Why Every­thing You Thought You Knew about Quan­tum Physics Is Dif­fer­ent

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight Popular Science -

Philip Ball, Univer­sity of Chicago Press (OC­TO­BER) Hard­cover $26 (384pp), 978-0-226-55838-7

If so great a physi­cist as Richard Feyn­man once claimed that “no­body un­der­stands quan­tum me­chan­ics,” what hope do we laypeo­ple have? Luck­ily, Philip Ball, a freelance writer (for­merly of Na­ture mag­a­zine) who has pub­lished widely on the history of sci­ence, tack­les the sub­ject in a user­friendly yet thor­ough in­tro­duc­tion, Be­yond Weird.

Ball starts by ac­knowl­edg­ing that it can be aw­fully hard to get our heads around the no­tions at the heart of quan­tum physics. It’s “one of the most ob­scure and dif­fi­cult sub­jects in all of sci­ence,” yes, and can be “be­guil­ing [and] mad­den­ing,” but it also sparks cre­ativ­ity by en­cour­ag­ing us to re­think our usual as­sump­tions. Af­ter all, the com­mon in­ter­pre­ta­tions of as­pects of quan­tum the­ory—things like wave–par­ti­cle du­al­ity, su­per­po­si­tion, the un­cer­tainty prin­ci­ple, and the many-worlds in­ter­pre­ta­tion—are of­ten mis­lead­ing, Ball re­veals. To dis­cover what such con­cepts re­ally mean re­quires an open mind and a fer­tile imag­i­na­tion.

The book charts the gen­e­sis of quan­tum the­ory through pro­files of the of­ten ec­cen­tric sci­en­tists be­hind it, such as Al­bert Ein­stein and Er­win Schrödinger. Physics ben­e­fits from a terrific cast of char­ac­ters, and sto­ry­telling and metaphors (“this isn’t re­ally how things are, but just a man­ner of speak­ing”) are as much a part of Ball’s ex­pla­na­tions as hard sci­ence is.

He also asks lots of ques­tions, in­clud­ing rhetor­i­cal ones, and uses words like “we” and “let’s” to turn readers into col­lab­o­ra­tors. The tone is re­as­sur­ing; he never talks down to non­sci­en­tists. In­stead, he in­vites them to join in ex­plor­ing this “new and un­fa­mil­iar logic” in which what we un­der­stand and how we mea­sure some­thing has an ef­fect on what we ob­serve. Re­plac­ing “ob­scure ter­mi­nol­ogy” with ac­ces­si­ble ideas and draw­ings, Ball makes would-be physi­cists of us all.

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