Books by Bill Wall
"They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round. They all laughed when Edison recorded sound." —George and Ira Gershwin
Dean Swift's bitter epigram aside, what if the great minds of history, Leonardo, Galileo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Einstein, had been no platformed (as has recently been attempted with Andrew Graham Dixon, at Cambridge University, Kathleen Stock at Sussex University and even my old school alumnus Nigel Farage, at Preston Rugby Club)? If the geniuses of former times had been silenced, might we still believe that the earth was flat and the sun revolved around us? Surely, the function of universities, if not of Rugby clubs, is to promote debate, not stifle it. As Voltaire said: "Dare to think for yourself." Of course, in the case of Galileo, for example, had he not recanted on his heliocentric vision, the Inquisition could have inflicted the fate of Giordano Bruno on him, with torture, imprisonment and possibly execution to follow.
Professor Michael Crawford of Imperial College has written to me, apropos of last week's column. "When Stephen Hawking was asked who was the greatest scientist of all time, he pondered for only a moment. His reply was that there were only two contenders Einstein and Newton. He chose Newton because, he said, Einstein built on previous work and theories, whereas Newton built his contribution from scratch — so the answer has to be Newton. Newton was confronted with the inability of the mathematics of the day to deal with the motion of the planets. So he invented calculus (age 25). Astonishingly, he actually derived the progenitor of Einstein's E=MC2. His equation, developed amongst his laws of physics, was Energy = one half Mass times Velocity squared."
There is no evidence of Newton playing chess, though we do know that Leibniz, Newton's contemporary and rival, approved of rational games, of which chess is a prime example, for their mind improving qualities. The bitter feud between Newton and Leibniz centred around the argument as to who first invented the calculus, as mentioned above. It would doubtless have amazed both of those European giants of the mind to learn that, with no apparent connection, on the other side of the world, the Japanese mathematician Kowa Seki also simultaneously invented a version of calculus. Perhaps there was some elusive quality in the prevailing global Zeitgeist.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955), as we know from last week's column, also played chess. He informed reporters that he played as a boy, always having a chess set and board at home on his coffee table. When he settled in Princeton, New Jersey, he played chess with neighbours and there is an alleged chess game of his against his fellow physicist Robert Oppenheimer, which still survives.
I have also recently been contacted by a former member of our Dulwich College British Schools championship winning team, Ronald Johannes who holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, gained at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. The Cavendish at that time had five Nobel laureates on-site (not to mention the alumni Crick and Watson, discoverers at the Cavendish of the double helix).
"In my view," Dr Johannes writes, "the name of Werner Heisenberg deserves to be placed alongside those of Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell as the titans of physics... indeed I would go further and argue that Heisenberg was the greatest physicist of the 20th century (excelling Einstein)." James Clerk Maxwell was the Scottish scientist and mathematician responsible for the classical theory of electromagnetism, being the first to point out that electricity, magnetism and light are different manifestations of the same phenomenon.
Heisenberg was responsible for the Uncertainty Principle, one of the most paradoxical and counterintuitive scientific formulations. Some, as we shall observe, saw fit to ridicule him, while the wise awarded him the Nobel Prize.
Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) was taught chess by his father. He spent his free time in the evenings playing chess, at which he invariably won. He often looked at chess games under his desk at school (not the only one, I might add, from personal experience) and was able to give Queen odds against his friends and still win. He would often play blindfold chess with his father while hiking and was able to reconstruct entire games from memory.
After he entered the university in Munich, his obsession with chess became so obvious that Professor Arnold Sommerfeld (1868-1951) finally had to forbid him from playing, claiming it was a waste of his time and talents. Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) also told Heisenberg to give up chess and save whatever intellectual effort he could muster for physics. Heisenberg continued to play chess, however. During World War II, Heisenberg was convinced Germany would lose the war. He once said, "Hitler has a chess endgame with one rook less than the opposition, so he will lose — it will take a year." According to his wife, Heisenberg saw politics as "a game of chess, in which the feelings and passions of people are subordinated to the charted course of political events, just as the chess pieces are subject to the rules of the game."
Heisenberg was a brilliant theoretical physicist, who, allegedly, played a major part in actually preventing the development of atomic weapons by Nazi Germany. He was born in Wurzburg in the German Empire, which had only been fully unified and recognised since the end of the Franco-Prussian War three decades earlier. His father was a Professor of Greek, and in addition to the young Heisenberg's superlative performances in mathematics and physics, he retained a lifelong love and passion for philosophy, especially that of Greek antiquity.
Heisenberg saw modern physics as an extension of that tradition of philosophical enquiry, but armed with much more sophisticated tools than were available to the ancient Greeks. In his book Physics and Philosophy, he stated that one of his aims was "To meditate in peace on the great questions Plato raised. Questions that have, perhaps, found an answer in the physics of elementary particles."
