Skip to main content

Quantum Mechanics – The Theoretical Minimum – Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman ***

I saw this book on the shelves in my local booksellers which are usually reserved for books which are new, interesting and likely to sell a lot of copies. They were right on two out of three, but they were in cloud cuckoo land on the ‘lot of copies’ part (unless we get a ‘Brief History of Time effect’ where lots buy it and don’t read it). This is a new and interesting book, and for the niche it is aimed at it is brilliant – but that is a narrow niche indeed.
Usually there are two kinds of science books. Popular science explains what the discoveries and theories of science, with historical perspective, so that the general reader can get a feel for them – but reading a popular science book on, say, quantum mechanics would not leave you able to solve quantum mechanics problems.
Textbooks, on the other hand, teach the actual science itself, usually with a lot more maths, so that you can indeed do the workings, but they don’t give you any context, and they are inaccessible (and, frankly, highly boring) to most readers.
This book highlights a tiny crack in between the two, a niche where it can do a very interesting job of leading the reader into the actual science, but in a more hand-held and less boring way than a textbook. Because it takes this approach it hasn’t got the context or readability of a popular science book – but it’s far more readable than a textbook. Similarly, it doesn’t have quite enough detail to really ‘do’ the physics – but it takes you well on the way there, so that it would only take a little textbook work to get on top of it.]
The only thing I’d criticise (apart from the narrowness of that niche) is the really irritating attempts at folksy fictional openings to the sections. They don’t work. Stay with what you’re trying to do, guys, don’t try to be entertainers.
For most popular science readers this book simply won’t work. It makes the infamously ‘I started it but couldn’t finish it’ Brief History of Time look highly simplistic and non-mathematical. And for serious physicists, it’s still too limited – though it takes what is in some ways a better approach, giving more emphasis early on to entanglement, than the way quantum physics is traditionally taught. Either for those about to start a university physics course who want some preparation, or for someone who finds popular science explanations too summary and is prepared to take on some quite serious maths (A level maths required as a minimum, I would say) it’s a fascinating addition to the library. For the rest of us, probably best to leave it where it is.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…