One of my current projects is about using speech recognition to build educational software, and there is a long-running discussion in our group about whether learning should be fun (for more background, see this review
). I am one of the people in favor of making education entertaining, but others in the group believe equally strongly in the principle of no pain, no gain.
I'm pleased to see here that the late George Gamow is a firm upholder of the contrary principle. Forget French conversation: everything
, including quantum mechanics, can be presented in a way that is at the same time hilariously amusing and very instructive! He does a splendid job of walking you through the early decades of the quantum revolution, cleverly mixing anecdotes about his old friends (Bohr, Pauli, Dirac and others) with some quite sensible physics.
At the end, I had learned several interesting things I hadn't known before. For example, I'd read a couple of weeks ago in Pais's biography of Einstein that Bohr had been able to derive the Rydberg constant from first principles but not understood how it was done; Gamow's explanation was both easy to follow and reasonably mathematical. All the same, it's hard not to give preference to the anecdotes. I think my favorite was the following one about Dirac:
Dirac was notoriously shy with women, so his colleagues were surprised when they discovered that he had married the sister of Eugene Wigner, another famous physicist. In those pre-internet days, gossip got around more slowly. A visitor, who hadn't yet heard the news, turned up at Dirac's house one day and could hardly believe his eyes when he saw an attractive woman sitting comfortably on the living-room sofa, obviously behaving as though she was very much at home there.
"I'm sorry," stammered Dirac, "I should introduce you. This... this is Wigner's sister."