Skip to main content

The God Effect – Brian Clegg *****

We are used to hearing about “Einstein’s greatest mistake” being his throwing in the cosmological constant to explain the expansion of the universe. These days this seems less of a mistake than it was first thought. But there’s one thing he definitely didn’t get right – that’s quantum entanglement, a concept so bizarre, that Einstein used it as an example of why quantum theory had to be wrong.
In fact it was Einstein who for once was mistaken, and entanglement has proved, as Brian Clegg’s subtitle suggests, to be one of science’s strangest phenomena. Imagine a link between two particles that is so low level that you can separate them to either side of the universe and a change in one particle will be instantly reflected in the other. Forget special relativity – the spooky connection of entanglement doesn’t know about the light speed barrier.
The God Effect (the title is a reference to the Higgs boson, also known as the God Particle, which it has been suggested requires entanglement to function) begins with an excellent background to where entanglement came from – Einstein’s original “entanglement busting” paper EPR, early attempts to show whether or not entanglement existed and the definitive experiments that demonstrated it in action. Although we’re dealing here with quantum physics at its most mindboggling, Clegg makes a great job of explaining what was going on in layman’s terms, and bringing alive the major characters not widely known outside this field, such as John Bell and Alain Aspect.
Where the book really triumphs, though, is when he moves onto the remarkable applications of entanglement that have started to be developed over the last few years. Unbreakable encryption, computers that can crack problems that would take conventional computers longer than the lifetime of the universe to cope with, even Star Trek-style matter transmitters. It’s great stuff. I particularly liked the chapter on why entanglement doesn’t allow us to send faster than light messages. Most of the books I’ve read on the subject just dismiss this as obvious, but it isn’t – in fact it’s what most people think of as soon as they hear about entanglement: surely it could be used to send faster than light messages. Clegg explains just what the implications would be – why faster than light messages would allow us to send information back in time – then shows how entanglement entices, but can never actually deliver on this promise.
There’s also some fun speculation from top scientists on what else entanglement could do – not just providing a mechanism for the Higgs boson, but also the existence of life, telepathy and more. The only criticism I have is that the chapter on quantum computers told me rather more than I wanted to know about different ways to make quantum computers work – it was still interesting, but I didn’t need that much detail.
Overall this is a superb exploration of this weird and wonderful physical phenomenon and the ways it could change our lives. It’s well written and approachable without any technical background, though I think it may also appeal to undergraduates, as entanglement tends to get very limited coverage on physics courses. Recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Martin O'Brien

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…