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:  

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ na…