In 1933, Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize for his development of quantum mechanics. Four years later, he married a 21-year-old (Elizabeth Schumacher) who bore him seven children. From 1942 to 1945 Heisenberg was Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin and from 1946 to 1958 Director of the Max Planck Institute, continuing until 1970 after its relocation to Munich.
Einstein's equation E=MC2 had made the development of atomic weaponry a theoretical possibility. Heisenberg himself immediately realised that modern post-Einsteinian physics must inevitably be connected with atomic energy, whether directed to peaceful or aggressive purposes.
In Germany during the 1930s, relativity and quantum theory had come under vitriolic attack. Obvious further targets for Nazi wrath were those physicists, such as Heisenberg, who had devoted their lives to work on these theories. Heisenberg's situation was exacerbated in the eyes of Nazi officialdom when he won the Nobel Prize. Indeed, the Nazis wanted to do away with the study of what they dismissed as "Jewish Physics".
Yet Heisenberg, despite considerable opportunities, refused to escape by emigrating. This is a perfect example of an ideologically rigid regime displaying its anti-genius, self defeating stance by shutting down an opposing avenue of thought. Heisenberg was fortunate to avoid no platforming, a concentration camp and probable death. Indeed, in 1937, the SS newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps, went so far as to castigate Heisenberg as a "White Jew".
The first element in his survival was the serendipitous friendship of his mother with Heinrich Himmler's mother. The second was the gradual realisation of Nazi ideologues that Heisenberg's brilliance, in spite of its taint of Jewish science in their eyes, might be crucial in the race to develop atomic weapons.
The advent of the Second World War alerted Hitler's otherwise recalcitrant scientific corps of Nazi true believers, to the fact that the enormous energy locked within the atom could be released for destructive purposes. Overnight, official Nazi policy performed a U-turn. Heisenberg was welcomed with open arms and "invited"to develop a Nazi atomic bomb. Indeed, Heisenberg was the man most feared by the US atomic bomb experts, who were racing to complete their own programme for the construction of such a weapon. Had Heisenberg fully co-operated with the Nazis, there might still have been time for their programme to catch up. Instead, over several years, Heisenberg, according to his own ex post facto accounts, stalled, delayed and diverted all of the Nazi atomic weapons initiatives.
Post Bellum, in 1952, Heisenberg helped to set up CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, which is still carrying out vital investigation into the structure of the universe. Heisenberg went on to set up foundations to help and encourage young people to study science. True to his principles, in 1957 he signed the Gottingen Declaration, which amounted to a refusal by 17 German scientists to cooperate in a contemplated West German manufacture of nuclear weapons.
Heisenberg always acknowledged the training and support given him by a group consisting of his fellow physicists Niels Bohr (1885-1962), Max Born (1882-1970) and Wolfgang Pauli (1900-58). His single most important individual contribution to quantum mechanics was the formulation of his famous Uncertainty Principle, or Principle of Indeterminacy. Announced in 1927, it amounted to a new direction in atomic theory.
To understand quantum physics, one needs to know that light, X-rays and other energy waves cannot be emitted at an arbitrary rate from a hot body, such as a star. They are, in fact, emitted in packets, or quanta. This was first established in 1900 by the German physicist Max Planck (1858-1947). Light had also recently been discovered to exist in both wave and particle form. Heisenberg formulated the principle that the position and momentum of a particle cannot both be ascertained at the same time. If the particle's position is determined, then its velocity remains unknown, and vice versa.
In a sense, Heisenberg's principle defined the ruling cast of mind of the early nuclear age — namely, massive global uncertainty and the ever-present fear of sudden and irrational destruction by atomic bombs. Science and art reflect each other at their deepest levels, so it is no accident that dominant emerging art forms at that time were the chance operations of the artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and the composer John Cage (1912-92), who both elevated indeterminacy in art to the level of a creative principle.
Professor Stephen Hawking writes: "The uncertainty principle had profound implications for the way in which we view the world. One certainly cannot predict future events exactly if one cannot even measure the present state of the universe precisely! Quantum mechanics therefore introduces an unavoidable element of randomness into science."
However, although the Uncertainty Principle places a fundamental limitation on knowledge, quantum mechanics has been very successful in predicting large scale phenomena dependent on atomic behaviour. It underpins nearly all of modern science and technology — including transistors, televisions and computers — and it also lies at the heart of modern biological and chemical theory
Paradoxically, it is worth noting that the so-called quantum leap, implying a giant leap forwards, is a misnomer. Quanta emissions are, in fact, infinitesimally minute. Perhaps the quantum leap should be redefined as the leap of the imagination associated with Heisenberg's development of quantum mechanics . This leap recognised that everyday concepts such as wave, particle and movement in an orbit, do not have meaning at the atomic level.
