Physics in Perspective

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 179–217 | Cite as

Writing the Biography of Hans Bethe: Contextual History and Paul Forman1

  • Silvan S. Schweber


Some facets of the life of Hans Bethe after World War II are presented to illustrate how Paul Forman’s works, and in particular his various theses—on mathematics and physics in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany, on physics in the immediate post-World War II period, and on postmodernity—have influenced my biography of Bethe. Some aspects of the history of post-World War II quantum field theory, of solid state/condensed matter physics, and of the development of neoliberalism—the commitment to the belief that the market knows best, to free trade, to enhanced privatization, and to a drastic reduction of the government’s role in regulating the economy—are reviewed in order to make some observations regarding certain “top-down” views in solid state physics in postmodernity, the economic and cultural condition of many Western societies since the 1980s, the decade in which many historians assume modernity to have ended.


Hans Bethe Paul Forman Weimar Forman theses postmodernity neoliberalism effective field theory nuclear theory mathematical physics physics summer schools Lamb shift Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) Nuclear Utilization Target Selection (NUTS) 



I am indebted to Jeffrey Goldstone, Kurt Gottfried, and Snait Gissis for very valuable and useful discussions; to Paul Forman for extended talks regarding the content of this article and for his critical reading of it and suggestions. The helpful recommendations by Peter Pesic and Robert Crease, the editors of Physics in Perspective, are likewise gratefully acknowledged.


  1. 1.
    This paper is based on an invited lecture delivered in November 2011 at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society and in December 2011 on the occasion of Paul Forman’s retirement at the Smithsonian Institution. It was a privilege to have been asked to deliver the lecture honoring Forman. We have been close friends for the past thirty years. We both come out of physics and have a special relationship to physics and physicists. I admire Paul Forman and his works greatly, and he has influenced me deeply. His integrity, his comportment, and his writings made, and continue to make, clear to me the responsibilities we have as historians. This paper is dedicated to him as a token of my admiration, affection and respect. When considering what Paul Forman has accomplished as a historian of science and as a curator, and keeps on accomplishing as a historian, many commendations can be made. John Heilbron, who has known Forman since his student’s days at Berkeley did so when commenting on Forman’s oeuvre as a historian at a conference in Vancouver in 2005 honoring Forman: John L. Heilbron, “Cold War Culture, History of Science and Postmodernity: Engagement of an Intellectual in a Hostile Academic Environment.” in Cathryn Carson, Alexei Kojevnikov, and Helmuth Trischler, eds., Weimar Culture and Quantum Mechanics (Singapore: World Scientific, 2011), 2–20. The editors’ introduction to the proceedings of the conference and Heilbron’s article therein detail the magnitude of Forman’s accomplishments as a historian of science and the respect he is held in as an outstanding scholar.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    He had joined the department in the spring semester 1967 and completed his PhD dissertation that summer in the history department of the University of California at Berkeley; Hunter Dupree had been his thesis adviser. Paul Forman, “Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918–1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 3 (1971), 1–115; “The Reception of an Acausal Quantum Mechanics in Germany and Britain,” in Seymor Mauskopf, ed., The Reception of Unconventional Science, Seymor Mauskopf, ed., [AAAS] Selected Symposium 25 ([Boulder Colo]: Westview Press, 1979), 11–50; “Kausalität, Anschaulichkeit, and Individualität; or how Cultural Values Prescribed the Character and the Lessons Ascribed to Quantum Mechanics,” in Nico Stehr and Volker Meja, eds., Society and Knowledge: Contemporary Perspectives in the Sociology of Knowledge & Science, ([New Brunswick NJ]: Transaction Books, 1984), 333–48; reprinted, 2nd revised edition (Transaction Books: New Brunswick NJ, 2005), 357–371.Google Scholar
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    For the argument that Darwin had been influenced by the intellectual and political views and cultural values of powerful circles in England and Scotland, see Robert M. Young, “Malthus and the Evolutionists: The Common Context of Biological and Social Theory,” Past and Present 43 (1969), 109–45; “The Historiographic and Ideological Contexts of the Nineteenth-Century Debate on Man’s Place in Nature,” in M. Teich and R.M. Young, eds., Changing Perspectives in the History of Science (London: Heinemann, 1973), 344–438; Darwins Metaphor: Natures Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). See also A. La Vergata, “Images of Darwin: A Historiographic Overview,” in D. Kohn, ed., The Darwinian Heritage (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 901–929, and Ingemar Bohlin, “Robert M. Young and Darwin Historiography,” Social Studies of Science 21 (1991), 597–648.Google Scholar
