Skip to main content

Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You – Marcus Chown *****

Some while ago, one of www.popularscience.co.uk’s readers asked for some advice. He’d read our dismissive review of The Dancing Wu Li Masters and wondered if we could recommend an alternative as a good introduction to the amazing world of quantum theory. To be honest, we struggled. There are some reasonable books around, but they’re mostly quite dated, and none of them are top notch popular science. Luckily, though, Marcus Chown has come to our aid with Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, simply the best and most readable overview of the quantum world, with a great high level overview of general relativity thrown in as a bonus.
Right from the beginning you know that Chown is going to make this an interesting ride. He hits you between the eyes with some of the mind-boggling consequences of quantum physics and relativity, then takes the reader spiralling into the sub-atomic world to explore the nature of matter and the seemingly impossible behaviour of quantum particles that insist on being in more than one place at a time, in jumping over insuperable barriers and in making impossibly complex calculations trivial. All the half-familiar armoury of the quantum world, from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, to superfluids, slots into place as step-by-step Chown builds a readily comprehensible picture of what is going on all around us, if only we could see into the world of individual atoms and photons of light.
Barely pausing for breath, Chown then does a Matrix-like blast into space, going from concentrating on the very small to the universal implications of relativity. Building steadily on the critical assumption of the unchangeable speed of light (in a vacuum), we find E=mc2 popping into place, and the rapid transition from the strange concepts of special relativity to the universal impact of general relativity and its implications for gravity. Chown eloquently demonstrates that “the force of gravity does not exist” in a similar way to the realization the centrifugal force does not exist. Each is just the tendency of objects to carry on moving the same way unless forced to do otherwise by being restricted by the environment about them, rather than a true force.
By the end of the book, quantum theory and relativity will no longer seem a mystery. You might not be an expert – inevitably some of the topics are glossed over with some of the subtlety slightly distorted, but the big picture is just right. It’s interesting that Chown manages this without using any of the over-fancy diagrams plaguing many recent books on these subjects – he uses great word pictures to do away with the need for illustrations.
If there’s any moan here it’s the bit of cosmology that seems rather tacked on in the last chapter. While relativity is relevant to theories of how the universe has expanded, cosmological concerns are something of a tangential topic, and we end up with very quick overviews of the big bang, dark matter, inflation etc. which don’t feel quite as superb as the rest of the book. I’d rather have lost these and had more detail on some of the more central topics. But that is a very small point.
Overall, anyone who is baffled by quantum theory or relativity – anyone who wants a guide that doesn’t assume you know anything, but doesn’t patronize – should run, not walk, to the bookstore and lay their hands on Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You.


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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Quantum Menagerie - James Stone ***

This is a well-structured introduction to the mathematical basics of quantum mechanics, highly recommended for the right readers. Stone wisely, in terms of introducing the physics, avoids a purely chronological approach, instead aiming to fit together a picture in the way that makes it easiest for readers to get their heads around, building mathematically through the book. Stone does a good, solid job of this. In the book's preface, he tells us 'Books on quantum mechanics come in two basic formats: popular science books and textbooks. By contrast, this book represents a middle way between these formats, combining the informal approach of popular science books with the mathematical rigour of introductory textbooks... The material in this book should be accessible to anyone with an understanding of basic calculus.' The approach and the resultant impact on its audience is interesting. Providing something in-between popular science and a textbook is an interesting concept, but

Fundamentals - Frank Wilczek ****

In keeping with the trend of having seven this or ten that (Carlo Rovelli has a lot to answer for), physicist Frank Wilzek sets out to give us 'ten keys to reality'. As Wilczek explains in his introduction, the aim is to explore two themes: abundance and seeing things differently, with a childlike curiosity and lack of preconceptions. The author also points out that he aims to offer an alternative to religious fundamentalism. As he notes, many of his scientific heroes were devout Christians, and he 'aims to transcend specific dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious'. In essence there are two things going on in this book. On the one hand, each of the ten main sections covers a fairly straightforward aspect of physics and cosmology, though not from the viewpoint of a physical theory so much as context such as space, time, natural laws and so on - in this, it will be familiar ground to anyone who has read a popular science physics primer. But the aspect that lifts Wilc

A Song for Molly - Jeremy Bernstein ***

This is quite probably the strangest popular science/maths book I have ever read. There have been a good few attempts to combine science writing with fiction, as A Song for Molly does. It's a great idea, but from the results I have seen so far, extremely difficult to do well. What Jeremy Bernstein does is different from anything I've seen before, and in some aspects works very well. Let's start with what I love about this book. Every now and then I have lunch with the varied collection of individuals who once made up the Lancaster University Christmas University Challenge team. We're a very different bunch, and the group includes brilliant raconteurs. The lunches are a delight, in part because of the way the conversation ranges far and wide. There is a similar joy in Bernstein's range of interests as his book skips from the ideas of Wittgenstein to the attempts to decipher Linear A/B, from Cantor's ideas on infinity to game theory. It really feels like sitting