Here is a roll call, available on the internet, diligently compiled by Bill Wall, himself a chess player and B.Sci. in astrophysics, of some further famous physicists who played chess. Perhaps chess helped to train or even relax their analytical minds. As the English polymath and proto-world chess champion, Howard Staunton, wrote: "Chess is the appropriate recreation for men of genius."
Bill Wall's list includes:
Zhores Alferov (1930—), who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing semiconductor heterostructures. He is an avid chess player and a good friend of former world champion, Boris Spassky.
Paul Dirac (1902-1984) was a chess player, also taught by his father, who gave him a chess set for Christmas. In his biography, The Strangest Man — The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, by Graham Farmelo, it stated that Dirac worked all day long and took time off only for his Sunday walk and to play chess. He beat most students in his college chess club, sometimes even simultaneously, playing several opponents at the same time.
Dirac served for many years as president of the chess club of St. John's College, Cambridge. With his stepson, he would go over chess problems that they found in newspapers. He played chess with friends such as Peter Kapitza (1894-1984), a Russian physicist, who taught Dirac how to play tennis. When he lectured, he sometimes linked subatomic particles to chess. In 1929, Dirac discussed chess problems with Heisenberg on their tour to Japan. After his return to Leipzig, Heisenberg wrote to Dirac: "You are wrong...in the question of mating a King and a Knight with a King and Rook; this is not possible according to the edition of 1926 of Dufresne's handbook of chess (the best book about theory of chess)." This edition had been co-authored by the German-Jewish Grandmaster Jacques Mieses — another victim of an early version of no-platforming and cancel culture. Mieses's very name was later erased as writer and editor by Nazi functionaries.
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was also a chess player. In his lectures, he would explain the laws of physics with chess analogies. He was a member of his high school chess club.
Michio Kaku (1947-) states that he played first board on his high school chess team at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto. Peter Kapitza (1894-1984) won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in super fluidity. When he was living in Paris, he used to make a living by playing chess in cafés for wagers. He masqueraded as a beginner and, in the end, he would usually win.
Grandmaster Vladimir Malakhov (1980-), currently Elo rated 2732, is a nuclear physicist.
Sir Roger Penrose (1931-) is a Nobel-winning physicist and chess player. His brother is the honorary GM and former British Champion Jonathan Penrose (1933-).
Max Planck (1858-1947) won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of energy quanta. He played chess with, among others, the world champion Emanuel Lasker.
Abdus Salam (1926-1996) won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the electro-weak theory. He played chess in college and spent many hours at the game before being reprimanded by his father for "wasting valuable study time". Not the first, or last time, that such an injunction was imposed.
Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961) won the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum mechanics. He once wrote: "I do like chess, but it has turned out to be not the appropriate relaxation from the work I am doing." Perhaps Schrodinger, ignoring the advice of Staunton, preferred playing with his eponymous cat.
John Strutt (1842-1919), or Lord Rayleigh, won the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering argon. He was the president of the Essex County Chess Association.
Edward Teller (1908-2003) was an avid chess player. He learned chess from his father when he was six. He often hiked and played chess with friends without a board. Teller played chess with Heisenberg, but could not beat him. He was, however, able to beat him at table tennis. During lunch breaks or after work, he played chess with other physicists at Lawrence Livermore Labs. Teller, a virulent anti-communist and nuclear weapons expert, is widely regarded as the prototype for Dr. Merkwurdigliebe, better known as Dr. Strangelove.
Returning to Heisenberg himself, in the book Inner Exile in its translated English title and authored by Heisenberg's wife Elisabeth, comes a decisive paragraph. She refers to Heisenberg as "accustomed to playing complete games of chess in his head, without a board". The context adds interest as the games are analogous to thinking through "political constellations as thought-experiments." Earlier, she had explained that Heisenberg was an unpolitical person who did not think about politics as a politician but as a natural scientist.
Dr Johannes' favorite Heisenberg quote comes a little later. Elisabeth Heisenberg relates that he once said to her (referring no doubt to the period 1925-27): "I was lucky enough to be allowed once to look over the good Lord's shoulder while He was at work." It often strikes me, that far from religion and science being polar opposites, it is often the supreme scientists who are most anxious to comprehend the mind of God. Like that early Roman scientist and poetic proponent of atomism Lucretius, Heisenberg could say of his ambitions: omnium immensum peragravere, mente et animoque — to traverse the entirety of the universe in mind and spirit.
In an earlier column I already established my physicist credentials, so in the absence of games by Heisenberg or the other chess-loving physicists mentioned above, here is one of mine: a neatly geometrical victory, carried through with immaculate logic, by an acknowledged member of the international confraternity of physics geniuses. I conclude once again with my profound thanks to Prof Michael Crawford, Ronald Johannes PhD and Bill Wall B.Sci., whose combined knowledge of physics and physicists is, when compared with mine, as the Pacific Ocean to a micro-organism lost in its vastness.