Skip to main content

The Demon and the Quantum – Robert J. Scully and Marlan O. Scully ***

It’s one of the inherent oddities of quantum theory that a quantum particle can be in more than one state at once – and for me, this must be a quantum book, because it manages to be both excellent and not-so-good at the same time.
Let’s start with the excellent. Robert Scully, with help from his physicist father Marlan, weaves a fascinating fabric of ideas from ancient Greece and quantum physics to provide an introduction to an exploration of the overlaps between thermodynamics and quantum theory. This leads on to the description of the concept of a ‘quantum eraser’ that may (there’s some dispute among physicists) be a demonstration of the ultimate quantum strangeness – that you can change the outcome of a quantum effect after it has, in effect, already been committed.
Scully starts in a gentle fashion and provides a solid introduction to thermodynamics, a subject that has rarely been given an effective popular science treatment. By using the clever conceit of a heat engine powered by a single molecule, he enables the reader to get a good grasp of engine efficiency from a modern viewpoint, encapsulating the wisdom of the steam age, but bringing it into a modern context.
So far, so good. However, the more than half of the book that is primarily about quantum phenomena has real problems. One is a tentative introduction of God into the equation. I don’t know if Robert Scully is explicitly saying that God is a necessary part of his thesis – it’s never stated quite that strongly – but the subject is touched upon several times without making it clear what his (Scully’s, not God’s) intentions are. This could be lived with. But the problem that brings the rating of this book down to three stars is that the quantum chapters aren’t well enough explained for a general reader.
There are too many assumptions about what people know, and the description of both the single atom quantum heat engine and the quantum eraser are likely to be baffling to anyone without a degree in physics. There are also big gaps in what’s presented. There’s a section that claims that the concept of the quantum eraser takes away the paradoxical nature of the EPR paradox that first introduced the concept of quantum entanglement. I was excited by this, having written a book about entanglement, but despite that background I couldn’t understand what it was saying about EPR, or how what was said took away the paradox. It’s frustrating, because the intention here is excellent, but the science writing isn’t at a level that will work for a reader of popular science.
I would highly recommend this for physics and engineering undergrads and above, however. There are some excellent challenges to aspects of physics you are likely to get in your course – and good insights into the way a real scientific theory is developed from the description of the discussions between different groups over the quantum eraser. But, sadly, I can’t recommend it for anyone else.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …