lady painting

 

Jul 2001 Journal

previous article:Death of a culture
next article:Obituary: Alice Schwab

Seeker after the ultimate

The fact that our meeting was to take place in the neo-classical splendour of the Athenaeum indicated that my interviewee was a denizen of clubland – that archetypal English institution, located near St James Park, which is this country’s contribution to douceur de vivre. Having passed through the hallowed portals, Peter Landsberg showed me the Club’s imposing staircase and Long Gallery overlooking Pall Mall with proprietorial pride. He has been a member of the Athenaeum for thirty years, and sits on various committees. He has also been a Professor of Physics for four decades, and when he reveals that his slightly older brother is Emeritus Professor of Mathematical Chemistry in – of all places, East Berlin – I begin to suspect genetic endowment. And, sure enough, the Landsbergs have been high achievers for at least three generations. The paternal grandfather was a civil engineer and bridge builder, the father of an architect who designed villas in the Grunewald, and the mother one of the first females to attend Heidelberg University, and to qualify as a doctor.

Peter was born in 1922, lost his father early on, and in the Thirties attended the Kaliski Schule. This he remembers as a remarkable pedagogical institution, where 16-year olds wrote essays on Lessing’s Nathan der Weise, and the connection between Kant’s philosophy and The League of Nations. (The Jewish Museum, Berlin, is going to display three exercise books of his, complete with teachers’ corrections, in a permanent exhibition of the Waldschule Kaliski, to be opened this September.)

In 1939 the Landsberg brothers came to London, where the elder attended University College as a fee-paying student, graduated, and joined the Free German Youth. Peter meanwhile made his unsubsidised way more laboriously, combining work with study, and enjoying little social life. Postwar, the FDJ enthusiast returned to Berlin and joined the faculty of the Humboldt University, headed by another Remigrant, Jürgen Kuczinsky. Peter who, after a brief spell in internment, had taken his first degree via the University Correspondence College, meanwhile worked for Associated Electrical Industries, who backed him for a PhD course at Imperial College. His resultant doctorate in solid state theory enabled him to obtain his first academic post, at Aberdeen. There he met his future wife, the daughter of the Parliamentary correspondent of the Daily Express, through which connection they received a wedding present from Lord Beaverbrook. She studied botany, and, after bringing up the three children of their marriage, has become a published authority on medieval gardens.

From Aberdeen, Peter went on to a chair at Cardiff and a similar post at Southampton, where (despite officially retiring 14 years ago) he is still engaged in research and writing. He has published numerous papers and several academic books – the most recent, for the lay reader, is particularly close to his heart. Called Seeking Ultimates, and subtitled An intuitive guide to the cosmos (Institute of Physics Publishing), it sets out to explain quantum theory, entropy, the expanding universe, and other migraine-inducing concepts in terms comprehensible to the man on the Clapham omnibus. I have not read the book, but I suspect it will be rather like its author – informative and yet discursive, humorous, but also slightly quirky.
Richard Grunberger

previous article:Death of a culture
next article:Obituary: Alice Schwab