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Lateral Thoughts: Voices from history

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War. (Courtesy: US Army)

By Margaret Harris

This is the third in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. Click to read the first and second posts.

As part of Physics World’s 25th anniversary celebrations, I’ve been reading through the archive of “Lateral Thoughts”, the magazine’s column of humorous or otherwise off-beat essays about physics. My goal is to get a better feel for the topics that have amused and preoccupied Physics World readers over the past quarter-century, and to understand how the community has changed.

While most Lateral Thoughts have focused on the world of physics, the archive shows that every now and then, the wider world intrudes. The results can be fascinating, sobering and sometimes even disturbing. Consider the essay “Soft zlotys for western hardware”, in which the metallurgist Jack Harris describes taking a research trip behind the Iron Curtain to Poland. “In science, as in other areas, I was struck by how little real contact there was with Russia,” Harris wrote. His Lateral Thought was published in July 1989. Two months later, Poland defied its puppet-masters in Moscow by electing its first non-communist government since the Second World War.

In September 1991 another Lateral Thinker, Eric Deeson, also found himself on the front line of history. While visiting Kuwait to help rebuild the country’s scientific infrastructure after the Gulf War, Deeson encountered a nightmarish landscape. “Losing height on the approach to the airport, we flew over the flames and immense clouds of smoke from the burning oil-wells,” Deeson wrote. “Even more than a hundred metres from the well, the roar of the flame was so strong that we had to shout into each other’s ears. The world was truly as dark as night…no classroom television screen will be able to reproduce my visit to Hell.”

A few years later, Eric Voice wrote about a less visible threat in “Postcard from Pripyat”, in which he described travelling to the exclusion zone around the destroyed Chernobyl reactor. There, Voice found a “perfect woodland paradise” filled with wild animals and thriving trees – but also hazardous levels of radiation and a research effort plagued by lack of funds and political turmoil. “The story of the Chernobyl aftermath is a tale of trial and error, of inadequate experience and deficient basic knowledge,” Voice wrote in April 1995. “It will be a tragedy for the world if we cannot learn from a full scientific assessment of that accident, so that we are better able to deal with any future large-scale impact of radioactivity.” A lifelong advocate of nuclear power, it is perhaps fortunate that Voice, who died in 2004, did not live to see some of those errors repeated after the Fukushima meltdown.

But of all the Lateral Thoughts in the archive, the weight of history seems heaviest in Seweryn Chomet’s “A brief life in science” published in July 1996. The essay begins with Chomet blandly observing that “Landau is a common name in physics,” and then explaining that the Landau he remembers best was “born in the late 1920s…and in 1936 attended primary school in Drohobycz, a small town of twenty or thirty thousand inhabitants in what was then south-east Poland”.

A few weeks after this Landau started school, Chomet continues, “Miss Tutelbaum, the local school-teacher, [noted] in the margin of the school register that she had in her class a boy with a striking talent for drawing and arithmetic. He was both clever and well-behaved – an unusual combination in her experience…It became increasingly clear to Miss Tutelbaum that Landau was destined for a scintillating future. His performance at school and his general demeanour were so different from the rest of the class that it sometimes frightened her.”

Soon, Chomet writes, “the entire community sensed that it had a genuine prodigy in its midst”. When, a few years later, a nearby university denied Landau entry because of rampant antisemitism, “a group of local Jewish businessmen clubbed together and collected enough money to send the obviously highly talented young man to university abroad” in Zurich, Switzerland. From there, Landau went from strength to strength.  After graduating summa cum laude, “In 1955 he discovered the principle whereby the rate of some chemical reactions can be controlled by magnetic fields by virtue of the spin of the reacting particles…The discovery was well ahead of its time and…it won him the Nobel prize for electrochemistry.” Landau’s later years were spent at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, and following his death from cancer in 1988, Chomet writes, “he will be widely remembered for his brilliant research work, which was distinguished by an almost unique range and remarkable originality”.

At this point, Chomet sticks the knife in. “And now I must confess that only the beginning of this article is true. Ryszard Landau, born in Drohobycz in the late 1920s, did not go to Zurich because, like many other Jewish children, he was murdered by the SS…Only two members of his class survived the German occupation, and neither reached great academic distinction. His brilliant school record and my memories of him now suggest that Ryszard might well have achieved worldwide eminence in science. This is the only published record of his life.”

If you are a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you can read Chomet’s essay (and the others quoted) in full via the Physics World archive. While you’re there, you might want to browse through some of the cheerier Lateral Thoughts as well – they’ll be the subject of the next post in this series.

Members of the Institute can read newly published Lateral Thoughts each month via the digital version of the magazine or by downloading the Physics World app from the App Store or Google Play. If you’re not a member, you can join the Institute as an IOPimember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year. And if you’re feeling inspired, why not try writing your own Lateral Thought? All submissions must be 900–950 words long and may be e-mailed to pwld@iop.org.

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