Skip to main content

The Quantum Divide – Christopher C. Gerry & Kimberley M. Bruno ***

Broadly speaking, science books are either popular science or textbooks. The popular science book is aimed at a general audience with little or no science background required and fills in the basics in a far more interesting way than science was every taught at school. The textbook does the business of educating with the theories, while not worrying too much about the historical context, with readability always coming a distant second. It assumes the reader has science and maths education to the required level. But The Quantum Divide, perhaps in keeping with the concept of quantum superposition, manages to be a bit of both at the same time.
What we have here is an exploration of quantum physics and the divide between the world of quantum particles and the macro universe. It is pitched in a way that I have simply never seen before. For a very narrow band of readers this book is absolutely superb. If you have been fascinated by a book on a quantum subject, like my own The God Effect on quantum entanglement, but want to dig into more depth about what is actually going on, and what was really undertaken in some of the experiments you usually have to either read a textbook or go to an academic paper. But both of these are pretty impenetrable and too maths-heavy for the general reader. Gerry and Bruno give that extra meat without requiring heavy duty mathematical support. There are equations in here, but they are used as shorthand, not to do maths. The result is quite extraordinary – it really expands on anything you can get from a popular science book without being too heavy to cope with, and for that, the authors need a huge pat on the back.
To be honest, though, I don’t think most popular science readers actually want this extra detail. On the other hand, university level physics students will find it too basic and not mathematical enough (though it could provide a good introduction before a course). This is a great book for, say, science journalists and those with a similar level of semi-professional interest – but probably not for many others.
The other slight problem is that the authors can occasionally be quite prissy and negative about guess who… science writers. Their audience in all probability. Take this quote:
Quantum theory does not predict that an object can be in two or more places at once. The false notion to the contrary often appears in the popular press, but is due to a naïve interpretation of quantum mechanics.
The problem with this attitude is that it entirely misses the point. All descriptive models of something as counter-intuitive as quantum theory are inevitably approximations – what they are really doing here is not liking someone else’s language, even though it gets the basic point across better than their version. I don’t think this is any more a problem than when physicists speak of the big bang or dark matter as if it they are facts, rather than our current best accepted theories.
There’s a similar cringe-worthy section where the authors attack the suggestion that light is a particle in the true sense, which again seems nit-picking. Their argument seems to make little sense and given Richard Feynman was happy to say ‘I want to emphasize that light does come in this form – particles’ I find their position hard to justify. So there are a couple of places where a particular slant of interpretation gets in the way of what otherwise is excellent explanation – but I think that can be forgiven.
Overall, then, a worthy and fascinating book but one that I suspect will only ever have a very limited audience.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…