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

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…