Skip to main content

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics – James Kakalios ****

At first sight this is just bound to be one of those ‘science of’ books (the author’s own Physics of Superheroes, The Science of Discworld, The Science of Middle Earth, The Science of the Tellytubbies etc. etc.) in a different guise. For those in the know, the format of ‘Amazing Story’ on the cover is a big flag saying ‘1950s science fiction magazines are my inspiration’. And even if it’s not strictly a ‘science of’ book, the subtitle ‘a math-free exploration of the science that made our world’ seems a dead giveaway that this is very basic stuff.
I’m not quite sure why they’ve done this, because we’re not dealing with this kind of book at all. Okay, there are a lot of references to comics (much more so than Amazing Stories et al), sometimes a little obscure (the author seems to assume we all know, for example, the name of the character who is the alter ego of Iron Man. Pardon me for not being a fan). But the contents of this book are in fact one of the most hard hitting attempts to put across quantum theory to the general reader I’ve ever seen, and to call it ‘math free’ verges on the misleading.
Rather than a light-weight introduction to quantum mechanics, this is closer to Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s Why does E=mc2? – it is very brave about the level of detail it goes into and some of the quite heavy duty mathematical thinking, even if it doesn’t literally do the maths. I really liked this, though I would recommend reading a more straightforward non-technical introduction like Marcus Chown’s Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You before going for this one as it is a little heavy going for the absolute beginner. Not everyone will respond to the level of complexity here, but those who do will certainly be rewarded.
There is no doubt that the regular dips into comic strips do lighten things up a bit, which is refreshing. I have a couple of slight concerns about the content. I think the author makes things unnecessarily confusing by referring to waves most of the time (over and above the Schrodinger wave equation), where it sometimes have been more straightforward not to do so. And, to be honest, the author came across too much like a university lecturer in places. I particularly found his orchestra/gallery/mezzanine metaphor for electrons doing quantum jumps more baffling than illuminating.
So don’t expect this to be a light, fun read – it isn’t (apart from parts where he jumps into comic strip science) – but do expect a really useful introduction to quantum mechanics that doesn’t pull its punches or talk down to the reader. You will have to put some work in, but it will be rewarded.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…