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    Heilbron, “Cold War Culture” (ref. 1), 17.Google Scholar
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    Forman, “Recent Science: Late Modern and Post-Modern,” in Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent, eds., Science Bought and Sold: Rethinking the Economics of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 109–48; “The Primacy of Science in Modernity, of Technology in Postmodernity and of Ideology in the History of Technology,” History & Technology 23 (2007), 1–152; “(Re)cognizing Postmodernity: Helps for Historians—of Science Especially,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 3 (2010), 157–75; and especially “On the Historical Forms of Knowledge Productions and Curation: Modernity Entailed Disciplinarity, Postmodernity Entails Antidisciplinarity,” Osiris 27 (2012), 56–100.Google Scholar
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    This is abstracted from Mirowski’s “Postface” in Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds., The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). Mirowski also states that “Neoliberals see pronounced inequality of economic resources and political rights not as an unfortunate by-product of capitalism, but as a necessary functional characteristic of their ideal market system. Inequality is not only the natural state of market economies, but it is actually one of its strongest motor forces for progress. Hence the rich are not parasites, but (conveniently) a boon to humankind.” (438) See also Philip Mirowski, Science-mart: Privatizing American Science. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).Google Scholar
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    I am aware that at most I can write succinct, contextually sensitive, narrations selected from some of the important components of his life from 1940 to his death: Los Alamos; the Shelter Island conference; his consulting for the General Electric Knolls Laboratory, Detroit Edison, and later AVCO; his involvement with H-bombs; his sabbatical in Cambridge/England during the academic year 1955–6; his shift from high energy to nuclear physics; nuclear matter; his serving on PSAC; the Nobel prize in 1967; his involvement in the Cornell student rebellion 1968–71; his becoming an astrophysicist; neutrinos and supernovae; star wars.Google Scholar
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    Forman, “‘Swords into Ploughshares’: Breaking new Ground with Radar Hardware and Technique in Physical Research after World War II,” Reviews of Modern Physics 67 (1995), 397–455.Google Scholar
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    Hans A. Bethe, “My Life in Astrophysics,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 41 (2003), 1–14.Google Scholar
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    For an early example of this see Bethe, “Über die nichtstationäre Behandlung des Photoeffekts,” Annalen der Physik 4 (1930), 443–449.Google Scholar
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    Bethe’s first exposure to the practice of science was in his father’s laboratory. There he became aware of the amazing diversity of animal life and learned that individual behavior can never be considered by itself but must always be seen through interactions with the environment and all the entities that make up that environment. He also first experienced science as a social activity in which his father, his father’s Assistenten, Doktoranten, and laboratory assistants were in constant interaction in a shared physical and intellectual environment. The view of science Bethe obtained in his father’s laboratory was as a practice in which knowledge is created by experiments using instruments that measure with limited accuracy, produce data that have to be analyzed statistically and interpreted with mathematical models that idealize the context in which the interactions take place. The aim of the knowledge produced in his father’s laboratory was how to understand the complexity and diversity of the biological world. There was no attempt to find an ultimate theory that would explain all biological phenomena. The mature Bethe was always skeptical of the possibility of finding final theories in physics.Google Scholar
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    Szasz and Siegel (who both had studied in Göttingen) reflected Hilbert’s “modernist” views of making mathematics an autonomous discipline as well as his idealistic views of mathematics. See Jeremy Gray, “Modernism in Mathematics,” in Eleanor Robson and Jacqueline Stedall, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 663–683.Google Scholar
