Monday, August 14, 2006

Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr and Political Invective

In my previous post about liquids, I included a phase diagram showing the solid, liquid and gaseous states of matter, each with its corresponding alert level. I don't know how well this went over, but the idea that an entire state of matter was now officially hazardous amused me. There is something about the scientific sense of humor that includes an appreciation of the excessively literal, which may be why geeks loves puns as much as they do.
Which brings to mind this story the physicist Abraham Pais recounts about Paul Dirac:
One day Niels Bohr came into my office in Princeton, shaking his head while telling me of a discussion he had just had with Dirac. It was the early 1950s, during the time of the Cold War. Bohr had expressed his dislike of the abusive language the American press was using in reference to the Russians. Dirac had replied that all this would come to an end in a few week's time. Bohr had asked why. Well, Dirac had remarked, by then the reporters will have used up all the invective in the English language, so therefore they will have to stop. (A. Pais, The Genius of Science, p. 70)
Of course we know that Dirac was wrong, but his point, however innocent, remains. There is a limit to which overheated rhetoric can overwhelm human reason.
Unlike Bohr, who labored hard to bring about international controls of nuclear weapons, Dirac held himself aloof from the political fray. (Bohr said of Dirac, "Of all the physicists, Dirac has the purest soul.")

Since last Tuesday, the political discourse has sunk, even by the debased standards of recent years. As noted here a few days ago, Bush and the Republicans are playing up the London plot for all it's worth. In this environment, I thought that this old story from more than fifty years ago might lend a little perspective.


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