Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Humanity Behind Science--Emilio Segrè's Biography of Enrico Fermi

One role the Veblen House could play in a town so filled with vaunted institutions of higher learning is to make scientists better known as people. They tend to be presented in the media as remote figures stripped of personality, speaking about weighty subjects from their domain of rationality. It was a mix of curiosity and serendipity that led me to one of the finest examples of writing that reveals the humanity behind the austere academic facade of scientific inquiry. 

The writings were found in Enrico Fermi: Scientist, written by Emilio Segrè, who along with having won the Nobel Prize for physics was also a gifted writer and avid historian. His photos of people and events over the course of his scientific career, donated posthumously to the American Institute of Physics, were apparently so substantial that the AIP named its visual archives in his honor. The AIP calls its Emilio Segrè Visual Archives "the human face of science," with "more than 30,000 photos of scientists and their work."

While the Institute for Advanced Study was rapidly evolving in Princeton in the 1930s, Segrè during that time was one of the "Via Panisperna boys" in Rome--young Italian physicists led by Enrico Fermi during an exciting period of discovery in atomic physics.

Two recent events, related to Oswald Veblen and also my own history, led me to be interested in Enrico Fermi. One was the donation of a book from Oswald Veblen's original library by Jean Rosenbluth, daughter of Marshall and Arianna Rosenbluth, both of whom were distinguished physicists. Marshall Rosenbluth, known in his time as the "dean of plasma physics," would be particularly well known in Princeton, home of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Enrico Fermi was on Rosenbluth's dissertation committee at U. of Chicago, and there's a memorable story told in the NY Times obituary for Rosenbluth that involves Fermi:

(Marshall Rosenbluth) liked to tell friends how Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller -- two stars of 20th-century physics -- got into an argument in 1949 while listening to him defend his doctoral thesis.

''It went on and on,'' recalled Harold Agnew, then a graduate student at Chicago, who eventually directed the weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M. ''Finally, Fermi turned to Edward and said, 'O.K., you pass.' And then he turned to Marshall, who was just 22, and said 'O.K., you pass, too.'''

The other recent reference to Fermi came when I began researching the original owner of a house that became our family home soon after we moved to Ann Arbor, MI, in 1970. My parents bought it from the estate of Walter Colby. It took fifty years, and the opportunity to meet the goddaughter of Colby, to finally prompt me to do some research. Colby, it turns out, was an atomic physicist and contemporary of Oswald Veblen. 

The NY Times obituary for Colby states:

During more than 30 years at the university, Dr. Colby made the institution a major center of physics research by recruiting to the faculty from abroad such figures as Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg and Sam Goudsmit.

This sounded very impressive, and suggested that Colby, like Veblen, was involved in finding positions for displaced scholars from Europe in the 1930s. And yet, the NY Times obituary and the wikipedia page for Fermi make no mention of the University of Michigan. Instead, Fermi is described as having gone first to Columbia University, then to the University of Chicago. Was Colby's role in bringing Fermi to the U.S. apocryphal?

It was Segrè's book on Fermi that revealed the answer. In the years leading up to his move from Europe to New York and Columbia University in 1939, Fermi had spent three summers in Ann Arbor, drawn in part by "two old friends, Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit, the discoverers of the electron spin, who had moved from their native Holland to Ann Arbor at the instigation of Professor Walter Colby." From Segrè's book:

As Segrè describes, it was the positive experiences Fermi had in Ann Arbor that helped set the stage for his eventual emigration to America. That decision, and a similar decision by other great European physicists and mathematicians, helped insure that the United States would be the one to develop the atomic bomb, rather than the Nazis or Mussolini.

These passages begin to show how Emilio Segrè a prominent physicist in his own right, was also gifted with a talent for close observation and an ability to give us a dispassionate but engaging, three-dimensional account of other scientists' inner and outer world. Below are some passages from the book that provide insight into how Fermi thought, worked, and influenced those around him. Click on "read more" below to continue reading.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Humanity Behind Science -- Mathematician Ingrid Daubechies

One role the Veblen House could play in a town so filled with vaunted institutions of higher learning is to make scientists better known as people. They tend to be presented in the media as remote figures stripped of personality, speaking about weighty subjects from their domain of rationality. As civilization has increasingly veered towards self-destruction, first with the nuclear arms race and now with a headlong radicalizing of the climate, scientists are primarily seen in the role of sounding the alarm. Caring people in a careless world, they are cast in the predictable, sober role of expressing concern while the rest of humanity goes its merry, scary way. Having grown up among scientists, I was able to see them as people who brought incredible perseverance, creativity, joy and humor to their study of the nature of things. 

One piece of recent writing that captures that side of science was Siobhan Roberts' portrait of Belgian mathematician Ingrid Daubechies, who in 2004 became Princeton University's first female full professor of mathematics. In her career, first in Belgium, then in the U.S., she has developed mathematical tools that have helped make possible the visual feast of the digital age, and she has even shown how artificial intelligence could be used to conserve and restore iconic artworks.

Entitled "The Godmother of the Digital Image," the article gives a portrait of Daubechies as optimistic, generous, creative, and fun-loving. 

The optimism perhaps comes from being able to solve problems others cannot:

"She revels in finding meaningful and practical problems — and solutions — where other mathematicians assume there are none."

And there's generosity in the way she uses this capacity to help her students:  

“I called her the deus ex machina adviser,” says Cynthia Rudin, a Duke computer scientist who is one of her former Ph.D. students. “When you’re in the depths of despair, your project has crashed and burned and you have almost proven that what you’re trying to do is impossible, Ingrid comes along and pulls you out of the pit of doom, and you can keep going.”

A mathematician can more easily think, and act, outside the box. How many people do you know who would throw a big shindig on their 64th birthday rather than their 65th, because 64 is a more compelling number, being a power of 2? 

"Daubechies booked a venue, a caterer, a troupe of majorette dancers known for farce — and then at the party made a surprise appearance in the baton-twirling cancan line, disguised in makeup and a tutu."

Along with her periodic "cathartic weeding in her garden," one of Daubechies' mottos, “Math can help! As always!”, reminds me of a letter about Oswald Veblen from 1992 in Princeton's Town Topics newspaper:

He and his friends spent Sunday afternoons clearing the poison ivy from the bank of the canal. He advocated washing vigorously with yellow soap after this. "You bet! "as he was prone to say. - ELIZABETH G MENZIES 926 Kingston Road

The letter writer, Elizabeth G. Menzies, turns out to have been the first female official photographer for Princeton University, who made a name for herself with a photo of Albert Einstein that appeared in a 1939 issue of Scientific American. 

Roberts' article also delves into Daubechies' efforts to help other women overcome institutional bias and gain deserved prominence in the field of mathematics. Veblen took on this role in the 1930s, helping the great mathematician Emmy Noether get positions at Bryn Mawr College and the Institute for Advanced Study. 

While it's easy to see mathematics as intimidatingly complex, it is not uncommon among mathematicians of Daubechies' caliber to find in their work an underlying elegance and beauty. Describing how she found a practical application for wavelets without sacrificing the beauty of the original concept, she said,

“It is something that mathematicians often take for granted, that a mathematical framework can be really elegant and beautiful, but that in order to use it in a true application, you have to mutilate it: Well, they shrug, That’s life — applied mathematics is always a bit dirty. I didn’t agree with this point of view.”

Thanks to a gifted writer like Siobhan Roberts, people can begin to see how much humanity and passion a scientist can bring to her work.

Other posts about great women in math and science:

2017: A Memorable Year for Women Mathematicians

Vera Rubin: The Courage of Her Curiosity

Math Writ Large in Hidden Figures