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    See Forman and Armin Hermann’s entry on Sommerfeld in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Charles C. Gillispie, ed. (New York: Scribner’s, 1975), 12:525–532.Google Scholar
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    Timothy Lenoir, “Practical Reason and the Construction of Knowledge,” in Ernan McMullin, ed., The Social Dimensions of Science (Note Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame 1992), 158–197.Google Scholar
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    See Hans-Jürgen Borchers, “Einstein’s Principle of Maximal Speed in Classical and Quantum Physics,” in Rathindra Nath Sen and Alexander Gersten, eds., Mathematical Physics Towards the 21st Century (Beer-Sheva: Ben Gurion University of the Negev Press, 1994).Google Scholar
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    See in particular Karl von Meyenn, “Pauli’s Belief in Exact Symmetries,” in Manuel Garcia Doncel, Armin Hermann, Louis Michel, and Abraham Pais, eds., Symmetries in Physics (16001980) (Bellaterra [Barcelona]: Semineri d’Historia de les Ciènces, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, 1987), 329–360. Von Meyenn quotes a letter of Pauli to Schrödinger written on January 27, 1955: “When I consider the matter where a theory is in need of improvement, I never start from considerations about measurability but from such conclusions of the theory where the mathematics is not correct.” Von Meyenn goes on: “Behind these words is [Pauli’s] deep conviction that the mathematical structure of physical theories possesses a greater content of reality than the common intuition and direct experience.” (332)Google Scholar
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    Bethe, “Quantenmechanik der Ein und Zwei-Elektronenprobleme,” in Hans Geiger and Karl Scheel, Handbuch der Physik, XXIV, Part I, Adolf Smekal, ed., Quantentheorie (Berlin: Julius Springer Verlag, 1933), 273–560; Bethe and Sommerfeld, “Elektronentheorie der Metalle,” in Geiger and Scheel, Handbuch der Physik XXIV, Part II (Berlin: Julius Springer Verlag, 1933), 333–622.Google Scholar
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    Bethe, Robert F. Bacher, and Milton S. Livingston, Basic Bethe: Seminal Articles on Nuclear Physics (New York: American Institute of Physics and Tomash Publishers, 1986).Google Scholar
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    Hans A. Bethe, “Theoretical Division: The Beginning,” in Theory in Action: Highlights in the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos 19432003. Volume I. Compiled by Francis H. Harlow and H. Jody Shepard. LA–14000–H. History Report. Unclassified. (Los Alamos National Laboratory: Theoretical Division, 2004), 1–5. For a more detailed account of T-Division’s involvement with computers see Bethe, “Introduction,” in Sidney Fernbach and Abraham H. Taub, eds., Computers and their Role in the Physical Sciences (New York: Gordon and Breach Science, 1970), 1–10. For the continuation of that story see William Aspray, John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990). It is also interesting to note that Bethe never programmed a computer to solve the complex problems he was considering.Google Scholar
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    However, the Cold War context was such that Robert R. Wilson (who had severed all his ties with making atomic weapons after he left Los Alamos, where he had been the head of the Nuclear Physics Division), in 1950, when he was the director of the Newman Lab, designed a mobile electron beam gun to destroy atomic bombs after he had learned of strong focusing. See Silvan S. Schweber, “Defending against Nuclear Weapons: A 1950 Proposal,” Physics Today 60, no. 4 (2007), 36–41.Google Scholar
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    See Forman, “On the Historical Forms of Knowledge Production” (ref. 6).Google Scholar
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    See Paul Hartman, The Cornell Physics Department: Recollections and a History of Sorts (Ithaca, NY: n. p., 1984).Google Scholar
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    Norris Bradbury, then director of Los Alamos, in 1950 asserted this when interviewed by the FBI in connection with the renewal of Bethe’s Q clearance. I am indebted for this information to Alex Wellerstein, who has studied Bethe’s FBI record.Google Scholar
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    See for example Silvan S. Schweber, In the Shadow of the Bomb: Bethe, Oppenheimer, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000) for the details of the plans.Google Scholar
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    Michael Gordin, Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly. (New York: Farrar, Straus, 2009).Google Scholar
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    Bethe, A Theory for the Ablation of Glassy Materials, Issue 38 of Research report. Avco Manufacturing Corporation, Avco Everett Research Laboratory, 1958–30 pages; H.A. Bethe and M.D. Adams, “A Theory of the Ablation of Glassy Materials,” International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences 26 (1959), 321–328.Google Scholar
