoughts on both art and science.  To him, theatre and physics as well as music and mathematics were entangled in a single human experience.  In this sense, his scholarly lineage could nearly be traced to the Enlightenment era.  The ideas of unity, closure, determinism, and the importance of the individual that accompanied Enlightenment philosophy manifested themselves in his interpretation of science.  Jakob’s pursuit of a solution for the world-ether typified his mindset towards the world.  Even deterred by the likes of Planck (pg. 139), Jakob continued to dream of a grand scientific unification.

Physics and the world stage were in two not unalike states at the turn of the century.  The rise of Germany in central Europe and the end of the beginnings of industrialization introduced paradigm shifts in life and politics as radical as the new interpretations in physics.  It may have been ironic to Jakob that the very same forces in Germany catalyzed both scientific knowledge and military prowess.  He prided his and his fellow scientists’ peaceful natures, especially within their profession – but even he could not entirely resist the call of nationalism.  His work on acoustics in the field was an example of his contribution to the war.

But nationalism was a phenomenon with which the professor did not always peacefully mesh.  Jakob considered himself a worshipper of science, in accord with Einstein’s scheme (108).  Jakob has chosen for himself “the life of the discoverer” (109), and accordingly placed physics higher than the state.  But interestingly, many of the scientists to whom he would pay reverence – such as Planck – were at least able to support the war with their public attitudes.  Jakob’s refusal to sign a single document supporting the war is evidence of his strict, scientific moral code and fear of change.  It fits with his description of a classical physics; in his view, the role of virtue and scientific rigidity within oneself is the key characteristic of physics.  He admired many of his more esteemed colleagues for their incredible internal strength of character.

Jakob was, indeed, a self-proclaimed Classical Physicist.  Unlike the era of his youth, the German students of the twentieth century had (allegedly) not been “drilled in the classics, in the careful thought of the languages and literatures of antiquity” (133).  Jakob believed in a strong connection between physics and the classics.  With this in mind, one might propose that what bothered Jakob in part about the new age of atomic physics was uncertainty and a disconnect between a priori assumptions and the implications of modern physics.  Jakob thought of classical physics as not so much a world-view, but an attitude: a description more of the scientist than the science.

His knowledge of the classical age made it easy for Jakob to recognize the mutation of Greek thought and culture into a tool for nationalism when he and his wife attend a reading of Antigone.  European affinity for Greek science and culture is exploited as the company alters details of the tragedy to create sympathy for the German cause.  This sort of alteration for the sake of political allusion would begin to permeate many cultures in future decades.  Later in the century, this same type of subliminal propaganda would manifest itself in American and Soviet media to generate sympathy for democracy and communism.

It was Jakob’s belief that the loss of the world-ether implied the loss of intelligibility in the physics community (134).  Jakob appreciated mechanisms representative of our perception more than he did abstractions into mathematics.  Accordingly, he felt that the lack of an absolute reference frame turned physics into a “cold gray cave of abstraction” (ibid).  Once more, Jakob reveals his ties to the previous century.  Like the romantics of art and literature calling for a return to nature after industrialization, Jakob feels that the loss of sensible physics is a loss of a part of human culture.

The magnitude of destruction experienced in the First World War is certainly akin to a cold gray cave of abstraction.  The introduction of twentieth century weaponry and technology made the Great War a monster of a sort not before witnessed in the world.  Lengthy, monotonous trench warfare and the introduction of war to the sea and sky made war less personal than ever.  In the eyes of many – including Jakob – soldiers started their transformation from people to numbers in that era.  In that light, modern warfare may be somewhat similar to modern physics in Jakob’s view.

But more than simply the loss of the world-ether concept, Jakob felt that the branching away from classical physics meant the loss of the individual.  Jakob recalls a shift during his career from individuals pursuing physics of their own accord – with their own ideas – to an age where money translates a wealthy student into a fledgling scientist to pursue the goals advancing the reputation of the university director.  The idea that money fuels a man’s career is certainly not a new concept, but Jakob seems to feel that this sort of construct contaminates the purity of the physics community.

Jakob’s view of his evolving science and evolving world resonated with the ideas of a finished age.  Victor Jakob might have been one of the last of his breed. Perhaps, though, his concern for the individual may have been warranted as we entered a less personal age.  Perhaps, even today, there is still a place for the Classical Physicist.

You can find a more traditional book review at the Harvard Press site,

You can also preview the book on Google Books.  Search for “Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist”.

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Written by Matthew Daniels

April 24, 2009 at 4:40 am

2 Responses

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  2. My Suggestion: Delirium

    Lauren Oliver

    March 21, 2015 at 9:58 pm

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