Incurable curiosity |

Incurable curiosity

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Jeremy Bernstein loves a good puzzle.

Take Linear B, for instance. Discovered on the island of Crete in 1876 and later revealed to be the roots of an ancient language, Linear B has become an item of interest for history buffs, Bernstein included, over the last century.

Same goes for ancient Etruscan, another lost language. The chronically curious Bernstein also enjoys the history of colonial India, complex mathematics and theoretical physics, to name a few other topics.

Bernstein is familiar to readers of the Aspen Times Weekly – his varied interests often result in lively and lengthy essays in the Dispatches section. One week, Bernstein might discuss his work with Joseph Pilates, the founder of the popular fitness technique; the next, he’ll translate the Iraqi Nuclear Weapons Report for the layperson. His frequent bicycle trips around the world have generated some of the paper’s best travel writing.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Bernstein – retired physicist, educator, author and part-time Aspenite – embodies the “Aspen Idea” of mind, body and spirit. He’s certainly a lover of the outdoors, and a lifelong learner.

“Since I don’t have any 9-to-5 obligations, when I get one of these things, I have time to explore it,” Bernstein says of his studies. “There are a lot of these things that I would like to understand better.”

As Times readers know, once the affable Bernstein understands something, he’ll share it with anyone who’s willing to learn. He’ll also do his best to make it fun – or, as he put it, write the material in a way “that could trap someone into reading it.”

Rochester to Relativity

Bernstein, the son of a Syracuse University alum, might have ended up an Orangeman himself. But a move from his native Rochester to New York City – one ordered by the military, which employed Bernstein’s father as a medical advisor – opened a few doors for the Bernstein family.

“It really widened my outlook,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein, who was 10 years old at the time of the move, went on to attend several private schools around the city. This early education led him to consider the top institutions when it was time to attend college.

He enrolled at Harvard University in the late 1940s.

“I had no idea what I wanted to be. I had no particular scientific bent. In high school, I think I had no bent, except generally screwing around” – Bernstein shrugs and smiles at the memory – “which I did a fair amount.”

But Harvard requires all non-science majors, “and I assumed I was one of those,” he said, to take a series of general science courses. As a freshman, Bernstein chose the easiest one, a class based in natural sciences.

The curriculum wasn’t exactly stirring, Bernstein recalled, at least not at first.

“Things were going along as anticipated – namely, it wasn’t very difficult and it wasn’t very interesting. Then we hit modern physics,” he said. “The thing that got me, in particular, was the Theory of Relativity. The whole idea of time slowing down and masses increasing – and this sort of thing really blew my mind.”

Bernstein set out to learn more. The first step, he thought, was finding a book on the subject.

“So I got one by Einstein – I figured he must understand the stuff – which was called `The Meaning of Relativity.’ It was the absolute worst choice possible to make,” Bernstein laughed. “I think now it’s a great book, but for the level I was at then, it was totally absurd.”

As a novice in the world of scientific theory, Bernstein believed Einstein’s idea could be deciphered in the same way one analyzes a poem – “if you read it slowly enough, and you had a dictionary, you would understand it.

“Einstein’s book was 80 or 90 pages long, and I figured, well, I could probably read two pages a day, and that would mean after I spend 40 days on this, I will have understood the Theory of Relativity,” Bernstein said.

So Bernstein began reading – and was tripped up in the fourth paragraph. A calculus equation had the Harvard freshman stumped.

“It could have been Egyptian hieroglyphics. I had no clue what it was,” Bernstein laughed.

His professor directed him to a second course in natural sciences – taught, as luck would have it, by a close personal friend of Einstein’s. The subject intrigued Bernstein, but offered a few obstacles.

“[The professor] would write down something and say `This is something you could understand if you know a little of mathematics.’ Since I knew nothing of mathematics, I couldn’t understand it – I had to stick with the lowbrow stuff,” Bernstein recalled. “When I finished this course, it became clear to me that if I wanted to really understand the Theory of Relativity, I had to learn mathematics.”

