Skip to main content

Mysteries of the Quantum Universe - Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat ***

When I first saw Mysteries of the Quantum Universe, I was distinctly wary. I'm not a great fan of comics and graphic novels, and based on the few examples I've come across of trying to put across science using this format, I suspected what we'd get is a very shallow 'Gee, wow, whizzy!' approach that was a kind of Horrible Science for adults. In practice, although some of the language does raise an eyebrow for its clunkiness, possibly due to being translated (did I really see the main character Bob say 'Egad!' at one point?), if anything the problems are more about either having nothing at all happen, or concentrating some quite deep physics material in just a few frames.

We begin with the sad death on the Moon (where else?) of Bob's faithful (and talking) dog, Rick - which immediately sets up in the mind of anyone with some familiarity with quantum physics the idea that we are going to get heavy mentions of both Schrödinger's cat and the many worlds interpretation (and sure enough, there are no surprises there). After rather a long time with nothing much happening, Bob goes on a spaced-out trip through quantum history, bringing in most of the landmarks we expect and, of course, meeting Planck, Einstein, Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Born. (Plus, yes, Hugh Everett - but strangely not Dirac, Feynman or the other QED people for some reason.)

I was genuinely surprised how much detail physicist Thibault Damour managed to squeeze into a few frames per page when the storyline got on to the details of quantum physics. Sometimes the visual contribution of Mathieu Burniat's illustrations (in a rather TinTin-like style, mostly monochrome with occasional splashes of colour) really helped underline, for example what was intended by various atomic models. in other cases, though, the illustrations become a little overwhelming and the technical detail - for example when dealing with matrix mechanics - was probably more than the reader wanted or needed and seemed likely to confuse rather than elucidate.

For me, the two biggest things holding the book back were the comic story format and the historical perspective. Giving us Bob's story meant that we had page after page where we got no scientific content at all - but equally no relatable narrative. Bob is a two-dimensional character and there's no attempt to draw us into the storyline. And presenting the physics in a very chronological fashion, which often works in a pure text popular science book, here seemed to require too much unnecessary detail - it might have better just to present things as they are understood now.

I'd also say that the last few pages, venturing into a very hypothetical Everettian alternative universe, seemed both baffling and a waste of space, especially because one page was totally blank for no obvious reason I could deduce - the publisher assures me it's intentional, but it looks more like it's a printing error.

Finally we get a quick 'the extra science bit' of about 16 pages of text. This is in the form of an alphabetic glossary, which seemed a bit of a waste of space - a more coherent chunk of text would have been more useful, and the alphabetic approach meant that it leads with Alain Aspect's entanglement experiments, which are totally out of context for the book, so rather baffling as a way in.

Was producing it a waste of time? Absolutely not. It was a truly brave experiment, even if it didn't quite come off. It would have benefited from a significantly stronger narrative - perhaps it would have been better with a science fiction writer involved - and someone to tell Damour which bits needed more explanation or were unnecessary. But even so, I'm glad it was produced, and I hope it does well. (Incidentally I had a problem with the ink - the smell made me feel physically sick.) We need more risk-taking and creativity in popular science, and this book scores five out five on both. The fact I don't think it entirely succeeded shouldn't get in the way of that.

Hardback:  

Kindle 
 Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…