Monday, July 13, 2009

Some things never change: Pais and Uhlenbeck

The late physicist Abraham Pais is perhaps best known for his Subtle is the Lord, the greatest of all Einstein biographies. I hadn't realized that Pais had written his own memoir (A Tale of Two Continents: A Physicist’s Life in a Turbulent World) until I came across it accidentally today in the library. If you've read any of Pais' historical writing you can probably guess that his autobiography is full of wonderful stories.

There is a condensed version of Pais' life story in his Wikipedia entry. He grew up in Holland, completing his graduate studies under Uhlenbeck in 1941 (see below). He survived the war in hiding in Amsterdam (not far from Anne Frank) and eventually immigrated to the US, becoming a member of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Here is Pais' recollection of how he became of student of Uhlenbeck's (p.31). Amazingly, I had the same experience, and so have all of my students ;-)

I ... told Uhlenbeck of my hopes to become a graduate student in theoretical physics under his guidance.

Uhlenbeck's response was unexpected. "If you like physics," he asked, "why don't you become an experimentalist? Or if you like mathematical aspects of theoretical physics, why not become a mathematician?" In explanation he noted that the practical future of a theoretical physicist in the Netherlands was extremely limited. At that time there were only five professoriates in the whole country. ... [more dissuasion] ... Furthermore, he added, theoretical physics is very difficult, it would be a life of toil with many frustrations and disappointments.

I was quite taken aback and mumbled, "But I like theoretical physics so much." Uhlenbeck's reaction was again unexpected. "If that is really true," he said, "then by all means become a theorist; it is the most wonderful subject you can imagine." As he later told me, his preliminary attempts at dissuasion were exactly like those he himself had been exposed to when he wanted to start his own graduate studies, adding that he used the same routine whenever anyone applied to study with him.

...Years later I told Uhlenbeck how that first afternoon with him had affected me. He told me with a smile that he had gone through the very same treatment, had the very same reactions, when he had visited his revered teacher, Paul Ehrenfest, for the first time. Ehrenfest in turn had received the same treatment from the great Ludwig Boltzmann in Vienna. This tradition is part of teaching in the grand old style, concentrating on but very few students. In my time I was the only student Uhlenbeck had taken on. Because of that privilege I may count myself as a spiritual great-grandson of Boltzmann. Meanwhile the old style has gone forever, I think, because of the large number of students now clamoring for higher education.

Pais wrote some important papers with Gell-Mann, including ones on Kaon oscillations and Strangeness. The result on Kaon oscillations, despite being a simple exercise in elementary two-state quantum mechanics, was not accepted by other theorists (the reactions of Racah and Dyson are recounted) until verified experimentally! (p.338: In 1956 a Columbia experimental group reported that the "rather startling properties of [neutral K's] ... predicted by Gell-Mann and Pais ... have been confirmed" :-)

Later Pais and Gell-Mann had a falling out, and Gell-Mann's hostility caused Pais some distress. In the memoir he describes reading the following inscription in St. Paul's church in Baltimore, which he liked very much (p.339).


Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender, be at peace with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater or lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.


-- Max Ehrmann


Unknown said...

Desiderata continues:

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Ian Smith said...

Steve, you've formed the possessive of "Pais" as "Pais'". From your obsession with IQ and your being a theoretical physicist I suspected you weren't very smart. Now it is confirmed absolutely. There is no question any more.

Steve Hsu said...

I don't actually get very worked up over arbitrary grammar rules like that. Further below is what Wikipedia says.

The one that drives my logic engine crazy is the placement of quotation marks relative to a period or comma. I know I'm supposed to do it the American way, but that seems illogical, so I actually sometimes oscillate back and forth!

Singular nouns ending with an "s" or "z" sound
This subsection deals with singular nouns pronounced with a sibilant sound at the end: /s/ or /z/. The spelling of these ends with -s, -se, -z, -ze, -ce, -x, or -xe.

