Science Book a Day Interviews Philip Ball


Special thanks to Philip Ball for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked previously at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology. Philip is the author of many popular books on science, including works on the nature of water, pattern formation in the natural world, colour in art, the science of social and political philosophy, the cognition of music, and physics in Nazi Germany. He has written widely on the interactions between art and science, and has delivered lectures to scientific and general audiences at venues ranging from the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) to the NASA Ames Research Center and the London School of Economics.- From Philip’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Serving the Reich?

It was coming across the story of the “Debye Affair”, which i first wrote about here: (My subsequent research led me to be far more sceptical about the claims made in that publication than I am in this piece.) I was intrigued about the light this incident shed on the wider question of how scientists in the “grey zone” between resistance and collaboration fared during the Third Reich, and I wanted to try to tell that story properly.

#2 – You focus on Planck, Heisenberg and Debye in your story. Are their experiences and stories common to many scientists in your book? Or are they different? Why focus on these three?

I focused initially just on Debye, but my agent and editors quite rightly suggested that it would be helpful to contrast his case with those of others. I think that the three individuals provide a fairly good general picture of what many other leading scientists faced, and how they responded. Planck was of the older generation, and found it very hard to reconcile his essentially conservative and patriotic but benign instincts with the depravities of the regime. Debye and Heisenberg were, in different waysand to different degrees, more pragmatic, and arguably more self-serving. But all three faced an enormously difficult challenge. The broader picture is the lack of any kind of institutional structure for coping with such political dilemmas in German science at that time.

#3 – How have their attitudes to these scientists changed in time science WW2?

I think that scientists have become more aware of, and responsive to, their political context. Nuclear physics was very instrumental to that, and indeed the nuclear phyicists were the first to try to look squarely at their social responsibilities. Climate change has also made scientists very aware of political pressures, especially un the US. But I think there is still a widespread attitude among scientists that politics is something dirty that science ought to “rise above” – that science operates in a neutral, apolitical regime. I think that is a potentially dangerous attitude.

#4 – Reviews highlight your book as being neutral and precise when representing the scientists in your book. Was this important to you?

Extremely. I wanted to strive to be sympathetic to the scientists, and not to reach easy judgements. But I also did not want to exonerate them for some of the shortcomings that I perceived. Some of the historians who I contacted tended to judge the scientists a little more harshly, while some of the other commentators wanted to absolve them of all responsibility. If (as seemed to be the case) I found myself sometimes being accused of being too judgemental and at other times too forgiving, I figure that I perhaps got the balance about right!

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

My new book has just come out, so I can offer lots of links! – Invisible:The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

I am currently working on a book that examines the roles of water in Chinese culture, history, thought and politics.

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