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 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…