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Culture

The Quantum Leaps of an American Jewish Physicist

The American Jewish physicist and journalist Jeremy Bernstein, born in 1929 in Rochester, New York, has just produced a delightfully discursive, digressive semi-memoir, “Quantum Leaps,” just out from Harvard University Press.

Bernstein’s father, Rabbi Philip S. Bernstein, a fixture for almost a half century at Temple B’rith Kodesh outside Rochester, left an unpublished memoir among his papers, “I Never Regretted Being a Rabbi : A Sort of Autobiography,” and “Quantum Leaps” can also be called a “sort of autobiography,” insofar as it includes material on the author’s life, alongside musings about Jewish physicists like the Belgian Léon Rosenfeld and Matvei Petrovich Bronstein a Russian victim of Stalin’s antisemitic Great Purge of 1937-38.

Rosenfeld was a testy, judgmental Marxist, Bernstein explains, quoting a letter complaining about a “polemical writing” by French Jewish astrophysicist Évry Léon Schatzman which, according to Rosenfeld, is “full of incorrect physics and quotations from Stalin.” Rising above such polemics, Bernstein also discusses the recent portrayal of physics in literature, notably by the novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein born in 1950 to an Orthodox Jewish family, and author of a number of acclaimed books, notably “Properties of Light,” a devastating portrait of academic life in which, as Bernstein observes, “Tenured faculty, who have come to despise each other, have only the power to make each other’s lives as miserable as possible.”

By contrast, Bernstein’s own deft, enlightened, and informed writings have made science-minded readers as happy as possible for decades.

Watch below as Jeremy Bernstein discusses his former mentor J Robert Oppenheimer at a 2008 symposium at CUNY (Bernstein begins to speak just after the 50 minute point).

Listen to a tape of a 1966 interview by Jeremy Bernstein in his guise as journalist with the director Stanley Kubrick.

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