Bernstein, Jeremy 1929-
Bernstein, Jeremy 1929-
Born December 31, 1929, in Rochester, NY; son of Philip Sidney (a rabbi) and Sophy Bernstein. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1951, M.A., 1953, Ph.D., 1955. Hobbies and other interests: Mountain climbing, music.
Office—Department of Physics, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ 07030.
Writer, educator. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, research associate, 1955-57; Princeton University, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, research associate, 1957-60; National Science Foundation and Brookhaven National Laboratory, Brookhaven, NY, research associate, 1960-62; New York University, New York, NY, associate professor of physics, 1962-67; New Yorker, New York, NY, staff writer, 1962-93; Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, faculty member of physics department, 1967—; Rockefeller University, adjunct professor. Aspen Center for Physics, vice president, board of trustees.
American Physical Society, Royal Society of the Arts, American Alpine Club, French Alpine Club.
Westinghouse Prize for science writing, 1964; Brandeis creative arts medal, 1979.
The Analytical Engine: Computers, Past, Present, and Future, Random House (New York, NY), 1964, 2nd edition, Morrow (New York, NY), 1982.
Ascent: Of the Invention of Mountain Climbing and Its Practice, Random House (New York, NY), 1965.
A Comprehensible World: On Modern Science and Its Origins, Random House (New York, NY), 1967.
Elementary Particles and Their Currents, W.H. Freeman (New York, NY), 1968.
The Elusive Neutrino, Division of Technical Information, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (Washington, DC), 1969.
The Wildest Dreams of Kew: A Profile of Nepal, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1970.
Einstein, Viking (New York, NY), 1973.
(Editor, with Gerald Feinberg) Science and the Human Imagination: Albert Einstein: Papers and Discussions, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Rutherford, NJ), 1978.
Mountain Passages, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1978.
Experiencing Science: Profiles in Discovery, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1978.
Hans Bethe: Prophet of Energy, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1980.
Science Observed: Essays out of My Mind, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1982.
Three Degrees above Zero: Bell Labs in the Information Age, Scribner (New York, NY), 1984.
(Editor, with Gerald Feinberg) Cosmological Constants: Papers in Modern Cosmology, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1986.
The Life It Brings: One Physicist's Beginnings, Ticknor & Fields (Boston, MA), 1987.
Kinetic Theory in the Expanding Universe, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1988.
In the Himalayas: Journeys through Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1989.
The Tenth Dimension: An Informal History of High-energy Physics, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1989.
Quantum Profiles, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1991.
Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos: Writings on Science, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1993.
An Introduction to Cosmology, Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1995.
Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hill, introduction by David Cassidy, AIP Press (Woodbury, NY), 1996, revised edition, 2001.
A Theory for Everything, Copernicus (New York, NY), 1996.
(With others) Modern Physics, Prentice Hill (Upper Saddle River, NJ), 2000.
The Merely Personal: Observations on Science and Scientists, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 2001.
Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 2004.
Secrets of the Old One: Einstein, 1905, Copernicus Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element, Joseph Henry Press (Washington, DC), 2007.
Contributor of essays to periodicals, including American Scholar and New York Times Book Review.
Jeremy Bernstein is a professional physicist and was a principal science writer for the New Yorker magazine for a quarter of a century. Bernstein's duties at the New Yorker included reviewing science-related books, writing profiles on modern scientists, and explaining the intricacies of physics and mathematics to the general reader. According to Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World, Bernstein "is best known outside his field as a writer of articles and books that bring complex scientific matters within the layman's grasp. This is no mean feat, for writing about science—especially a science as arcane as physics—is nearly as difficult as writing about music; scarcely anyone does it as well as Bernstein, most particularly as in the profiles of eminent physicists he has published in the New Yorker over the past quarter-century." Bernstein, a staff member of the Stevens Institute of Technology, began writing essays in his spare time in the early 1960s. His favorite subject, to quote Nation contributor D.D. Guttenplan, is "the nuts and bolts of the scientific process—not just how scientists think and talk but how they solve real-world problems." Yardley addresses Bernstein's achievements: "To be an accomplished scientist is one thing, to be an accomplished journalist is another; to be both borders on the extraordinary."