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    See Priscilla J. McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (New York: Viking, 2005).Google Scholar
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    Bethe, “My Life in Astrophysics,” in Gerald E. Brown and Chang-Hwan Lee, eds., Hans Bethe and His Physics (Singapore: World Scientific 2006), 27–44.Google Scholar
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    The neutrino problem was concerned with the fact that there were far fewer neutrinos being emitted by the sun than solar models had predicted. See the articles on neutrinos in Brown and Lee, Hans Bethe and His Physics (ref. 32).Google Scholar
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    See Jeremy Bernstein, Hans Bethe, Prophet of Energy (New York: Basic Books, 1980); Boris Ioffe, “Hans Bethe and the Global Energy Problems,” in Brown and Lee, Hans Bethe and His Physics (ref. 32), 263–272.Google Scholar
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    Laurie M. Brown and Helmut Rechenberg, The Origin of the Concept of Nuclear Forces (Philadelphia: Institute of Physics Pub., 1996).Google Scholar
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    As a result of his researches and calculations in atomic and solid state physics, Bethe early on had recognized implicitly what Dirac would state explicitly in the first edition of his The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, namely that our representation of the physical world can be hierarchically ordered by virtue of Planck’s constant, h. Macroscopic systems, whose characteristic time T, mass M, and length L, are such that ML 2 /T ≫ h are described by classical mechanics; those for which ML 2 /T ≈ h are described by quantum mechanics. See the remarkable text on quantum mechanics, Eyvind H. Wichmann, Quantum Physics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971).Google Scholar
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    These hierarchies are not independent: accurate measurements of atomic energy levels will reveal nuclear and subnuclear properties. Similarly, the recent startling discovery of the presence of cold dark matter—consisting of as yet undiscovered subnuclear entities—to make sense of new cosmological observational data is proof of the linkage between the various levels. But it must also be noted that these observations have not destabilized our amazingly accurate representations of the atomic world. Needless to say, the linkage of the levels is made explicit as soon as one tries to answer evolutionary questions.Google Scholar
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    And more recently in terms of the standard model.Google Scholar
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    I owe the notion of a “crucial calculation” to Howard Schnitzer. See Schweber, QED (ref. 48), where the idea is applied to Bethe’s calculation of the Lamb shift in hydrogen and Schwinger’s calculation of the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron using renormalization concepts. Other examples come readily to mind: Einstein’s calculation of the advance of the perihelion of Mercury using his formulation of general relativity; Pauli’s calculation of the spectrum of hydrogen using Born, Jordan, and Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics; and many other instances in modern particle and condensed matter physics.Google Scholar
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    Bethe’s Shelter Island notes were found in 2011 in his mother’s trunk that had been stored in the basement of Bethe’s house on White Park Road in Cayuga Heights, NY. The notes can now be found in Bethe’s papers in the Rare Manuscript Division of the Cornell Library.Google Scholar
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    Since libraries only maintain copies of bound books, copies of lecture notes are only to be found in the library of the institution where they were delivered or in the Nachlass of the lecturer. Dyson’s lectures were recently reissued: Freeman J. Dyson, Advanced Quantum Mechanics. Translated and transcribed by David Derbes. 2nd ed. (Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific, 2011). A first edition had been issued in 2007.Google Scholar
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    Thus, the proceedings of the Pocono and Oldstone conferences, the follow-ups of the June 1947 Shelter Island conference, became available as dittoed notes within two months of when they were held in the spring of 1948 and 1949. They disseminated the lectures that Schwinger, Feynman, and Dyson had presented at them.Google Scholar
