- Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck by Jost Lemmerich
For two decades before 1939, and throughout World War II, German universities suffered from financial, political and social stresses. A considerable number of their scientists—particularly those of Jewish background—emigrated to England and the United States. Not only did these displaced people take dangerous personal chances, but also those who stayed home subsequently judged their actions. And some other outstanding scientists were chastised for not doing enough to protect their own departmental members in Germany. The various experiences spawned a special type of memoir.
The present example is the first biography of James Franck (b. Hamburg, 1882; d. Göttingen, 1964). His formal educational venues included University of Heidelberg (chemistry) and University of Berlin (physics) where he completed a Ph.D. degree in 1906. His academic career was interrupted by participation in World War I, from which he emerged with the Iron Cross. In spite of distractions, Franck’s scholarly progression was swift. And then, with his professorship in experimental physics at the University of Göttingen, Franck enjoyed a happy, productive and enduring friendship and collaboration with Max Born (theoretical physics). Together with mathematician David Hilbert, they were responsible for the development of a community of excellence at Göttingen that earned international recognition. Franck (1925) and Born (1954) won Nobel prizes in physics. In addition, there were a striking number of visits to and from top laboratories in England, Denmark and the Netherlands. The list of major players in this part of the book reads like a Who’s Who of atomic physics. Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein and Max Planck are featured. An unusually large number of photographs (many from the archive of Franck’s daughter, Lisa) are included to show, among other things, the aging of key characters.
The Nazi takeover, with its rules against those of Jewish extraction, caused Franck and his family to move to the U.S. and, indirectly, to the University of Chicago. There, he participated in the development of the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, his basic interests shifted to photochemical reactions and the mechanisms of photosynthesis, where he made several advances. The author, Jost Lemmerich, gives Franck good marks for taking care of the scientists who worked with him. They included Lise Meitner, whom the Nobel Committee infamously “forgot about” in 1944. Still, it is worth noting that Meitner had to protest (successfully) when Franck favored Hertha Sponer (an experimentalist of lesser achievement) over Meitner for a local promotion. Later, Sponer became James Franck’s second wife. Lemmerich typically leaves any judgmental analysis to the reader. This is indeed a pleasant contrast with the current penchant by the commentariat to find “conflict” wherever they look.
I suppose that “conscience” in the book’s title refers mostly to Franck’s organized opposition to the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities. He chaired deliberations of a committee that led to the “Franck Report” (June 1945), which is reproduced in Appendix II. New readers of this document will find portions of the summary especially engaging. For example, “[We feel that] much more favorable conditions for the eventual achievement of such an agreement [international control] could be created if nuclear bombs were first revealed to the world by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area.” Franck also advocated excusing the German public at large for the outlandish behavior of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi leaders. Albert Einstein, among others, was opposed to any such easing of blame. In the event, neither the Franck report nor the doctrine of German public forgiveness was followed.
I enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. Some previous introduction to elementary atomic physics and the experimental method is a prerequisite. The wealth of achievement in sciences of this era continues to shine throughout the book, and the author demonstrates that the quality of the work was due to men and women...