Bernstein enrolled in his first math course the following year and left the lowbrow stuff behind by becoming a math major and earning a master’s in math.

“But all the time I had my eyes on physics,” he said. “I thought it was something I could do creatively.”

As a graduate student, Bernstein was introduced to a young physics professor with “a dogging thesis problem.” They worked together to solve it, leading Bernstein to a Ph.D. in physics and a job as house theoretician with the Harvard cyclotron (a machine that produces strong beams of atomic particles, used in many cases to smash atoms).

Bernstein’s ensuing physics career has included stints with the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a partner of the U.S. Department of Energy; the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.; and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Bernstein even served as an intern with the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where he witnessed two separate atomic bomb tests in 1957.

And, of course, his work brought him to the Aspen Center for Physics nearly every year since 1962, and those trips eventually led him to buy an Aspen home.

Before then, however, theoretical physics led Bernstein into an unexpected second career.

Man of letters

In 1959, Bernstein was offered a fellowship from the National Science Foundation – a prospect that allowed the young physicist to study anywhere in the world. He chose Paris, where he could work with future Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann.

Studies in Paris led to studies in Corsica, where Bernstein attended a summer school for young physicists. While there, he was smitten with a young woman named Annie – a crush that spurred him to write an essay that he submitted to The New Yorker .

“I had no notion of becoming a professional writer,” Bernstein said of his submission. “I had done a lot of writing, but mainly for myself.

“But I wrote this thing called `Letter from Corsica,’ and I showed it to a few people at the lab, and they said, `Gee, it sounds like a New Yorker letter.'”

Bernstein mailed his essay, a young man’s memories of lost love and an adventure abroad, in October 1961 – and nothing happened.

“There was no rejection, there was no acceptance, there was no acknowledgement – as far as I could tell, my article has disappeared down a black hole,” he said.

Frustrated, Bernstein finally called the magazine for answers. He was shuffled between several editors, who promised to call back within the next few days. Finally, he heard from Editor William Shawn.

“The phone rings, and I hear `Oh, Mr. Bernstein, did I get you at an opportune moment?’ Shawn always started his conversations like this,” Bernstein recalled. “If you had a phone call from Shawn – if you were hanging out the window by your toes, trust me, it was an opportune moment.”

Shawn sought permission to print Bernstein’s essay – along with Bernstein’s expertise on modern science matters. The New Yorker, Shawn said, hoped to explain science’s effects on and contributions to everyday life.

Bernstein went on to write one of the first articles ever published on computers – machines that were something of an anomaly in the early ’60s. He profiled colleagues, including several Nobel winners, and introduced their pioneering work to the general public.

“Jeremy’s certainly well-known for that, and deservedly so,” said fellow physicist Paul Fishbane, who met Bernstein at the Aspen Center for Physics. “He’s done a lot to popularize, in the best sense, science and physics in general. That’s an important activity that connects science to the public.”

But Bernstein’s work with The New Yorker led to other projects outside the scientific realm. One of his most popular pieces was an article on famed director Stanley Kubrick, written as he finished “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Bernstein, working at an elementary particle physics laboratory in Geneva at the time, would fly to London on weekends and holidays to visit Kubrick on the set.

“It was really quite schizophrenic,” Bernstein said of his cross-channel commuting. “I don’t think I missed any classes. I just went back and forth and did both things. Of course, there wasn’t too much time for anything else.”

Kubrick and Bernstein would play chess – a series of 25 games would become the basis of Bernstein’s New Yorker profile – and discuss various aspects of the film (recordings of Bernstein’s interviews with Kubrick recently aired on Aspen Media Review, a Sunday program on KAJX).

The resulting story proved popular among New Yorker readers – due perhaps, in part, to Kubrick’s editing. The director was allowed to see Bernstein’s story before publication and made minor adjustments along the way.

