Skip to main content

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.


Hardback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…