Science and Prejudice

Quest    by Leopold Infeld

342 pp.,Doubleday, Doran and Co. 1941  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      This memoir of a Polish-Jewish physicist (1898-1968) recounts his childhood in a Jewish ghetto, his struggle for acceptance amid prejudice, and his years with Albert Einstein, founder of the theories of relativity. A personal and emotional story, well told.

      The first half of Infeld's life was rather gloomy. Raised in poverty in Poland's ancient capital of Cracow (Kraków), he started his education in an old-time religious school for children, but fortunately soon left that environment for a public school. There he developed a fascination of physics, teaching himself from a physics textbook. When the first World War broke out, Infeld was conscripted into the army of the Austrian emperor, poorly organized and corrupt, but even there he managed to attend Cracow university. He graduated after the war and supported himself as a science teacher in a Jewish "gymnasium" high school.

      He kept his dream of joining the faculty of a Polish university, but because of his Jewish ancestry, that was practically out of reach. It remained elusive even after he published good scientific research, while non-Jews with lesser credentials were readily promoted. For years he struggled just to be admitted to graduate studies from which he could earn the degree of "docent".

      "Quest" does not say much about those years, and also has little about the gymnasium employment which supported him all that time. Research scholarships during that time helped expand his horizons - to England where he discovered active physics in a peaceable kingdom, to Germany and a friendship with Einstein, at a time German society was growing unruly and violent. Four of those years he was married, but it was a tragic experience: his wife Halina suffered chronic illness and withered away, leaving him a grieving widower. After too many years he did attain that sought-after docentship, but academic positions in Poland were still closed, so he moved to America and there to Princeton, to which Einstein had escaped from German fascism.

      The book was published in 1941, and chronicles life during Europe's turbulent years between the two world wars. Hitler was stirring up hate--especially against Jews--and refugee scientists were flocking to England and the United States, bringing new talent to US universities and economy. Few could anticipate the horrors of the holocaust which would overtake many of those left behind, and Infeld certainly did not. I

      His two-year collaboration with Einstein on the theory of fields may have been the sunniest part of his life, and his most fruitful period. The reader will appreciate the chapters that describe Einstein in warm human terms. Afterwards Infeld married a mathematician named Helen and settled in Toronto: the book ends with the invasion of Poland (September 1939) and the occupation of Cracow by the Nazis. After the war he returned to Poland and attained a professorship in Warsaw, a greater honor than the one that eluded him before the war.

      The strength of the book lies in the author's fine-tuned description of relationships and emotions, deftly describing lives that intersected his, and also tracing his own feelings. To most of those who knew of Einstein, he was more of a symbol than an actual personality. Infeld greatly admired him too, but the reader will appreciate this more intimate view.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 28 January 2014