Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist

Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist is a 1918 novel by historian of science Russell McCormmach, which explores the world of physics in the early 20th century—including the advent of modern physics and the role of physicists in World War I—through the recollections of the fictional Viktor Jakob.

Jakob is an old German physicist who spent most of his career during the period of classical physics, a paradigm being confronted by the rapid and radical developments of relativistic physics of Albert Einstein in 1900s and 1910s. This conflict allows for extensive examination of the various tensions placed on Jakob by the academic environment, the German academic system and the changing academic culture of the early 20th century.

The character of Jakob, a professor at a minor German university, is an amalgam of German physicists based on archival research by McCormmach. In the novel, he recalls interactions and events—documented in extensive footnotes to genuine publications and archival sources—involving many of the well-known physicists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. ‘Night Thoughts,’ pointedly criticized for its lack of literary merit by some reviewers, was generally praised for its attempt at forging a new approach to history and historical fiction by incorporating extensive research into the text. Victor Weisskopf points out that there are several ‘strange omissions’ from the historical context of the novel including Rutherford’s discovery of the planetary atom and radioactivity

A major theme of ‘Night Thoughts’ is the reinforcement of Thomas Kuhn’s conception of history of science as a convoluted mesh of non-linear progress effected by the biography of the scientists. Jakob does not progress linearly in constructing his scientific theories, instead he must handle ‘intellectual upheaval’ caused by factions in the study of physics, competition for recognition in the hierarchical German University system, tension caused by his students and his own feelings of incompetency. (Kuhn reviewed the manuscript before publication.)

The conflict between classical physics and relativistic physics is reflective of more than just the non-linear approach to science; it represents a larger conflict between the ‘klassiche Bildung,’ or a concept of education imbued from the greats of the past, and the newer forms of learning which were breaking away from this reliance on old knowledge. Jakob’s reflections are similar to the reflections found in commentary on other aspects of society, including art and literature, comparing them to classical and romantic approaches to physics.

A more traditional theme, indicated by the novel’s title, is the crumbling world of an old man as he nears death and meditates on his life. The world of Physics that Jakob has known for most of his career is being overthrown by new theories and discoveries of younger scientists, while at the same time his country is nearing defeat in World War I—even as Jakob struggles with his own relative meager place in the German academic system, as professor at a minor university who is increasingly out of place in the world of modern physics. Jakob’s desperation leads him to thoughts of suicide again and again. (a parallel to that of Ludwig Boltzmann).

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