By Russell McCormmach.
New York: Avon Books, 1982.
ISBN # 0-380-56283-9.
217 pages.

Comments of Bob Corbett
December 2004

Russell McCormmach presents a clever and unusual novel about an unusual group as subject of a novel – German physicists in 1918.

We follow the career of 69 year old Professor Victor Jacob. He is old in spirit, not in great health, a man not well-known or well-regarded even in his own university. He is disillusioned with the war and his times, especially the demise of classical physics. He prefers a world analogous to the dying classical Newtonian physical theories, a world of absolute order, lack of change, sureness and objectivity. Culturally he bemoans the loss of tradition, respect, discipline and even routine.

Victor is a physicist in a world of changing physical theories, uncomfortable in the flux of early 20th century physics, a world of relativity, unsureness, constant change and radical shifts from the classical physics rooted in the physical world to contemporary theories rooted in mathematics.

Victor is a decent man, but tired, unsuccessful in his own relationships and quite befuddled by the rapid changes of the past 20 years. But Victor is not merely a character created for the novel, but a type-figure. The other characters – physicists, university professors, even janitors and deans, are all historical figures. Only Victor is fictional. He is sort of an everyman physicist. In any period and in any discipline there are two distinguishable groups of academics: those who become fairly well known, almost always by their books, articles and discoveries, and those, the larger number by far, who are not known much outside their own universities, usually better known even there as teachers than scholars.

McCormmach is quite successful in presenting his fictional professor and in making his crisis and disappointment in life to be a felt reality. I well recognized Victor and have known and met many Victors in my own university days and in many fields of study. However, most of the Victors I’ve met (including myself) are not as disillusioned with themselves or even their times as Victor is.

I think it is the time and place that McCormmach chose to write of as opposed to the time I served in the academy. Victor Jacob lived through World War I, the fall of the Prussian empire, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian order and did so in the world of the German university, one of the most strict systems in treating and rewarding professors.

My experience came through an exceptional small university which rewarded teaching as much as or even more than research. My teaching days at the university, 1965-2001, were days of the great openness which hit the United States with the 1960s. The general field of philosophy in the U.S. in my time was not much different from Victor’s world of physics in Germany. The superstars were the cutting edge thinkers, and the discipline of philosophy was as much in flux as was physics in 1918. But culturally, I lived and taught in a much more open society where, among other things, teaching was valued as rewarded as well as scholarship. Moreover, Victor suffered through a great cultural revolution, the demise of a centuries old social order which he loved, was comfortable in and feared living without. We tended to stride confidently and boldly into some undefined new world order with optimism, welcoming the demise of the more limited and uniform 1940s and 50s. I was a typical young turk, excited by the New Left of the 1960s, hoping for the demise of more traditional cultural values, excited for an unsure but promising future.

Russell McCormmach is careful to root all of the episodes of Victor’s life in real events recorded in various biographies, and writings of the German physicists at that time. There are 46 pages of notes which documents the source of each episode of Victor’s life, a compilation of events which happened to dozens of different German physicists, all pulled together as Victor’s story.

While McCormmach does a believable job of weaving all these desperate events into the coherent life of his everyman character, the mere presence of all those notes worked against my ability to suspend disbelief and read Victor as a real person. Perhaps I erred to read the notes in conjunction with the pages of the novel. Thus I was forced to see that this particular episode actually happened to this real physicist and the next event to some other and so on. Perhaps, had I read the “novel” straight through and then read the notes as an after-read I wouldn’t have lost the sense of Victor as a unified and real fictional character.

Along the way there was much discussion of the latest developments in theory of physics and the role of physics in the German war effort.

I found the first part to be unsuccessful. While I know almost no physics, I was prepared to work with McCormmach and wrestle with learning some along the way. But he mainly stayed at the level of name dropping (both of physicists and theory names), and delved little into the details or differences among theories. I was disappointed to learn almost no physics in the volume.

More successful, I believe, was his presentation of the role of physics and physicists in WWI to the German war effort. McCormmach reveals Victor as a patriotic German, deeply pining for classical physics and a physics detached from the world and world events generally, yet he cannot help but see his colleagues putting aside pure research in favor of war-related physics.

McCormmach presents a useful and mainly successful novel. He gives us the reality of a real and typical professor, albeit one situated in a very specific historical milieu. Victor becomes a real person to some extent and we develop feeling for him, sympathy on my part, for his general disappointment with his one life and work.

Overall McCormmach presents an intriguingly original structure and gives us some glimpse into that difficult, yet exciting period of development in physics and cultural revolution in Germany.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett