A physicist’s casual aside reminds us that we have much to live up to this Passover 2008.

A physicist’s casual aside about elaborate calculations performed while in hiding from the Nazis reminds us that we have much to live up to this Passover 2008.

Passover is a time to celebrate with family, watch TV laughing and trembling with Yul Brenner and Charlton Heston as in his pre-NRA days. It is a time for remembrance and a challenge for us to address so many injustices that disfigure our world.

The power of this holiday hits home at odd moments. I was recently casually reading Abraham Pais’s Inward Bound, a magisterial history of particle physics. Pais was a distinguished theorist who helped understand the properties of strange particles and kaons. No, I don’t really know what these are, either. To the lay public, Pais is best known for the prize-winning biography: Subtle is the lord: The science and the life of Albert Einstein.

Reading through some fairly impenetrable material regarding 1940s quantum field theory, my heart jumped when Pais simply notes:

I gave an invited paper dealing with work done during the war, while I was living in hiding. I had often discussed my ideas with Kramers, the only physicist who knew where I was, and who would visit me from time to time, in my room in an attic in Amsterdam.

Without sensationalism or gratuitous personal detail, Pais described the various pertinent calculations conducted in that secret annex.

Talk about your greatest generation. (And talk about the worst possible dissertation advisor for the typical self-absorbed graduate student complaining about various barriers to getting his dissertation done.)

2008 is a pretty crummy year in terms of our nation’s predicaments at home and abroad. Our nation has much to worry about, and much to be contrite about, given our behavior on the world stage in the Bush years.

We can take comfort in the fact that we will have a new president soon. If President Obama, President Clinton, or President McCain is merely less disastrous than President Bush–Dayenu.

It seems hard to believe that our next president will be able to do much more than that in creating a safer and more humane world. Then again, our forebearers such as Abraham Pais accomplished great things under far more dire circumstances that we face in our little suburban sedar this year.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.