Thursday, 26 January 2012

Quantum Physics for Poets – Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill ***

I am always suspicious when a book makes a big thing about the author being a doctor. When you see ‘The Wonder of Vitamins’ by Fred Doser M.D., you just know it’s more about selling product than information. Although not quite as bad, I was a little put off by the way the cover of this book tells us it’s not by Leon Lederman, but Leon LedermanNobel Laureate. Now don’t get me wrong, Leon Lederman, the scientist who came up with the nickname ‘God particle’ for the Higgs Boson is a real scientist, and is, indeed, a Nobel Prize winner. But I couldn’t help but find this splashing around of the fact a distraction rather than an aid. Was his Nobel Prize for explaining physics to ordinary folk? No. Does it make him any better at it? No. So why such a big thing of it?
Once you’ve got past this branding, it’s certainly an interesting title. Unlike The Cosmic Verses, this isn’t a book that’s all in rhyme, though admittedly a few poems do appear. It’s more a book that is intended to be read by people who don’t read science books like, well, poets.
It certainly manages to fulfil half the title. There’s plenty of quantum physics in here, along with a bit of Newton/Galileo style science to give the background. And Lederman & Hill don’t hold back in going into some quite hard to follow areas. They spend quite a while, for instance, on Bell’s theorem, the indirect way by which it’s proved that quantum entanglement really does involve non local effects, rather than carrying information in hidden variables. But the trouble is, I don’t get the impression that either of the authors are great communicators. Lederman’s God Particle book is significantly more readable, but I think his co-author was a writer. The fact is any poet (or anyone else not reasonably versed in science) is going to struggle to keep up with this book and having a few cartoons (which quickly die out) doesn’t transform it into effective science communication.
What you end up with, then, is not a book for poets, but rather one that gives an introduction to quantum theory for, perhaps, those who are nearing the end of school and are hoping to study physics at university. The trouble is, even that market is better covered Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw’s The Quantum Universe. If Leon Lederman had brought hosts of personal insights to the table, it would have made this book worthwhile, but there are only a couple of very short instances. It’s fine as alternative to Cox and Forshaw, but certainly isn’t for those of a poetic disposition.
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Review by Peter Spitz

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