In his memoir The Life It Brings: One Physicist's Beginnings, Bernstein describes his youth as very ordinary. The son of a prominent rabbi, he grew up in Rochester, New York, where he preferred music, sports, and comic books to his studies. "As far as I was concerned," he writes, "mathematics was a series of exercises and puzzles that had no purpose other than to lead to a final examination. That it was a real subject with intellectual content and beauty I had no inkling. In fact, I think that in some profound sense I had no intellectual interests at all." That state of affairs changed when Bernstein enrolled at Harvard University. "I thought I might like to become a journalist," he remembers in a New York Times Book Review essay. "This ambition did not last very long, and gradually—under the influence of some great teachers, such as Philipp Frank and Julian Schwinger—I shifted to mathematics and then, in graduate school to theoretical physics. All the while, I was writing—but for nobody in particular…. If someone had asked me why I was writing, I don't know what I would have said. It was just something I did." Having earned his Ph.D., Bernstein was appointed to the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in 1957, and there he worked with some of the country's eminent physicists.
Bernstein recalls that his chosen discipline was so difficult that for ten years he "ate, slept, and breathed physics." Still, he relished the opportunity to study the personalities of his senior colleagues, many of them leaders in the field. "They were fantastic characters," he notes; "no one could have invented them." In 1960 he wrote his first piece, an essay about his experiences teaching summer school on the island of Corsica. Friends suggested sending it to the New Yorker, so he did. Months later, he received a reply. The New Yorker wanted to publish the story and anything else he might write "about science as a form of experience." At first the assignment was daunting, but gradually Bernstein began to perceive the possibilities of producing profiles "without compromising myself or the dignity—and, often, the grandeur—of the people I was writing about." From these he moved into essays about nuclear physics, computers, and mathematics, subjects that often required complex explanations. "It is sometimes difficult for a scientist to realize just how much has to be spelled out," he observes, "for we scientists tend to speak in codes…. People have told me they find my science writing fairly accessible, and, believe me, despite appearances, this is the end product of a lot of work."
Mountain-climbing is Bernstein's hobby, and it too has provided topics for his pen. Time magazine contributor Peter Stoler wrote: "As anyone who reads the literature can attest, most mountain climbers cannot write. Fair enough; most writers cannot climb. Jeremy Bernstein is an exception to both rules." The author's books on mountaineering include Ascent: Of the Invention of Mountain Climbing and Its Practice, The Wildest Dreams of Kew: A Profile of Nepal, and Mountain Passages; even the titles reflect the international scope of his high mountain treks. "Bernstein is at his best evoking the sounds and sights and terrors of a world that touches the sky," noted Stoler. "No one who reads Mountain Passages should have any trouble understanding why mountaineers are so addicted to the ascent." Raymond A. Sokolov likewise contended in the New York Times Book Review that Bernstein has mastered two of the most demanding mental and physical activities in the world—physics and mountain climbing. "Jeremy Bernstein is a professional at particle physics and an amateur at mountaineering," Sokolov concluded, "but he writes about both fields for the layman better than anyone else writes about either."
Science writing remains Bernstein's forte, however. As a respected contributor to scientific scholarship himself, he is able to communicate with his fellow practitioners and translate their achievements into understandable prose. In the New York Times Book Review, Rosalind Williams claimed that if a writer works hard, "the reader doesn't have to, and Mr. Bernstein gives a lucid and fascinating tour of the brave new world of modern physics and high technology. The intelligent layman who knows what a molecule is and is willing to concentrate will have little trouble following him into these mysterious realms." Bernstein, Williams added, "wants to convey how science is done, to elucidate the process of science more than its gadgets or even its ideas." Los Angeles Times Book Review correspondent David Graber noted that some of the scientists the author writes about, such as Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, and Hans Bethe, "led exciting quests of discovery, and Bernstein communicates that most successfully. … You suddenly realize you have learned a great deal and been thoroughly engrossed the whole time."
Bernstein further demonstrates his versatility with the 2000 title, Dawning of the Raj: The Life and Trials of Warren Hastings, in which he profiles the eighteenth-century rise and fall of British India's first governor general. Hastings did much to put the colony of India on a sound footing during his administration. Serving both the British government and the British East India Company, Hastings had to tread a delicate balance. However, enemies of his within the East India Company began a smear campaign against Hastings, and his career ended in ruins when he was charged with extortion and other administrative wrongdoings. After a seven-year trial in England, Hastings was finally found innocent of any wrongdoings, but the lengthy and costly legal proceedings ruined him. For Booklist contributor Jay Freeman, Bernstein's biography was "an absorbing and stimulating biography that effectively captures both the man and his era." A Publishers Weekly reviewer was also impressed with Bernstein's book, writing that "this thoroughly researched, rich chronicle recalls an important chapter of European history, providing a fresh perspective on the roots of the British Empire and the labyrinthine politics of late-18th-century Britain." Similarly, Philip Hensher, writing in the Spectator, termed Dawning of the Raj "an excellent, lucid book on a difficult subject, always readable and interesting."
