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

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…