The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios
Publisher: Gotham
Year: 2010
Pages: 336

Quantum physics (or mechanics) has become something of a metonym for impossibly-abstruse concepts; it’s a new-millennium update to the classic “brain surgery” and “rocket science”. I own a t-shirt with a pithy joke about Schrödinger’s cat, and when people are unfortunate enough to ask and I tell them about undefined states and the collapse of probabilistic wave functions, I often get glassy stares in return.

But don’t let me fool you: I know, on a high level, about Schrödinger’s cat1, and I remember my Pauli Exclusion Principle from high school chemistry, and I’ve read enough Scientific American to have gotten short primers on some of the fundamentals, but my real understanding of quantum mechanics is like a half-rotted shack in the forest, while Kakalios’ knowledge might be a large McMansion in a new suburb; the real geniuses at the forefront of the field would be palatial estates with Robin Leach narrating.

One major impediment to any complicated physical science is the math; luckily for readers, Kakalios promises in the subtitle a “Math-Free Exploration of the Science that Made Our World”, which is not quite true but close enough for government work. What he actually means by his subtitle is that, although he’ll mention some of the complicated formulæ like the Schrödinger Equation, the only math he’ll actually ask you to understand is some relatively simple algebra (such as the notion that the product of two negative numbers makes a positive number).

Quantum mechanics has been around for a while now—in practice, about a hundred years, beginning with Max Planck’s “quantum hypothesis” of 1900—and there seemed a time, in the 1950s, when our knowledge of particle physics was growing by leaps and bounds and science fiction was proposing jetpacks and rocket cars and personal housecleaning robots, that we’d surely be an advanced Quantum Age society by the turn of the century. Why, Kakalios begins, are we not there yet? Part of the problem is that quantum physics has given us a revolution in information, not a revolution in energy. Jet packs and rocket cars presuppose a safe, lightweight, long-lasting energy source, but our technology in this arena is paltry to say the least (we’re still burning fossil fuels for locomotion). Our information sciences, on the other hand, have leaped and bounded into the future. We now have working quantum computers (admittedly expensive and nowhere near general availability), advanced LED technology, and an up-and-coming “spintronics” sub-field of materials sciences that may soon revolutionize the computer architecture we know and love.

I have to give credit to Kakalios for explaining what quantum physics is in about a clear a way as is probably possible. Don’t mistake this sentiment to mean that the entirety of the subject is somehow now accessible; there’s still a great deal about quantum physics that’s as opaque as brick to me, and of course what The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics gives you is a heavily-abstracted and greatly-simplified version of the science, and some interesting scientific history of the heavy hitters of the field, including the famous Erwin Schrödinger, the spiritual father Max Planck, Wolfgang Pauli (whose exclusion principle forms an important part of quantum physics even though it’s also the province of high school chemistry), and Max Born (not an exhaustive list). It helps if you’d had at least some exposure to physics, as Kakalios assumes a high-school level science education and assaults into quantum mechanics from that beachhead. Particularly illuminating (I thought) was the more clear explanation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which is often misinterpreted by amateurs like myself. It is not, as it is sometimes explained, that one cannot know the vector and location of a particle simultaneously; it is rather that the certainty with which you know one diminishes the certainty of the other by an equal amount. One does not track individual electronics, after all, but rather the probability of electrons.

There’s also a lot that isn’t covered, especially in terms of more recent contributions to the theory. There’s no mention of Richard Feynman at all (that I recall), even though his path integration formulation (a completion of an earlier idea by Dirac) is important in the field. I suppose, however, that getting into the complexities of the science would be little more than nominal comparison, since the math behind each is likely too difficult to explain in a work of popular science. Then, too, Kakalios plays historian as often as he plays physics professor, which I think was his goal; like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything shows, scientific history can often be just as interesting (or more interesting) to the lay man than the science itself.

  1. Sadly, Kakalios doesn’t cover this delightful and iconic thought experiment at all. So you should read about it on Wikipedia.[]
§7013 · March 27, 2011 · Tags: , , , , ·

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