Matvei Petrovich Bronstein and Soviet Theoretical Physics in the Thirties.
by Gennady Gorelik and Victor Frenkel. Transl. V. Levina. (Science Networks: Historical Studies, 12.) Basel/Boston: Birkhauser Verlag, 1994.
Who knows M. P. Bronstein? He was one of the brightest theoretical physicists of the young soviet generation, along with Gamow and Landau, of whom he was a close friend. In his short life (1906-1938), he managed to produce remarkable work in quantum electrodynamics, semiconductors, cosmology, astrophysics, nuclear physics, and especially quantum theory of gravitation; he was a great teacher, with profound knowledge and enthusiasm; he was a talented writer who produced several famous popular science books for children. This life was cut while reaching the most fruitful age: arrested in August 1937, he was sentenced to death on February 18, 1938, and immediately executed.
This book, written by competent specialists (an historian of science and a physicist) reveals for the first rime the personality and the achievements of this "exceptionally brilliant and promising" theoretician (I. Tamm). Having published his first scientific paper (on the photon structure of X-rays) in 1925, Bronstein entered Leningrad University the next year, graduated in 1929 while already a internationally known physicist, and joined the most famous Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute in 1930, where he worked with Ioffe, Frenkel, Kurchatov, Fock, Tamm, Landau.
The book offers overviews of the status of quantum mechanics, nuclear physics and cosmology in the early thirties, through the numerous debates to which Bronstein took a most significant part. Of particular interest is the chapter on the hypothesis on energy non-conservation, put forward by Bohr in several occasions, the last of which being the discussion of the continuous electron spectrum in beta-decay. Through this discussion, in an intricated context, the reader is given the opportunity to appreciate better the complexity of the arguments - one of which, put forward by Landau, used general relativity to justify energy conservation. (In fact, Bronstein and Landau were rather in favour of the non-conservation hypothesis).
The main chapter of the book is dedicated to the major contribution of Bronstein to the problem of the quantization of the gravitational field. This problem was out of the main road of physics in the time (1935), but Bronstein stressed some of its fundamental features. He disagreed with those, like Pauli and Heisenberg. who believed that the gravitational field could eventually be easily quantized along the lines of QED. Bronstein realized the intrinsic difference: in QED, an infinite charge density in the test body is, in principle, conceivable, whereas in the case of gravitation, "the test body's gravitational radius should not exceed its real linear dimensions". Bronstein thus derived, long before Wheeler (1955), the intrinsic limitations of the quantization of the gravitational field, related to the Planck's scales.
In the context of the thirties
in Soviet Union, scientific and epistemological debates (energy non-conservation,
I recommend the lecture of this book. first of all because the warm personality, the great scientific merits and the human qualities of M. P. Bronstein should come to the light, after more than 50 years of silence. Also the book gives a solid - and sometimes unexpected - introduction to the physics of the time. The presentation of Bronstein's contribution to the quantization of gravitation is particularly interesting, and might inspire specialists.
However. I have one regret: in view of the lack of existing literature in the field(*), I would have liked a more systematic introduction to the situation of soviet (theoretical) physics in the thirties.
(*) To my knowledge, the following are the two main
references, but they remain rather general: L. R. Graham, Science, Philosophy
and Human Behaviour in the
Authors Gennady Gorelik and
Viktor Frenkel started collaborating on Bronstein's
biography back in the eighties (see Einsteinovskii
Sbornik 1980-81. Moskva. Nauka. 1985. pp 291-327).
Now Gorelik works in the
Einsieinovskii Shornik (that is Einstein Studies) is a unique publication in physics literature and the favourite forum of Russian historians of physics. Published essays mainly focused on grand themes mostly connected with the giant figure of Einstein. and authors made special efforts in order to connect historical scholarship to contemporary issues in physics research. Bronstein's biography reviewed here also follows this particular line.
