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Arnold Sommerfeld: Science, Life and Turbulent Times 1868-1951

Michael Eckert
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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An excellent single word description of this biography is “detailed.” The changes that took place in Germany and the world during these years were enormous. The German nation was united and immediately became a great power, the most powerful in continental Europe. A great war was fought for supremacy in Europe and Germany was defeated, afterwards suffering through great economic deprivation until the rise of the “great pseudo-savior.” This led to another war and the dismemberment of the German nation along lines of conflicting ideologies.

The changes in physics during this time were also revolutionary. As instrumentation grew more accurate it was clear that the old models of matter and space were wrong. Relativity and quantum mechanics were new models based on concepts that can best be described as extremely counter-intuitive.

These two tracks were not distinct threads, so this biography is a story of national and international politics revolving around Germany and some local politics based on political subdivisions as well as a story of national and international scientific discoveries with academic politics and local academic politics included. The two threads became one in the Nazi era when the level of your academic position was based more on your adherence to National Socialist dogma and your ancestry than to your scientific achievements.

Loaded with specifics and written with a meticulous attention to historical, scientific and interpersonal details, this is a book that simultaneously deals with the academic and national history of Germany and the life and career of Arnold Sommerfeld. 

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

Prologue.- Königsberg Roots.- Setting the Course.- Klein's Assistant.- Clausthal.- Aachen.- Munich.- Physics in War and Peace.- The Quantum Pope.- Wave Mechanics.- Cultural Ambassador.- Descent.- The Bitter Years.- Carrying On.- Legacy.- Epilogue.- Backmatter.