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The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics – James Kakalios ****

At first sight this is just bound to be one of those ‘science of’ books (the author’s own Physics of Superheroes, The Science of Discworld, The Science of Middle Earth, The Science of the Tellytubbies etc. etc.) in a different guise. For those in the know, the format of ‘Amazing Story’ on the cover is a big flag saying ‘1950s science fiction magazines are my inspiration’. And even if it’s not strictly a ‘science of’ book, the subtitle ‘a math-free exploration of the science that made our world’ seems a dead giveaway that this is very basic stuff.
I’m not quite sure why they’ve done this, because we’re not dealing with this kind of book at all. Okay, there are a lot of references to comics (much more so than Amazing Stories et al), sometimes a little obscure (the author seems to assume we all know, for example, the name of the character who is the alter ego of Iron Man. Pardon me for not being a fan). But the contents of this book are in fact one of the most hard hitting attempts to put across quantum theory to the general reader I’ve ever seen, and to call it ‘math free’ verges on the misleading.
Rather than a light-weight introduction to quantum mechanics, this is closer to Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s Why does E=mc2? – it is very brave about the level of detail it goes into and some of the quite heavy duty mathematical thinking, even if it doesn’t literally do the maths. I really liked this, though I would recommend reading a more straightforward non-technical introduction like Marcus Chown’s Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You before going for this one as it is a little heavy going for the absolute beginner. Not everyone will respond to the level of complexity here, but those who do will certainly be rewarded.
There is no doubt that the regular dips into comic strips do lighten things up a bit, which is refreshing. I have a couple of slight concerns about the content. I think the author makes things unnecessarily confusing by referring to waves most of the time (over and above the Schrodinger wave equation), where it sometimes have been more straightforward not to do so. And, to be honest, the author came across too much like a university lecturer in places. I particularly found his orchestra/gallery/mezzanine metaphor for electrons doing quantum jumps more baffling than illuminating.
So don’t expect this to be a light, fun read – it isn’t (apart from parts where he jumps into comic strip science) – but do expect a really useful introduction to quantum mechanics that doesn’t pull its punches or talk down to the reader. You will have to put some work in, but it will be rewarded.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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