The book is a tribute to a genius who was killed in 1938 at the age of 32, during the Ezhov purges. Bronstein grew up in the cradle of Soviet Physics, the Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute, now named after its founder A Ioffe. His creativity burst out very soon in two different directions. In a few years' activity he managed to become a prolific and successful science writer. His popular science books have been considered really outstanding by colleagues and contemporaries, including Lev Landau. A few of them were published again in the eighties, some fifty years after Bronstein's death. Author Frenkel dealt in particular with Bronstein's vast knowledge and literary talent. Bronstein's personality allegedly impressed readers, publishers. editors and the like. well beyond the narrow limits of the physics world.
Bronstein's scientific contributions are deeply analysed by the other co-author, Gorelik, who is a specialist in the history of relativity theory. Bronstein's place in the history of physics is apparently secured by his doctoral dissertation of 1935 on the subject 'Quantization of gravitational waves'.
The young Russian physicist apparently liked to explore ‘the limit of applicability’ of several theories, especially the most 'fundamental' ones. Therefore he embarked on the most risky operation of them all. trying to find a connection between quantum theory and gravitation. His conclusion was that 'a radical theoretical Perestroika' was needed in both quantum theory and in classical general relativity. Such a Perestroika was needed in order to reach the goat of unified theory of all physical phenomena, that is the ultimate theory of everything. Needless to say. the subjects touched upon by Bronstein in the mid-thirties are quite akin to the ones raised in recent years by high-brow theorists. Ingredients of Bronstein's painstaking analysis include Planck's length or Planck's units, that also play such an important role in contemporary research and speculations about a future unified theory of fundamental forces. Hence the 'contemporary' flavour of the chapters devoted to Bronstein's contributions to general relativity and the critical assessment of its limits of applicability.
Another modem aspect of Bronstein's scientific personality was his attitude to cosmology. Interest the subject was quite understandable in a compatriot of A Friedman. One of the last papers by Bronstein deals with the possibility of 'spontaneous splitting of photons'. The idea was put forward back in the 1931 to explain the red shift of the light coming from distant galaxies. The 'reddening' of incoming light was already thought to be connected with the Doppler effect due to the expanding universe. Some authoritative physicist wanted to avoid such a conclusion and put forward an alternative explanation. The red shift was allegedly due to small infrared photons continuously flaking off the photons of visible light that reaches us from very distant celestial objects'. Bronstein stuck to the old beliefs and his refutation of such an alternative hypothesis on the origin of the red shift is offered as an example of mathematical elegance. Needless to say. 'transmutations' of particles, be they photons or neutrinos, during their cosmic trips, has a familiar ring to the modern reader. Nowadays we almost take for granted the recent marriage between particle physics and cosmology.
Besides physics issues related to Bronstein's research back in the 1930s, the book is worth reading for other reasons. We are just a few years past the fall of the 'empire of evil' and we are just starting to know a few of the mysteries that surrounded not on Soviet politics but also Soviet science and life in general. In our particular case. the reasons for Bronstein's arrest and subsequent condemnation to death by firing squad are still a mystery. An afterword to the English edition of the book, that was first published in Russian in 1990, contains some information from KGB-NKVD archives, including picture of Landau taken in an NKVD prison in 1938. However the real motivation for Bronstein's killing still unclear. On his untimely death, one may possibly add a further remark. Just before disappearing, Bronstein had started collaborating with Igor Kurchatov on nuclear matters. Now it seems that before fission Soviet nomenclature had been utterly unable to appreciate the social value of physics. It was only after the war that Soviet officials duly acknowledged the physicists' ability to turn a vast and backward country into a nuclear superpower.
In conclusion, the book is highly recommended despite its price, especially to those readers who are able to appreciate the 'kulturnii' side of physics, so speak. It is indeed a unique contribution of Russian scholarship and culture.
In the period from about 1925
The book is a translation of a Russian original of 1990, but extended with a section based on recent examinations of material in the KGB and NKVD archives relating to Bronstein's execution. It is a well-researched work with extensive bibliographical references. However, it is unfortunate that some books and articles, either originally published in English or existing in English translations, are cited only in Russian editions.