In The Merely Personal: Observations on Science and Scientists, Bernstein gathers thirteen essays, many of which were previously published in magazines, in a volume that attempts to lay bare the more human side of science and scientists. Among others, Bernstein profiles the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, generally thought of as the father of the atomic bomb; a founder of quantum theory, Paul Dirac; and even poets such as W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, who demonstrate a different kind of genius. He also details the seventeenth-century meeting between poet John Donne and astronomer Johannes Kepler. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly felt that "readers without much knowledge of modern science will learn from [Bernstein's] carefully laid-out explications of relativity and quantum mechanics." Likewise, American Scientist contributor David Goodstein noted: "Bernstein's book is actually fun to read, for its subject matter, its erudition and its ineffable snobbery."
Bernstein turns to individual biography again in his Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma, but does not attempt to portray the physicist's entire life. Instead, it focuses on the two years that Bernstein worked with Oppenheimer at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies. Small sections of the book deal with Oppenheimer's youth and his years in California and at Los Alamos, and a significant portion of the book deals with Oppenheimer's difficulties during the Joseph McCarthy era when his loyalty was called into question and he lost his security clearance. Bill Ott, writing in Booklist, found the work to be a "fine introduction to an ever-fascinating man." A Publishers Weekly contributor was less enthusiastic, however, noting: "Though an interesting window into the physics community through the 20th century, the result is a relatively shallow biography that holds its subject at arm's length." Reviewing the same book in World and I, Jeffrey Marsh had a higher assessment, observing that it is "full of amusing and enlightening anecdotes and asides that illuminate both Oppenheimer's personality and the milieu in which he lived." Writing in the Spectator, Ray Monk acknowledged that Bernstein's book, while being far from a thorough biography, is still "essential reading" for those "with the slightest interest in exploring this enigma." And a critic for Contemporary Review concluded: "The book, in addition to portraying Oppenheimer's own fascinating life, gives readers a good insight into the labyrinthine world of science and politics in the period."
Bernstein attempts biography of a very different sort in his 2007 title, Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element. Bernstein's story is part biography and part scientific description of this elusive element, integral to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman felt that, "although convoluted, Bernstein's unique history of the diabolical element is invaluable." A Publishers Weekly reviewer had a similar assessment of the work, terming it a "challenging but rewarding account," while American Scientist critic Frank N. Hipple observed: "Bernstein's book should play a useful role by helping to demystify plutonium and by encouraging interested members of the public and Congress to start constructing a more rational policy to deal with the dangers posed by this man-made element."
Bernstein told the New York Times Book Review: "I was always honest enough with myself to know I would never be a great physicist—a good one, perhaps, but not a great one. My writing has given me the perspective to deal with this realization without rancor. It has enriched my life, and I have never regretted doing it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bernstein, Jeremy, The Life It Brings: One Physicist's Beginnings, Ticknor & Fields (Boston, MA), 1987.
Bernstein, Jeremy, In the Himalayas: Journeys through Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1989.
American Journal of Physics, April, 1997, Dieter Hoffmann, review of Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hill, p. 357.
American Scientist, September, 2001, David Goodstein, "Getting Personal," p. 464; September 1, 2004, "A Puzzle of a Man," p. 473; May 1, 2007, Frank N. Hipple, "The Stuff of Bombs," p. 266.
Booklist, October 15, 1995, review of An Introduction to Cosmology, p. 368; September 1, 1996, review of Hitler's Uranium Club, p. 71; April 1, 2000, Jay Freeman, review of Dawning of the Raj: The Life and Trials of Warren Hastings, p. 1427; March 15, 2004, Bill Ott, review of Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma, p. 1250; April 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element, p. 11.
Bookwatch, May, 2004, review of Oppenheimer, p. 7.
Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1987, review of The Life It Brings.
Choice, July, 1993, review of Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos: Writings on Science, p. 1789; March, 1997, review of A Theory for Everything, p. 1198; October, 2000, R.D. Long, review of Dawning of the Raj, p. 397; July 1, 2001, J.Z. Kiss, review of The Merely Personal: Observations on Science and Scientists, p. 1978; September, 2004, N. Sadanand, review of Oppenheimer, p. 124; April, 2006, B.R. Parker, review of Secrets of the Old One: Einstein, 1905, p. 1422.
