Monday, January 22, 2007

Who Writes Letters Anymore?

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Via Arts & Letters Daily, there is a fascinating article at PhysicsWeb about the "lost art" of letter-writing, and how that loss is likely to affect the communications -- and thus the work -- of scientists and historians:

Until quite recently, letters were the most common way – and often the only way – for scientists to communicate informally with each other. It is not surprising therefore that science historians have long relied on letters as invaluable sources of information.

A dramatic illustration concerns the now-famous meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark in September 1941 during which the two physicists, talking in private, sought to eke out the other's view on progress towards a nuclear bomb. At first, the principal account of the mysterious visit came from a letter that Heisenberg sent in 1955 to the German science writer Robert Jungk. But among Bohr's papers were several drafts of letters that Bohr wrote but never sent to Heisenberg after reading the latter's account of the meeting. In 2002, when the Bohr family made the drafts public, the letters served as a corrective to Heisenberg's version, showing it to be deceitful and self-serving.
Historians also use letters to reconstruct thought processes. We could not hope to understand the development of quantum mechanics, for instance, without studying the vigorous exchanges of letters between the likes of Bohr, Dirac, Heisenberg, Pauli and others as they thrashed out the theory in the 1920s. Indeed, the historian David Cassidy decided to write his biography of Heisenberg only after accompanying the physicist's widow to her attic and seeing her drag out a trunk of Heisenberg's personal letters, adding that he could not have completed the biography without them. Cassidy also said that the way to understand Heisenberg's behaviour during the Third Reich is to study his nearly weekly letters to his mother.

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