Bronstein was undoubtedly a brilliant physicist whose work should have a permanent place in the annals of modem physics and who might have made even more important contributions had he been allowed to live longer. However, if he was at all human he cannot have been half the genius presented by Gorelik and Frenkel. We are told time and again that Bronstein had a "profound understanding" and a "vast knowledge" of almost everything; that his statements were "prophetic" and always "to the point"; and that his "powerful intellect"—naturally including a "literary talent"—made him stand "heads above" his contemporaries (including such minor intellects as Bohr, Dirac, Einstein, and Lemaitre). Not only do Gorelik and Frenkel indulge in hero-worship; their book is also permeated with the ideological notion of the young theoretical physicist-genius as belonging to a different—higher and purer—world than that inhabited by his less gifted fellow citizens.
Historians of physics are well advised to read the book because of the information it contains about Soviet physics in general and Bronstein in particular. But I cannot help thinking that Bronstein's memory would have been better served with a less exuberant and hagiographic biography.
To the Editor:
Helge Kragh's review of the biography of the Russian physicist Matvei Bronstein (Isis, 1995, 86: 520) contains accusations too strong for me to keep silent Like the reviewer, I believe that exuberant hagiography is not the best sort of history of science; but I also believe that unfounded accusation is an improper way to criticize.
Kragh writes: "if [Bronstein] was at all human he cannot have been half the genius presented by Gorelik and Frenkel. We are told time and again that Bronstein had a 'profound understanding' ... and that his 'powerful intellect'—naturally including a 'literary talent'—made him stand 'heads above' his contemporaries (including such minor intellects as Bohr, Dirac, Einstein, and Lemaitre)."
Since the reviewer has used quotation marks and I have the text of the book in my computer, I can easily check to be sure that I have used each of the incriminated wordings just once and in a very specific context For example, "heads above" is used specifically about Bronstein's good command of three European languages and his interest in other tongues (besides his native Russian and Ukrainian). I also wrote: "His wide knowledge and powerful intellect made him a welcome participant in discussions. Yet sometimes they probably shackled his intuition. It seems that he himself was of the same opinion."
Yes, Matvei Bronstein perished too young to "sin" a lot. However, I did not avoid discussing embarrassing statements in his 1935 article "Is Energy Conserved?" There he remarked that the law of conservation of energy was very much "like tidy accounts with all pennies counted—a sight that gladdens the bourgeois heart" and suggested that the quantum-relativistic perpetuum mobile could be useful for the technology of future communism. I have used this troubling wording as a starting point to probe the dramatic history of attempts to topple the law of conservation of energy—attempts initiated by the great Bohr and shared by his younger colleagues Landau, Gamow, Peierls, and Dirac; it is also used to probe the psychological makeup of Bronstein.
Is this like hagiography? What prompted Kragh's sarcasm in inventing the general comparison with "such minor intellects as Bohr, Dirac, Einstein, and Lemaitre"?
Other reviewers of this book have employed phrases such as "a genius who was killed in 1938, at the age of 31" (Lanfranco Belloni, European Journal of Physics, 1995, 76: 147), and "one of the brightest theoretical physicists of the young Soviet generation, along with Gamow and Landau" (Pierre Marage, Physicalia, 1994, Info 121, #940608), to describe Bronstein. I never used such wording. Rather, I tried to present specific evidence to elucidate the personality of Matvei Bronstein against the background of his time and place.
I believe that readers would appreciate Kragh's effort much more if he had shown, in a specific way, that Bronstein's understanding of quantum gravity and cosmology was not profound or that my analysis was wrong. I can think of only one possible reason for the reviewer's irritation: it is too difficult to imagine that such a bright personality as Matvei Bronstein could be so entirely unknown. Unfortunately, he could. Stalin's regime destroyed too many bright personalities and was pretty successful in destroying the memory of them as well.
As I mentioned in my review, I find the book about Bronstein to be interesting, informative, and hagiographic. Gennady Gorelik objects that there are no specific passages in which Bronstein is described by hagiographic superlatives, but this is to miss an important point. What counts is the overall way in which the person is portrayed. A biography, or any other historical work, is more than me sum of its sentences. It is quite possible to describe a person's life and career in a hagiographic way without doing so specifically in one or more sentences. I think this is what Gorelik and Frenkel have done. If my review appeared to be colored by a certain irritation, it is because I was irritated. If the review also appeared insulting, I regret the way I phrased it and offer my apologies.