Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 1998

Book Reviews

The Story of Spin

Diane Fortner
Physics Library
University of California, Berkeley

The Story of Spin. Sin-itiro (Shinichireo) Tomonaga. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1997. 850p. $50.00 (ISBN 0-226-80793-2)
Translated from the Japanese by Takeshi Oka from a 1974 book, Spin wa meguru, this series of lectures by Sin-itiro Tomonaga, a renowned theoretical physicist, focuses on the pioneers of quantum physics from the early 1920's to the late 1930's.  The lectures follow a meandering pathway through discrete insights to collective "quantum leaps" of understanding. All the greats -- Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr, and others -- are mentioned as Tomonaga traces the crucial steps in the story of atomic spin and its statistics.  In the account of electron spin, the story line moves from Ralph de Laer Kronig to Pauli and his rejection of Kronig's idea, to the Uhlenbeck-Goudsmit self-rotating conjecture and their indecisiveness about their paper submitted to Naturwissenschaften, to L. H. Thomas, and back to the perfectionist, Pauli, and his approval. 

It is one of Physics' strengths that it has long been an international field.  Tomonaga was personally acquainted with some of these famous scientists.  He visited their institutes and listened to their talks. This breadth of connection allows him to pepper these formal lectures with anecdotes.  Tomonaga's unhurried, precise review of the thinking and attitude of the physicists involved during this time of incredible creative energy lend a particular interest to these lectures.  One of the best parts of the books is the last.  He ends with personal reminiscences of physics in Japan and internationally during the 1920's and 1930's, and his own beginnings as a theoretical physicist.

Tomonaga, who died in 1979, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work in the development of quantum electrodynamics.  He shared the prize with Feynman and Schwinger.  Like Feynman, he was noted for his popular, accessible essays on basic physics.  He wrote a well-known two-volume history of physics and a two-volume text that was translated into English, Quantum Mechanics.

Although the topic of spin threads throughout, Chapter 8 on spin and statistics may be called the heart of the book.  Although rules apply and can be stated, spin "is the most subtle and ingenious design of Nature -without it the whole universe would collapse."

It would be difficult to imagine American university students today listening to these series of lectures.  Perhaps the same can be said of young Japanese scientists.  There are several chapters that will be comprehensible only to advanced physicists.  I would recommend this book as a rich historical account, of interest to physicists, chemists, and the scientifically literate public.  Many readers should be able, as I have, to read around the mathematics to find the excitement of this wonderful period in the history of physics, in this story, as the author puts it, of how spin "spins".


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