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Helgoland - Carlo Rovelli ****

Although Helgoland suffers from the usual issues Carlo Rovelli's books face - it is very short for the price and has a distinct tendency to purple prose - it is his best so far. In fact, the first hundred pages or so are excellent.

Rovelli starts by giving us a brief background to quantum physics, concentrating most on Heisenberg, Schrödinger and to an extent Dirac's key period of contribution. This is clear and to the point. He then gives us a short summary of a couple of familiar quantum interpretations before introducing his own relational quantum physics interpretation. Although this idea dates back to the 1990s it has had very little coverage in popular science books, which is a shame. 

Like all interpretations, Rovelli's requires us to accept some difficult postulates - in this case, that the reality of the state of a quantum system is relative rather than absolute - so it can be different for one observer than it is for another. Although at first this seems bizarre, it fits well with the way that relativity plays around with the impact of different reference frames and it is arguably the closest interpretation to the 'shut up and calculate' approach of ignoring interpretations that is still likely to be the most popular amongst non-philosophically inclined physicists.

So far, so excellent. I give this part of the book a solid five stars. Although Rovelli's explanation of, for example, how entanglement works with this interpretation could do to be better written to make it clearer, it still broadly does the job. (This could, of course, be more about the translation than the original.) But then the remainder of the book is where we plunge back into the ultra-waffly material we have seen from Rovelli in the past, including far too much philosophy and even a toe-dip into hackneyed Eastern religious concepts. I found this part of the book pretty much indigestible and would only have given it two stars. 

Two more minor moans - firstly, why is the book translated into English, but the title isn't? And secondly it's rather feeble that Rovelli makes the Schrödinger's cat experiment more fiddly by anaesthetising the imaginary animal, rather than killing it - squeamishness over a non-existent cat is just silly.

The first part of the book is sufficiently interesting that I think the whole is worth reading - and I know some of Rovelli's non-scientific readers will find the end section the best of it - but I wish he'd written two separate books, rather than pulling together the two very different parts. I would have loved a longer and more detailed book expanding on his interpretation of quantum physics.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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