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Totally Random - Tanya Bub and Jeffrey Bub **

It's difficult to decide just where the problems start with Totally Random. It's an attempt to communicate the oddities of quantum entanglement using a comic book format. There has already been an attempt to do this for quantum theory in general - Mysteries of the Quantum Universe, which managed to both have a bit of a storyline and get in a fair amount of quantum physics. Unfortunately the format also got in the way - so much space was taken up by the pictures that the words simply didn't manage to get the message across. Doubly unfortunately, this is also true of Totally Random, with the added negatives that it has no discernible storyline and it's rarely even visually interesting.

The attempt to explain entanglement suffers hugely because Tanya and Jeffrey Bub decided to use a set of analogies for quantum entanglement ('quoins', a kind of magic toaster device that entangles them, various strange devices to undertake other quantum operations) that don't so much help understand what's going on, as totally obscure what's supposed to be put across. It's a bit like trying to explain the rules of football using a box of kittens. It's far clearer if you get rid of the kittens and just explain the rules.

Visually, the cartoon style varies considerably. There are quite a few pages that contain nothing more than a shaded background with a series of frames each having a line of text in it. It's just a dialogue where each character's words sit in a different frame - the comic format adds nothing to what is, often, a series of mutual insults, providing particularly 'you had to have been there' humour. My favourite parts of the visuals by a long way are the odd pages introducing a section where actual papers, such as the EPR paper are portrayed in realistic form. Those do look rather cool.

Most of the key characters of the quantum story turn up in cartoon format. We meet Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Pauli, Bohm, Einstein - plus one or two more tangential individuals such as Everett. There are a lot of 'insider jokes' in these sections, where, for example, Einstein produces in conversation many of his better lines on quantum theory from his letters to Max Born. Unfortunately, unless you know the topic already, these in-jokes will mean very little and produce strangely stilted dialogue.

I think that summarises the real issue with Totally Random. It's very much an in-joke for insiders. It doesn't explain entanglement: to the general reader, it obscures it with a pile of baggage that you have to have been there to understand. And even then it can be hard work. I'm fairly confident in my understanding of entanglement - I have a physics degree and I've read lots about it - but there were pages here I struggled to follow.

Sadly, the main feeling while reading Totally Random was tedium. With other graphic novel/comic presentations of non-fiction I've read, it has all been over far too quickly. Here I was thinking 'When will it end?' I was not inspired, but, rather, bored (or to sink to the level of the humour here, Bohred). It's a clever notion, but unfortunately the authors seem to be entirely the wrong people to make it work successfully.



Review by Brian Clegg


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