Kubrick’s biggest complaint? The descriptions assigned to each chess move. “`You gave yourself all the good adjectives, and left me all the lousy ones,'” Bernstein recalls, mimicking the disappointed look on Kubrick’s face.

The writer and director made a bargain: They would write each adjective on a slip of paper, and pick them out of a hat. That way, each would have an equal chance at the best words.

Bernstein’s stint at The New Yorker came to a sudden end in 1995, with the hiring of controversial editor Tina Brown. “She cleaned house of a whole generation of us,” Bernstein said.

But during Bernstein’s time with the magazine, he’d become an author. He’d managed to write nearly 20 books, with a diversity of subjects that mirrored Bernstein’s interests – a biography of Einstein, a look at Adolph Hitler’s nuclear program during World War II, a profile of Warren Hastings, a British colonial governor in India. He’ll finish another biography – this time on Robert Oppenheimer, a fellow Harvard alum and physicist often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb” – in time for publication in April.

Bernstein’s books also explore his adventures abroad – a third hobby he managed to fit between physics and writing.

A love of travel

In 1968, Bernstein worked for the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, a job be found “enormously depressing.”

Adding to that feeling was a book he had recently received as a gift. In it, the author described a trip to Tirich Mir, a famous peak in Pakistan.

“I thought to myself, `I’ve got to go there. No question about this, it has to be done,'” Bernstein recalled.

A Pakistani colleague suggested Bernstein apply for a professorship with the Ford Foundation. The grant would allow Bernstein to teach physics for a semester at a Pakistani college.

Bernstein won the professorship, along with the money to buy a Land Rover. He landed in Chamonix in August, picked up the car and a load of climbing friends, and used the next few weeks to cross from Europe into Asia. They drove through Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan – the Land Rover broke down under the famed Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 – and climbed and hiked their way across the frontier.

They eventually saw Tirich Mir, “which, in truth, is a good mountain, but not a great mountain,” Bernstein laughed. Afterward, Bernstein settled in for six months of physics classes – and, to this day, he wonders what happened to his students.

“It would not surprise me if several of my students subsequently worked on the Pakistani atomic bomb,” he said.

In 1967, The New Yorker sent Bernstein to Nepal for a climbing expedition. At the time, such a trip was unheard of.

“We did a 37-day trek from Katmandu to Everest,” Bernstein recalled. “In that period of time, we saw maybe three Westerners, and they were all people working in the country. There were no trekkers. It was great, and also it was a little scary – you were really out on your own.”

During their flight into Nepal, Bernstein and his team were asked to fill out informational cards for the government. This information was later compiled in a government list of visitors to the area – and of the thousands of people that entered that year, Bernstein and his two-member team were the only ones listed as tourists.

Bernstein’s trips to Nepal were, of course, written up as essays, New Yorker pieces and eventually books. “The Wildest Dreams of Kew: A Profile of Nepal” and an expanded version, released as “In the Himalayas: Journeys through Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan,” serve as travel guides and histories of the people and places Bernstein visited.

Bernstein still spends a lot of time in the mountains, including those around Aspen.

“We’ve done a lot of walking in the mountains – he knows most of the interesting places to go,” Fishbane said.

Bernstein’s travels are frequent. Though he splits his time evenly between homes in Aspen and New York, he still finds time for vacations abroad – usually on two wheels.

Bernstein estimates that he’s taken nearly 30 trips in the last 15-20 years, visiting and revisiting places like Bali (“it’s like biking in a sauna with incredible snakes”), Greece, Corsica, Crete and Italy.

“After that first bike trip, I thought, `That’s a very good way to see things,'” he said.

Bernstein often publishes stories and photos from these trips in the Times. In between travels, he writes about whatever else sparks his interest.

“There’s always something,” Bernstein said. “I have a lot of interests – I have interests I don’t even know I have that pop up suddenly, and then I just seem to have to follow them through somehow.

“I can’t say what I’ll be interested in next week, because I don’t know.”

Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is

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