Abraham Pais

To make a discovery is not necessarily the same as to understand a discovery.
Progress leads to confusion leads to progress and on and on without respite…

Abraham Pais (May 19, 1918July 28, 2000) was a Dutch-born American physicist and science historian. He served as an assistant to Niels Bohr in Denmark and was later a colleague of Albert Einstein at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Pais wrote books documenting the lives of these two great physicists and the contributions they and others made to modern physics.

QuotesEdit

I would think that what will strike people most when, hundreds of years from now, they will look back on our days is that this was the age when the exploration of space began, the microchip was invented, revolutions in transport and communication virtually annihilated time and distance, transforming the world into a "global village"…
  • The first thing Bohr said to me was that it would only then be profitable to work with him if I understood that he was a dilettante. The only way I knew to react to this unexpected statement was with a polite smile of disbelief. But evidently Bohr was serious. He explained how he had to approach every new question from a starting point of total ignorance. It is perhaps better to say that Bohr's strength lay in his formidable intuition and insight rather than erudition.
    • Testimony in Niels Bohr : His Life and Work as Seen by His Friends and Colleagues (1967) edited by Stefan Rozental, p. 218; later in his own work, Niels Bohr's Times : In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (1991)
  • Of course, relative citation frequencies are no measure of relative importance. Who has not aspired to write a paper so fundamental that very soon it is known to everyone and cited by no one?
    • "Subtle is the Lord…" : The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (1982), p. 90
  • A number of current theoretical explorations will turn out to be passing fancies...
    • Inward Bound : Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World (1988), p. 45
  • To make a discovery is not necessarily the same as to understand a discovery. Not only Planck but also other physicists were intially at a loss as to what the proper context of the new postulate really was.
    • Referring to the difficulties physicists experienced understanding the discovery that energy exchange is quantized, in Inward Bound : Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World (1988), p. 134
  • Today we live in the midst of upheaval and crisis. We do not know where we are going, nor even where we ought to be going. Awareness is spreading that our future cannot be a straight extension of the past or the present … The century now approaching its end has been one of indiscriminate violence, it has been perhaps the most murderous one in Western history of which we have record. Yet I would think that what will strike people most when, hundreds of years from now, they will look back on our days is that this was the age when the exploration of space began, the microchip was invented, revolutions in transport and communication virtually annihilated time and distance, transforming the world into a "global village," and relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the structure of the atom were discovered, in brief that this has been the century of science and technology.

A Tale of Two Continents (1997)Edit

I wish to tell you of happenings in the twentieth century, as I witnessed them and reflected upon them. You will see me return to center stage, but only occasionally.
A Tale of Two Continents : A Physicist's Life in a Turbulent World (1997)
  • I made a discovery, perhaps known to others but new to me: I need not put myself center stage but can rather place myself at the side, like a Greek chorus. As the curtain rises, I can walk to the center and can speak as follows: I wish to tell you of happenings in the twentieth century, as I witnessed them and reflected upon them. You will see me return to center stage, but only occasionally. Once that imagery had gotten hold of me, I went back to Ida and said yes, I shall try.
    • On considering his wife's suggestion that he write his autobiography, Prologue, p. xiii
  • Deliberately or not, every author is of course present in every book he or she writes — even in a scientific text.
    • Prologue, p. xv

To Save A Life : Stories of Holocaust Rescue (2000)Edit

One of the absolute rules I learned in the war was, don't know anything you don't need to know, because if you ever get caught they will get it out of you.
Testimony in To Save A Life : Stories of Holocaust Rescue (2000), edited by Ellen Land-Weber, Part I, Holland, Ch. 1 : Like Violets in the Woods
I was lucky because the same week that I went to prison the Americans crossed the Rhine and cut off the northern part of Holland, so there was no longer any possibility of being shipped out to a concentration camp.
The rail lines were cut. So I was in prison in Amsterdam during the very last days of the war.
  • I lived altogether in nine different places while in hiding, because whenever something happened, either someone betrayed the place or something happened to someone who knew where I was, I had to move. The rule of the game was never assume that anybody, however honorable, would be able to stand up under torture. If Mr. X, who knew where I was, was caught for some reason, I should move.
    • On life in hiding from Nazi authorities during World War II, p. 48
  • One of the things I learned, one of the strangest things, is how to think. There was nothing else to do. I couldn't see people, or go for a walk in the forest. All I had was my head and my books, and I thought a lot. I learned, because there was no interruption. I had access to myself, to my thinking. I wouldn't say that I particularly matured. The thinking was physics thinking. I was just short of twenty-two then.
    I was in hiding for two years and two months, something like that. In all that time I went out very, very little, just once in a great while, after dark. Once I even took the train to Utrecht, forty miles from Amsterdam, with my yellow star, this star which I still have. Why did I go? I just wanted to visit some friends. I was a little bit crazy, a little bit insane.
    • On life in hiding from Nazi authorities, p. 48
  • One of the absolute rules I learned in the war was, don't know anything you don't need to know, because if you ever get caught they will get it out of you.
    • p. 50
  • I knew all the time I was going to get through the war. It was completely irrational, a silly idea, but I was not going to lie down and get myself killed. I was going to get out of it.
    • p. 50
  • I was lucky because the same week that I went to prison the Americans crossed the Rhine and cut off the northern part of Holland, so there was no longer any possibility of being shipped out to a concentration camp. The rail lines were cut. So I was in prison in Amsterdam during the very last days of the war. We were sent to the men's prison and the girls were sent to a women's prison in a different place.
    • p. 51
  • On the day we were caught, Lion and I had been talking about writing a memorandum on the fate of the Jewish war children living in hiding or among Dutch families … we were the representatives of the Zionist youth organization. … Lion who had been taking notes of the discussion, put these papers in his jacket pocket when he took a break from lunch. When the Germans caught us they discovered his notes. If those papers had been in my pocket I would have never lived to be seventy. I have led a strange life, a set of complete coincidences.
    • On the fate of his friend Lion Nordheim, who was executed ten days before the end of the war, and his own release at around the same time, p. 52
  • For several months I was incapable of feeling anything, completely inaccessible to my feelings — I did not laugh, I did not cry. The second thing was this amazing trauma, where I forgot the names of everyone I knew. That was very strange. I knew who everyone was: this was a friend from high school, this was my cousin, but I had to relearn every name. It was quite striking, that very strong reaction that I had. They have a name for it, I think: posttraumatic stress syndrome.
    I don't sit here conquering great resistance to talk. It is not my way. I don't suffer the reliving of these memories with tremendous pain. It's very odd, but it's finished for me. That, of course, is never quite true. It isn't finished. I am like all of my generation; we are marked people. But I don't suffer; I can talk to you about it. Most of my family was killed. All of my father's and mother's sisters and brothers and their children, my sister and my old grandfather, they're all gone. Four out of five Jews in Holland never came back after the war — 80 percent.
    • On events after the end of World War II, Part I, Holland, p. 53

External linksEdit

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Last modified on 16 May 2013, at 07:14