Thursday, July 24, 2008

Einstein's Last Assistant

Dr. Bruria Kaufman, Einstein's last research assistant at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, turns 90 years old this year. She has had an extraordinary career, including collaborations with an amazing number of well-known scientists from various fields.

As a young researcher, she worked with Lars Onsager, a famous statistical physicist and Nobel-Prize-winning chemist, and John von Neumann, the Hungarian mathematician who was one of the great geniuses of the 20th century and helped invent the computer. She then spent time working with Einstein during his final days.

At the age of 27, during the 1955 Jubilee (50th anniversary) of relativity in Bern, she had the sad task of delivering Einstein's final paper on unified field theory. Her brilliant mentor had just passed away.

These varied areas of research are impressive in and of themselves. But then she collaborated with and married Zellig Harris, the founder of structural linguistics who advised Noam Chomsky. So she had yet another career as a prominent linguist.

Harris died in 1992, at the age of 82. In 1996, Kaufman married Nobel laureate physicist Willis Lamb, who was 83 at the time. She had known him from years earlier. Lamb was famous for having discovered the quantum phenomenon known as the Lamb shift, one of the earliest indications of virtual particles in the vacuum. They collaborated, later divorced, and Lamb recently died.

It is hard to think of a living scientist who has had a more diverse career than Dr. Kaufman.

Quantum Musicians

A common metaphor in quantum mechanics relates the standing wave vibrations of electrons in atoms to the harmonics of plucked guitar strings. Apparently that image has resonated with some of the offspring of quantum theorists who have chosen musical careers.

A pioneer of this trend was Olivia Newton-John, the English-born Australian musician who captivated audiences in Grease and Xanadu. Her maternal grandfather was none other than one of the principal founders of quantum mechanics, Goettingen physicist Max Born.

In more recent years, the band Eels has attracted a loyal following. Its founder, (aka "Mr. E") is Mark Everett, son of Hugh Everett, developer of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. He was recently featured in the BBC documentary "Parallel Lives, Parallel Universes."

Albert Baez, an X-ray pioneer, passed away last year. You can guess who his famous daughter, a prominent folksinger, is.

Then there are Brian May, guitarist and songwriter of the classic rock band Queen, and Brian Cox of the UK Synthpop Band D:ream. They have started a kind of reverse trend. May has become an astrophysicist and chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University and Cox has become a physicist at CERN.

Quantum harmonies are more than just a metaphor these days!