Contemporary Review, February, 2005, review of Oppenheimer, p. 121.
Endeavour, March, 1997, Stephen Mason, review of A Theory for Everything, p. 43.
Issues in Science and Technology, fall, 2004, "Where's Oppie?"
Journal of Military History, January, 2005, Frank A. Settle, review of Oppenheimer, p. 278.
Kliatt, November, 2005, Daniel Levinson, review of Oppenheimer, p. 28.
Library Journal, January, 1993, review of Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos, p. 160; July, 1995, review of An Introduction to Cosmology, p. 98; October 1, 1996, review of Hitler's Uranium Club, p. 18; March 1, 2004, James Olson, review of Oppenheimer, p. 98; February 15, 2007, Rita Hoots, review of Plutonium, p. 146.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 18, 1982, David Graber, review of Science Observed: Essays out of My Mind.
Nation, November 17, 1984, D.D. Guttenplan, review of Three Degrees above Zero: Bell Labs in the Information Age.
Nature, December 5, 1996, Graham Farmelo, review of A Theory for Everything, p. 425; December 11, 1997, review of Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos, p. 574; April 16, 1998, review of Albert Einstein and the Frontiers of Physics, p. 672.
New Scientist, December 21, 1996, John Casti, review of A Theory for Everything, p. 66; April 7, 2001, review of The Merely Personal, p. 49; December 25, 2004, "Left and Right," p. 76.
Newsweek, October 20, 1980, Jean Strouse, review of Hans Bethe: Prophet of Energy, p. 90.
New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1965, review of Ascent: Of the Invention of Mountain Climbing and Its Practice, p. 68; September 23, 1973, review of Einstein; August 6, 1978, review of Experiencing Science: Profiles in Discovery, p. 13; March 4, 1979; Raymond A. Sokolov, review of Mountain Passages, p. 15, September 28, 1980, review of Hans Bethe, p. A4; February 28, 1982, review of Science Observed; October 14, 1984, Rosalind Williams, review of Three Degrees above Zero, p. 15; April 5, 1987, David G. Stork, review of The Life It Brings, p. 20; September 18, 1994, review of Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos, p. 32.
Physics Teacher, November, 1998, Peter K. Glantz, review of Hitler's Uranium Club, p. 502.
Physics Today, January, 2005, Steven Weinberg, review of Oppenheimer, p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, September 4, 1995, review of An Introduction to Cosmology, p. 40; April 17, 2000, review of Dawning of the Raj, p. 65; January 29, 2001, review of The Merely Personal, p. 73; January 26, 2004, review of Oppenheimer, p. 239; January 26, 2004, "Portrait of a Difficult Man," p. 142; September 26, 2005, review of Secrets of the Old One, p. 78; February 12, 2007, review of Plutonium, p. 78.
Queen's Quarterly, winter, 1999, review of Hitler's Uranium Club.
Reference & Research Book News, August, 2000, review of Dawning of the Raj, p. 39.
Science Books & Films, July 1, 2007, "540 Chemistry," p. 156.
SciTech Book News, June, 2001, review of The Merely Personal, p. 18; December, 2005, review of Secrets of the Old One.
Spectator, March 24, 2001, Philip Hensher, review of Dawning of the Raj, p. 43; December 4, 2004, Ray Monk, "A Puzzle without a Solution," p. 47.
Time, January 22, 1979, Peter Stoler, review of Mountain Passages, p. 6.
Times Higher Education Supplement, August 5, 2005, "How Achilles of Physicists Was Brought to Heel at Last," p. 23.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 2004, Ed Imhoff, review of Oppenheimer.
Washington Post Book World, May 6, 1973, review of Einstein, p. 13; February 14, 1982, Ben Bova, review of Three Degrees above Zero, p. 8; March 15, 1987, Jonathan Yardley, review of The Life It Brings, p. 3; June 6, 2004, "In Brief: Father of the Bomb," p. 15.
World and I, August, 2004, Jeffrey Marsh, "J. Robert Oppenheimer: Chasing the Elusive Man Who Designed Atomic Bombs."
Edge Foundation Inc. Web site,http://www.edge.org/ (November 6, 2007), "Jeremy Bernstein."