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Mysteries of the Quantum Universe - Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat ***

When I first saw Mysteries of the Quantum Universe, I was distinctly wary. I'm not a great fan of comics and graphic novels, and based on the few examples I've come across of trying to put across science using this format, I suspected what we'd get is a very shallow 'Gee, wow, whizzy!' approach that was a kind of Horrible Science for adults. In practice, although some of the language does raise an eyebrow for its clunkiness, possibly due to being translated (did I really see the main character Bob say 'Egad!' at one point?), if anything the problems are more about either having nothing at all happen, or concentrating some quite deep physics material in just a few frames.

We begin with the sad death on the Moon (where else?) of Bob's faithful (and talking) dog, Rick - which immediately sets up in the mind of anyone with some familiarity with quantum physics the idea that we are going to get heavy mentions of both Schrödinger's cat and the many worlds interpretation (and sure enough, there are no surprises there). After rather a long time with nothing much happening, Bob goes on a spaced-out trip through quantum history, bringing in most of the landmarks we expect and, of course, meeting Planck, Einstein, Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Born. (Plus, yes, Hugh Everett - but strangely not Dirac, Feynman or the other QED people for some reason.)

I was genuinely surprised how much detail physicist Thibault Damour managed to squeeze into a few frames per page when the storyline got on to the details of quantum physics. Sometimes the visual contribution of Mathieu Burniat's illustrations (in a rather TinTin-like style, mostly monochrome with occasional splashes of colour) really helped underline, for example what was intended by various atomic models. in other cases, though, the illustrations become a little overwhelming and the technical detail - for example when dealing with matrix mechanics - was probably more than the reader wanted or needed and seemed likely to confuse rather than elucidate.

For me, the two biggest things holding the book back were the comic story format and the historical perspective. Giving us Bob's story meant that we had page after page where we got no scientific content at all - but equally no relatable narrative. Bob is a two-dimensional character and there's no attempt to draw us into the storyline. And presenting the physics in a very chronological fashion, which often works in a pure text popular science book, here seemed to require too much unnecessary detail - it might have better just to present things as they are understood now.

I'd also say that the last few pages, venturing into a very hypothetical Everettian alternative universe, seemed both baffling and a waste of space, especially because one page was totally blank for no obvious reason I could deduce - the publisher assures me it's intentional, but it looks more like it's a printing error.

Finally we get a quick 'the extra science bit' of about 16 pages of text. This is in the form of an alphabetic glossary, which seemed a bit of a waste of space - a more coherent chunk of text would have been more useful, and the alphabetic approach meant that it leads with Alain Aspect's entanglement experiments, which are totally out of context for the book, so rather baffling as a way in.

Was producing it a waste of time? Absolutely not. It was a truly brave experiment, even if it didn't quite come off. It would have benefited from a significantly stronger narrative - perhaps it would have been better with a science fiction writer involved - and someone to tell Damour which bits needed more explanation or were unnecessary. But even so, I'm glad it was produced, and I hope it does well. (Incidentally I had a problem with the ink - the smell made me feel physically sick.) We need more risk-taking and creativity in popular science, and this book scores five out five on both. The fact I don't think it entirely succeeded shouldn't get in the way of that.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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