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Surfing the Quantum World - Frank Levin ***

In Surfing the Quantum World, physicist Frank Levin attempts to take a third way in communicating the marvels of quantum physics. It's not popular science. It's not a textbook. It's something in between. But is there a market for such a book?

To make this a crossover title, Levin starts with a fairly brisk trot through the history of our understanding of light and the development of quantum mechanics. You can get an idea for the briskness in that there's only one development mentioned (Alhazen's work) between Lucretius (in the last century BC) and Kepler at the end of the sixteenth century. It's rather a dark ages approach to the history of science, when they still thought there was such a thing as the dark ages. Similarly, for example, Newton gets an old-fashioned uncritical mention - and his work on light, mostly done in the in 1670s, is only referenced in terms of his 1704 publication of Opticks.

The result overall of the history bit is something that is rather more a collection of facts than an enjoyable narrative. We then get on to the serious physics, and here what we have is effectively a textbook with the workings cut out. So, for instance, Levin gives us far more detail on, say bra/ket notation than we need, and then uses it to explain various quantum mechanical developments, but doesn't give enough detail to understand what's really going on. Similarly he plunges into operators and eigenvalues and much more than is essential for the student physicist, but it's hard to see what they do for someone who just wants to be better informed and 'surf the quantum world', other than confuse the reader.

Levin covers most of the basics, from Schödinger's equation and tunnelling to entanglement and that infamous cat. However, there is a lot missing if we really want to 'surf the quantum world.' In the historical development of quantum physics, there's hardly anything about matrix mechanics, for example, and quantum electrodynamics (QED) doesn't get mentioned at all - neither is there anything really about the applications of quantum physics, which seems odd, given the book's title.

Overall, I'm afraid, the approach of developing a third way didn't work for me. If I want background and context, good popular science is by far the best way to deliver it. If I want to get into the nitty gritty and play around with kets, say, give me a proper introductory textbook - what's the point of having that level of detail without showing how to use it? Sadly, for me, the middle way fell between two stools without covering either requirement particularly well.



Review by Brian Clegg


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