Monday, 16 March 2009

The Theory of Elementary Waves – Lewis E. Little ***

This has to be one of the hardest books to review I’ve ever seen. It has some genuine interest, but there are a whole lot of caveats to get out of the way first.
The immediately obvious problem with the book is that has several of the hallmarks of a piece of crank science. We get sent crank books all the time and don’t usually review them. They’re by someone who believes he has disproved some fundamental piece of science (often relativity) and wants to show just how clever he is. Because he’s so excited by his genius, the book tends to be filled with an aggressive language, saying how stupid all those other physicists are, with their ‘so-called’ theories. Not only is The Theory of Elementary Waves a book that attempts to overthrow one of the central aspects of physics – quantum theory – it has exactly these ‘crank’ markers: often using emotional terms, referring to ‘concepts’ in inverted commas as if to discredit them, and peppering the text with ‘so-called’ and disparaging ‘modern physicists say’ type comments.
Secondly, the bumf on the back suggests that this book makes quantum physics understandable to the general reader. It doesn’t. I’d suggest you need a physics degree to get on top of what Little is saying. Although it’s not academic writing, it isn’t good quality popular science writing either.
Thirdly, there are some aspects of the physics that just seem wrong to me. I haven’t the qualifications to say this for certain, but when Little covers quantum entanglement, something I do know something of, his arguments drastically oversimplify reality. And elsewhere, for instance, he seems to be saying that ‘modern’ quantum physics relies on something that sounds to me like the old pilot wave theory, which I thought was long dead and buried. I know Richard Feynman is hardly up-to-date, but I always took his comments on QED as being still valid when he said ‘I want to emphasize that light comes in this form – particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told about light behaving like waves. I’m telling you the way it does behave – like particles.’ I know quantum theory involves waves – but these are probability distributions, not actual waves.
However -and this is why I have to give the book three stars instead of two, and why it is quite interesting – what Little does is to come up with a semi-plausible theory that explains some of the observed effects at the quantum level without resorting to all the oddities inherent in quantum theory. This doesn’t mean he is right – just because something is weird doesn’t make it wrong. And Little definitely does go astray with that assumption, because several times he says that because something is weird it’s impossible. That’s not science. However Little’s is an interesting theory.
I contacted a theoretical physicist who is quoted on the back of the book, and this was the broad thrust of his feeling. He in no way suggests that this theory is correct, but it’s interesting and worth considering.
And it’s in that spirit that you might want to look at this book. Science isn’t about consensus. Even well-established scientific theories like the Big Bang have good alternatives available which may eventually displace them. The same goes with quantum theory. I don’t think this is such a theory yet, but it has the possibility of being the seed of one – and as such is quite interesting. But definitely not one for the general reader who wants to find out more about quantum theory.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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