Many respected sources have required that practically all singular nouns, including those ending with a sibilant sound, have possessive forms with an extra s after the apostrophe. Examples include the Modern Language Association and The Economist.[11] Such sources would demand possessive singulars like these: Senator Jones's umbrella; Mephistopheles's cat. On the other hand, some modern writers omit the extra s in all cases, and Chicago Manual of Style allows this as an "alternative practice".[12] Generally, Chicago Manual of Style is in line with the majority of current guides, and recommends the traditional practice but provides for several exceptions to accommodate spoken usage, including the omission of the extra s after a polysyllabic word ending in a sibilant.[13] Rules that modify or extend the standard principle have included the following:

If the singular possessive is difficult or awkward to pronounce with an added sibilant, do not add an extra s; these exceptions are supported by The Guardian,[14] Emory University's writing center,[15] and The American Heritage Book of English Usage.[16] Such sources permit possessive singulars like these: Socrates' later suggestion; James's house, or James' house, depending on which pronunciation is intended.
Classical, biblical, and similar names ending in a sibilant, especially if they are polysyllabic, do not take an added s in the possessive; among sources giving exceptions of this kind are The Times[17] and The Elements of Style, which make general stipulations, and Vanderbilt University,[18] which mentions only Moses and Jesus. As a particular case, Jesus' is very commonly written instead of Jesus's – even by people who would otherwise add 's in, for example, James's or Chris's. Jesus' is referred to as "an accepted liturgical archaism" in Hart's Rules.

Similar examples of notable names ending in an s that are often given a possessive apostrophe with no additional s include Dickens and Williams. There is often a policy of leaving off the additional s on any such name, but this can prove problematic when specific names are contradictory (for example, St James' Park in Newcastle [the football ground] and the area of St. James's Park in London). For more details on practice with geographic names, see the relevant section below.

Some writers like to reflect standard spoken practice in cases like these with sake: for convenience' sake, for goodness' sake, for appearance' sake, for compromise' sake, etc. This punctuation is preferred in major style guides. Others prefer to add 's: for convenience's sake.[19] Still others prefer to omit the apostrophe when there is an s sound before sake: for morality's sake, but for convenience sake.[20]

Ian Smith said...

Steve. It's not about punctuation, it's about phonology.

To form the plural of any singular ending in the "s" or "z" sound a schwa + "z" is added. This includes such names as "Xerxes". There was more than one Xerxes; there were Xerxeses. The same rule is used for possessives. Try saying " Pais' ". It sounds wrong because it is wrong. There is no exception for "ancient names", because such an exception has no linguistic justification.

Go back in time 50 years and you'll see that like "between you and I" the " s' " for singular nouns ending in "s" has become more common.

Regarding the Americans puting periods and commas inside the quote, it's wrong and gross, like everything else American. Unless the punctuation is part of the quote it doesn't belong in the quote. Duh.

zzzhou said...


I'm not a native English speaker. And you sound like quite an authoritative figure on the English language. Can you help me on a few points, please.

You wrote "There was more than one ...". Is the use of "was" here correct practice? Same question for "puting". Also, consider the following two sentences:

To form the plural of any singular ending in the "s" or "z" sound[,] a schwa + "z" is added.

Unless the punctuation is part of the quote[,] it doesn't belong in the quote.

The commas in brackets are not in your original text. Since this practice occurs with relative high frequency in your writing, I'm wondering whether such commas are strictly optional. Please set me straight. Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

I should invite anon to come clean my house. The cleaning, I'm sure, would be meticulous.

Ian Smith said...

I write "puting", so that it won't be confused with a golf stroke.

"There were more than one Xerxes." is UNgrammatical. "There was more than one Xerxes." is grammatical.

Your comment on commas and quotes shows you didn't understand what I said.

And spelling and punctuation is not grammar. As long as it's consistent and logical it's fine with me.

zzhou. I should know. Unlike you my grandfather is a graduate of Stoneyhurst and Princeton, my father of Harvard, both in English.

I presume your own father's first language was not English. Am I right?

brian said...

I really appreciated this post, Steve. Thanks.

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