Friday, January 08, 2010

Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped by Jim Ottaviani

I've read another illustrated science biography by Jim Ottaviani, and again I've enjoyed the graphical telling of a complicated story. This time the subject is physicist Niels Bohr who won a Nobel Prize in 1922 for describing the structure of the atom. Ottaviani points out in Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped that scientists later proved Bohr's picture of the atom was incomplete; his work was at least good enough to get other scientists, many of whom he fostered, to get it right later. In fact, his son Aage won a Nobel Prize for revising the anatomy and physics of his father's atom. Bohr's discoveries led to developing atomic energy and atomic weapons, neither of which initially seemed feasible to him.

Despite being like a comic book, Suspended in Language is not an easy read. There are many mathematical formulas and unfamiliar scientific terms, which may require the reader to pull out reference books. The reader can enjoy the story in ignorance of the science, but it is worthwhile making an effort to grasp the points about which Bohr and Einstein were in disagreement.

The most gripping part of the story involves Bohr's remaining in Denmark long into World War II before escaping to the West. German soldiers kept him under house arrest in his home for years, allowing other scientists to come visit. What he said to a German colleague who was working on bomb development is not known and still debated. He arrived in the West too late to be of help to either the British or American atomic bomb programs. He urged President Roosevelt to share all of the Manhattan project discoveries with other nations to prevent an arms race.

Ottaviana portrays Bohr as a congenial scientist, always ready to collaborate, who involved his wife in his correspondences, and who drew his son Aage into his experiments. He had a sense of humor, being a founder of the Journal of Jocular Physics, a short-lived publication that apparently brought much laughter to scientists working to solve the riddles of quantum physics. Suspended in Language is a good introduction to a major twentieth century scientist and the world he helped create.

Ottaviani, Jim. Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped. G. T. Labs, 2004. ISBN 0966010655

1 comment:

Citizen Reader said...

LOVED this book, even though I didn't understand much of it. I think Jim Ottaviani should be required reading in all high schools.