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    The history of advances in theoretical physics during the twentieth century has often been written so that developments in “fundamental” theories are seen as being the most important. They thus have received a disproportionate emphasis. In addition, the Cold War—at least in the West—has had as one of its consequences that the history of physics during the second half of the century has often filtered out the Soviet and Russian contributions. The history of the solution of the phase transition problem in the late 1960s makes it clear that: a) while quantum field theory was in decline and viewed as being marginal among high energy physicists from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, the use of field-theoretic methods was a thriving enterprise in solid state and condensed matter physics and the source of deep insights that would later be transferred to relativistic quantum field theory; and b) besides Lev Landau, Soviet theoretical physicists had made important, foundational contributions to condensed matter physics and to the unraveling of the phase transition problem.Google Scholar
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    A vision now tainted for having tasted sin in building atomic weapons. That vision was spelled out in his 1953 Reith lectures, in which he quoted Bishop Sprat’s 1667 history of the Royal Society. I can readily transcribe Sprat’s statement so that it becomes Oppenheimer’s manifesto for the IAS, and for physics at the IAS: “It is to be noted that [the members of the IAS] are to freely admit Men of different religions, Countries, and Professions of Life. This they are obliged to do, or else they would come far short of the Largeness of their own Declarations. For they openly profess, not to lay the foundations of an American, British, German or Japanese mathematics or science; but a mathematics and science of Mankind.”Google Scholar
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    Quantum mechanics had acquired a new robustness during World War II. It had explained quantitatively the properties of germanium used in radar receivers, the properties of matter at 50 million K, and could predict with fair accuracy the results of critical nuclear reactions. The teaching of quantum mechanics thus gained new importance as a result of the wartime advances. No one was able to highlight and demonstrate the new powers of quantum mechanics better than the twenty-eight-year-old Julian Schwinger, who had become a professor of physics at Harvard in the fall of 1946. His 1947 and 1948 courses on nuclear physics and quantum mechanics became legendary. Attended not only by the graduate students at Harvard, but by a large fraction of the physics community in the greater Boston area, two sets of notes of these lectures were written one by John Blatt, the other by Morton Hamermesh, and both were widely disseminated and reproduced elsewhere. They became the basis of quantum mechanics courses all over the United States. These notes are difficult to find since they were not printed, nor bound, and thus most libraries did not preserve them.Google Scholar
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    It would be interesting to compare in detail the factors that operated in the various national settings (US, France, Soviet Union, Germany, Switzerland,…) that made possible the emergence the discipline of mathematical physics; to compare the different kinds of problems addressed in the various settings and what these reflected; to compare the status of the discipline in the differing settings; to see whether the practitioners became members of physics or mathematics departments. In addition, one can ask what made it possible for Wightman, Jost, Haag, Kastler to create their schools and for the students they trained to form a new discipline with all the accoutrements that go with it, such as professional journals and prizes. Surely in the United States the restructuring of the universities into research and teaching universities after World War II was an important factor. There was a greater emphasis on research, with lavish government support as part of its pursuance of the Cold War, and the accompanying overhead payments allowing universities to support activities and functions not directly supported by the government, such as scholarship in the arts and the humanities. Undoubtedly, during the Cold War era, national prestige and similar factors were at play in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. See, e.g., Clark Kerr, The Great Transformation in Higher Education, 1960–1980 : The Uses of the University (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991); Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
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    In “Hacking the Quantum Revolution” (ref. 103), I take issue with Laughlin and Pines’s formulation of the foundational theory that is the point of departure for Laughlin’s assertions in A Different Universe. Robert B. Laughlin and David Pines, “The Theory of Everything,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 97, no. 1 (2000), 28–31.Google Scholar
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© Springer Basel 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brandeis UniversityWalthamUSA

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